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

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…