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Journalists' Campaign Donations Create Conflict, Ex-Newspaper Man Says


Let's ask a longtime news editor about media bias as described in 2016.


DONALD TRUMP: This is an election about truth, and you're not going to get it from the dishonest media.

INSKEEP: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spent the whole campaign complaining about the media. Reporters have found Trump himself to be so untruthful, they have struggled with how to properly cover him. Amid all of this, the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity has come out with a report about where some journalists put their money. It found 480 journalists, people who work for news organizations or former journalists who made campaign contributions in this presidential election cycle, and the overwhelming majority contributed money to Hillary Clinton.

Let's talk about this and a lot more with Len Downie. He was executive editor of The Washington Post and is now a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. Welcome to the program, sir.

LEN DOWNIE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: What did you think when you heard that more than 400 journalists or former journalists or people working for news organizations had contributed to the campaign?

DOWNIE: Well, I read the article carefully, and the article did mix journalists with people who work for news organizations who are not journalists. At The Washington Post, we had a very strict policy that you were not allowed to engage in any kind of political activity except voting. Therefore, you could not make campaign contributions...

INSKEEP: Is that regardless of what your position was in the organization?

DOWNIE: Regardless of what your position was as a journalist in the newsroom. If you're on the business side, that's something else entirely.

INSKEEP: So it doesn't bother you at all that in this broad universe of people...

DOWNIE: Right.

INSKEEP: ...They've found 430 people who contributed...


INSKEEP: ...To Hillary Clinton and only 50 to Donald Trump?

DOWNIE: It bothers me that anybody contributed at all who is a journalist. As I say, they mixed apples and oranges so - but no journalist should contribute, as far as I'm concerned, to political campaigns or otherwise get involved in politics except to vote because it not only raises appearances of conflict of interest which is why you're asking me these questions on the behalf of the journalist themselves, but also their news organization.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about the bigger question that is raised here also. I'm thinking back more than 40 years. There's a book called "The Boys On The Bus" by Timothy Crouse.


INSKEEP: And if memory serves, he says in that book, well, most journalists are Democrats. Is that true?

DOWNIE: Well, according to public opinion surveys, no. More of them are Democrats than Republicans, but half of the journalists in the most recent survey had no party whatsoever which is, of course, how I am registered in the District of Columbia. I think that sometimes the public mixes up the fact that journalists are pretty much anti-establishment. And sometimes I think people think that means that they're liberal more than they actually are.

INSKEEP: Were you politically involved at all when you were running The Washington Post?

DOWNIE: No. Starting in 1984 when I was managing editor of The Post under the great Ben Bradlee and then continuing through 1991 to 2008 when I was executive editor of The Post, I refused to vote.

INSKEEP: You didn't vote?

DOWNIE: I did not even vote. I did not want to make up my mind, even in the privacy of my little head or the voting booth who I wanted to be president or mayor or whether I wanted taxes raised or lowered. I wanted to keep a completely open mind because I was the final gatekeeper for everything going into The Washington Post.

INSKEEP: Has this election really been harder than other elections for journalists to keep an even keel?

DOWNIE: Yes. Because on both sides, it's been demonstrated the candidates have not told the truth. I think in many more cases in the case of Donald Trump because that's what fact-checkers have shown us. And it's difficult for journalists to say - should be difficult for journalists to say he lied. She lied. But when it's a fact, I think that you have to begin to say that.

INSKEEP: How do you think it's affecting journalists that they go to campaign rallies, particularly on Trump's side, and people are accusing them of things, calling them names, screaming at them to tell the truth and sometimes physically threatening them?

DOWNIE: It's not unusual for political crowds to be hostile towards media if they think their candidates are not being covered fairly. But the hostility has never been physically threatening in the way that it has been at Trump rallies in particular. And I think it's really worrying now to media organizations. That's not good. And, obviously, you have to worry that that may somehow affect their coverage because of feeling attacked by Trump supporters. And it's important, obviously, for them and their people who are supervising them to make sure that's not the case.

INSKEEP: OK. Len Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and now professor of journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School. Thanks very much.

DOWNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.