A couple of weeks ago, FishbowlDC broke the news that Leonard Downie Jr., the recently departed executive editor of the Washington Post, had registered to vote after a prolonged absence from the rolls. As the paper’s top editor, Downie had declined to cast ballots because the very act would force him to decide who’d best serve as president, mayor, councilmember, ANC commissioner, etc., thereby potentially corrupting his objectivity as a newsman.
Though widely acknowledged as an act of ethical purity, Downie’s gesture was also viewed as an act of lunacy. In 2000, Slate‘s Michael Kinsley skewered the policy thusly: “Downie is certainly right that there is no point in not voting officially if you’re voting mentally. But in concluding that he therefore shouldn’t even vote mentally, he is buying into the fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias.”
I always felt that Downie’s abstemiousness was a bit much. But let’s give credit where it’s due: Though some readers would disagree with me, I generally felt that the news coverage under his watch was neutral and objective, and when it may not have been, there was never a case to be made that Downie had injected bias into the coverage. And for the sake of argument, let’s say that the paper’s fairness was solely a function of Downie’s refusal to vote in his head and in the booth.
Why would Downie continue practicing his brand of civic puritanism? That, after all, is the plan. Downie said in an interview this week that he wouldn’t be voting in the November elections despite his Sept. 5 voter registration. Flabbergasted at this revelation, I asked him, “What?”
He responded that he’d directed the presidential coverage for the past two years. Over e-mail, he elaborated: “I’m not voting in November because I’ve kept my mind open about the candidates and issues during two years or so of having ultimate responsibility for our campaign coverage, so I just don’t feel ready to vote in this election. I’ll have a clean slate after that.”
I’d hate to be charged with diagramming the logic behind that one.
In other Downie news, the guy has signed on as a client of the Knopf Speakers Bureau and has engagements lined up with some large universities—Arizona State, Indiana, Stanford—as well as with the Poynter Institute (journo-ethics central!) and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. You’re unlikely to see a paid appearance before the National Association of Manufacturers on Downie’s itinerary; he’s following Washington Post newsroom codes of conduct to avoid conflicts of interest. He commands as much as low five figures for his appearances.
“In terms of folks who know the news business in and out, Len would be at the top of most lists,” says Paul Bogaards, president of the Knopf Speakers Bureau. “He can certainly speak to the changing nature of the news industry and what form that might take in months and years to come.”
Downie’s novel, The Rules of the Game (Alfred A. Knopf), will be out in January.