Opinion: Three Strikes So Why Is WaPo CEO Will Lewis Not Out?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

The news that Washington Post editor Sally Buzbee had resigned under pressure earlier this week was disconcerting enough for the Post’s 950 or so journalists and an untold number of its readers. But the revelations that have followed since then are considerably more important and damaging than the departure of one editor.

The New York Times reported Wednesday evening that one of the precipitating events in Buzbee’s exit was a brief clash with her and new boss, Post publisher Will Lewis. The dispute was over an unpublished news story involving Lewis’ work for Rupert Murdoch after the phone-hacking scandals at Murdoch’s British tabloids more than a decade ago. The Post was about to report a basic fact: that an English judge overseeing a lawsuit filed by victims of the hacking, including Prince Harry, was seeking to add Lewis’ name to a list of executives allegedly involved in efforts to cover up the hacking. According to the Times, Lewis sought to dissuade Buzbee from publishing the story, and criticized her for “a lapse in judgment” when she said she would do so despite his guidance. The Post reported Thursday that Buzbee had a similarly tense exchange with Lewis about another story about the case in March.

Strike one: If the Times and Post accounts are accurate—Lewis has denied trying to spike the stories and denies any hacking cover-up—his actions constitute blatant self-dealing and the corrupt exercise of power.

WaPo CEO Will Lewis: Ask Me Anything Except About That Phone Hack Cover-Up

Then on Thursday, NPR reporter David Folkenflik dropped another anvil on Lewis. After Folkenflik requested an interview with Lewis in December before he joined the Post, Lewis “repeatedly and heatedly” offered an exclusive interview on the condition that Folkenflik drop a story he was reporting about Lewis’ alleged role in the Murdoch scandal. Folkenflik declined the offer and wrote about the allegations in December. Lewis didn’t explicitly deny Folkenflik’s description of their conversations in his response on Thursday, but he did call the reporter “an activist, not a journalist.”

Strikes two and three: Lewis’ reported quid pro quo offer reeks of unseemly image polishing and manipulation, a bad look for a news executive supposedly dedicated to transparency. Further, calling a respected journalist names isn’t likely to endear Lewis to a building full of journalists.

Full disclosure: I’m hardly a disinterested party here. I was a Post reporter for nearly 36 years and left in December after the paper offered buyouts to about 10 percent of its staff. I spent the last 13 years at the Post covering the media beat, which meant I occasionally covered news about the Post itself.

What I learned in all that time—what was reinforced on a near-daily basis—was the Post’s fidelity to basic journalistic principles, such as fairness and accuracy.

High on this list was the necessity to avoid conflicts of interest, actual or perceived. Reporters weren’t supposed to march in political rallies, put up yard signs for candidates or contribute in any way to them, lest it suggest partisanship. Former editor Leonard Downie went so far as to decline to vote so that he could maintain a completely impartial and open mind in making judgments about news coverage.

This ethical canon, imbued over 80 years of the Meyer-Graham family’s ownership of the Post, continued after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013. Despite suspicions to the contrary, Bezos has stayed out of the Post’s newsroom; as far as I can determine, he’s never dictated a news story, or blocked one from publication. He has rarely visited its headquarters over the past 11 years. Nor has he sought flattering coverage for himself. On the contrary, the Post’s archives groan with stories unfavorable to Bezos’ vested interests—from investigations into the harsh working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses to the company’s efforts to quash union organizing drives. I was involved in reporting what had to be the most personally humiliating episode of Bezos’ life—the theft and leaking of his “below-the-belt” selfies to the National Enquirer. I never heard a word from the boss.

All of which makes the underlying issues described by the Times, NPR and the Post far more unsettling than the departure of an editor. The Times story, in particular, suggests Lewis sees his role as both publisher and editor, empowered to smack down stories he doesn’t like or that he finds personally damaging. When Buzbee gave him a heads up about the hacking stories, the proper response should have been: “Carry on.”

If anything, Lewis and his camp have only made matters worse in the past 48 hours. Following Folkenflik’s story, his spokesperson told the Times that Lewis was “a private citizen” when he began his discussions with the NPR reporter in December, as if this somehow explained… something. She also reiterated Lewis’ claim that their multiple interactions were off the record, in effect suggesting that Folkenflik had acted unethically by writing about them this week. (Folkenflik told me on Thursday that Lewis and his representative made the offer “numerous times” in conversations that weren’t off the record).

WaPo Boss Was at Center of Murdoch Cover-Up, New Docs Claim

Lewis has denied meddling with the Post’s editorial decisions and emphasized to staffers that he understands the distinction between publisher and editor. “I know how this works, I know the right thing to do, and what not to do. I know where the lines are, and I respect them,” he wrote in an email to his reporters: “The Executive Editor is free to publish when, how, and what they want to. I am fully signed up to that.”

The larger question is where all this leaves Lewis and the Washington Post’s newsroom, which at the moment can fairly be described as shaken.

Buzbee was not always a popular figure among the Post’s rank and file, but her dedication and integrity were never questioned. The circumstances of her unceremonious departure made her an object of sympathy among many staffers, and surely will leave some lingering sore feelings.

But the suspicion and cynicism surrounding Lewis may linger longer. The events of the past few days have made staffers wonder: Does Lewis get the fundamental principles and codes the Post has tried to live by for decades? Does he want to remake the Post’s business fortunes at the price of its hard-won reputation?

Of course, Lewis’ fate won’t be decided by the staff’s judgment of him. There’s only one person whose vote counts in such matters. And as usual, he’s not talking.

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