Nicole Carroll, editor and vice president/news for The Arizona Republic and, interviews ASU Cronkite professor Len Downie about his years at the Washington Post. Nate Kelly/

It was 1971. American combat troops had been in Vietnam for six years. More than 50,000 U.S. soldiers had already died. And a military analyst leaked a top-secret study, informally called the Pentagon Papers, that showed the government had lied about U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The New York Times broke the story. Richard Nixon’s Justice Department sued to stop them from further publication. The Washington Post, at great risk, then published its own story about the papers.

Len Downie was there for it all. 

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Downie worked for Ben Bradlee, then editor of The Washington Post, first as a reporter and later as his managing editor. He succeeded Bradlee as executive editor, serving 17 years in the top role. He is now a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

The Post, Steven Spielberg’s drama about how Post publisher Katharine Graham evolved through this period, opens in wide release this weekend. I sat down with Downie, who served as a consultant on the film, to hear some behind-the-scenes stories and discuss his hopes for journalism.

Our interview here has been edited for length.

So can you set the scene for us? In 1971, what was happening in and out of the Post newsroom?

Well, first of all, Katharine Graham had been publisher of the paper only since 1963 when her husband committed suicide. Her father Eugene Meyer bought the Post at auction because it was going bankrupt in 1933. He invested a lot of money in it and then chose her husband Philip Graham after she got married to succeed him in running the newspaper. (After Phil Graham’s death) all the men around the newspaper expected, the board of directors and so on expected, that she would turn it over to some man or sell it or whatever and instead she decided she wanted to run it. …  She wanted to preserve the paper for her family and for her children after her. And so by that time she’d been running it for about eight years…