Monday, February 2, 2009

the shadow of Watergate

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, will join the Cronkite School staff next fall so it comes as no surprise that the dean, et al., are promoting him as much as possible.

Downie lead the paper to many successes and took part in the most historic years of American journalism: the Watergate years. The romanticized notions of reporting that flowed from The Washington Post's Watergate coverage inspired millions of college grads to enter reporting, starting j-schools at nearly every university in the country. Since then—and for many reasons—the public's opinion of journalists has soured a bit, but there's no question Downie knows exactly what made journalism great.

A side note—
As I was heading into the Cronkite School, I heard two guys dressed in sports apparel comment on a nearby lecture poster hung on the street column outside:
"Hey, that actor guy, Leonard Downie Jr., is speaking. He wrote some kind of book or something."

Right. I guess the name resemblance IS striking. I couldn't help snicker.

It's not surprising that a prominent figure in journalism would have no recognition. Journalists, particularly editors, fade into the background of their stories. Most journalism doctrines applaud this; still, the moment was a bit sad—that any man so good at his job could be disregarded.

However, the scene differed inside. About 40 people came out, a fair number of them students. Downie talked about his new book, a work of fiction, which took my interest considering fiction is generally not a journalist's forte.

I have another of his books, The News About the News, which he spoke about on a separate occasion, and found it pretty straight forward. In a journalistic tone—that is, factual and dry—Downie explains a series of award-winning stories his staff worked on during his time as editor. I haven't finished it.

There's no doubt Downie would make an excellent addition to the faculty here, however. He's definitely sharp, tactfully deflecting a questioner who seemed hell-bent on blaming all newspapers for the war in Iraq.

He also understands—as anyone who has worked in a newsroom does—the pressures and responsibilities of the journalist, but can explain them without sounding self-righteous, a rare ability in j-professors. I hope I get a chance to study under him.

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