Press Box

Editor Stufflebeem

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. speaks at length to his readers—and says almost nothing.

If Leonard Downie Jr. loses his day job as executive editor of the Washington Post, he should send his résumé to the Pentagon and demand work as a press briefer. He’s better than top flack Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem at returning softball answers to hardball questions, if the 5,000-word online chat he conducted yesterday on is any indication. Downie sucks the oxygen out of a dialogue faster than a thermobaric bomb.

Downie’s predecessor, Ben Bradlee, stunk up the joint with eau de ham when sparring with the press and public. In counterpoint, Downie prefers to serve giant bowls of mush to the sharpest queries, killing questioners’ appetite to ask more. He politely deflects criticisms of the Post, gives boilerplate responses to complicated questions, or claims that the Post just happens to be doing a great job covering whatever the questioner complained about. If not for the occasional typo, I’d swear that Downie didn’t participate in the interview and instead used  Turing Test software  for his responses.

Listen to these pithless replies to his readers’ questions:

I am very pleased with our reporting and believe we had led the way on many stories. We make decisions all the time about what we will or will not publish based on available space, accuracy, fairness, etc., in addition to the other criteria I discussed. That is what editing is all about. Context is important. In fact, that information about the Northern Alliance appears in our paper day after day. We have written about the relief problem in Afghanistan in the past and will do so again. You are right that it is a serious issue.

Does editor Stufflebeem entertain a single doubt about the Post’s performance? A reader from Bowie, Md., frames the question perfectly, asking, “Without assigning blame, if you had the last 10 years to do over again, what should the Post have done differently about [covering terrorism in the Middle East], and should the lessons carry over to other low-interest parts of the world like Africa?”

Downie ducks the opportunity to reflect on his decade at the Post helm. His complete reply: “Actually, the Post has published much in the last decade about Third World issues, problems and poverty, about terrorism in many parts of the world, and we will continue doing so.” Nice try, Mr. Downie, but that would be the answer to the question, “What has the Washington Post published in the last decade and what does it intend to publish in the coming years?” not the question, “What would you have done differently?”

Downie’s narcotizing, minister of information drone even infuses his answers to questions that must drive him insane, namely the Pentagon’s refusal to give the press access to the war’s front lines. He complains gently about the battlefield news blackout at the beginning of the interview, but not so much that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or the Joint Chiefs will ever hold it against him or his reporters. Later, a reader from Golden, Colo., revisits this issue, asking, “My impression is that the media have had less access to the facts about activities in Afghanistan than to the facts in any prior American military engagement since World War II. Do you agree and do you feel the American public is less informed as a result?”

At this, Downie slips out of his shoes, strips his socks from his feet, and stuffs them into his mouth to mumble:

This is obviously a much different military operation than most, with relatively few American troops actually on the ground and much of the American military activity being carried out in relative secrecy by small numbers of special force troops and CIA agents. So it is much more difficult to accompany and observe them in action. I am concerned, however, about what we [are] unable to see and report. Time will tell whether important information has been hidden from the American people by the administration.

Somewhere in the Pentagon, Stufflebeem must be smiling.

It’s Downie’s nature to sleepwalk through interviews, saying as little as possible and tamping down all conflict and controversy. But inside the somnambulist beats the heart of a tough newsman who should be ashamed of the way in which the interview was conducted. Judging from the transcript, no reader got to ask a follow-up—essential in keeping the subject honest if he dodges questions, as Downie did. And, according to the fine print accompanying chats (including Downie’s), “ moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.”

Maybe if Downie moves over to the Pentagon, he can introduce some of these “innovations” to its press briefings. Screened questions. No follow-ups. And answers that would put Stufflebeem into a coma.