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Ask Me Anything Except About That Phone Hack Cover-Up | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

An email landed in Washington Post staffers’ inboxes on Thursday from CEO Will Lewis, encouraging them to sign up for a chance to grill him—not on allegations he tried to block coverage of his foreign cover-up scandal, but on his new plans for a divvied-up newsroom.

“Next week, I will be holding Say It sessions regarding the Build It phase of our plan,” the email read.

But six current and former Post staffers fumed to The Daily Beast that Lewis’ monthslong refusal to say anything on his alleged involvement in covering up a U.K. phone-hacking scandal—started by Rupert Murdoch journalists hacking Prince Harry’s cell—couldn’t last much longer in a newsroom that touts how “democracy dies in darkness.”

The newsroom is reeling after back-to-back stories outlining Lewis’ attempts to kill negative stories related to Prince Harry’s lawsuit in the U.K., which alleged Lewis helped cover up News U.K.’s phone-hacking into celebrities including Harry and actor Hugh Grant. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Lewis criticized then-executive editor Sally Buzbee’s plan to publish a story on the lawsuit involving Lewis, while NPR revealed on Thursday that Lewis promised the outlet an exclusive interview unveiling his business plans if it didn’t move forward with a December story outlining the U.K. case.

Both stories ran in their respective publications, and Lewis showed Buzbee the door last weekend after three years atop the paper’s masthead. He placed an eventual fluffy interview discussing those business plans with Puck blogger Dylan Byers, who appeared enamored by an executive he described as “effervescent” despite Harry’s claims that Lewis helped organize the deletion of millions of emails and lied to British police about it. (Questions about those claims never appeared in Byers’ article, though he did misidentify Lewis’ accent as “Etonian,” suggesting he had attended England’s most elite school. In fact, Lewis went to a public school in London’s outer suburbs.)

One Post staffer described the newsroom as “pretty shocked and outraged” and in “disbelief” over Lewis’ reported attempts at editorial meddling.

“I think a lot of us would like to know more about the case, and now, we have some questions about his role in overseeing our coverage of his case,” a second Post staffer told The Daily Beast. “It’s shocking and definitely a violation of the standards we hold ourselves to if true.”

The Post did not respond to requests for comment. The Post Guild has repeatedly refused to comment on Lewis’ legal issues abroad, including after a request by The Daily Beast on Thursday, though it plans to hold listening sessions with members in the next few weeks.

It has been a contentious week for the British publishing maven, whose initial attempts to charm the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom have seemingly backfired. His staff-wide town hall introducing temporary executive editor Matt Murray and future executive editor Robert Winnett landed like a thud at the D.C. paper’s office. Lewis reportedly chastised staffers for the paper’s $77 million in losses over the past year, saying he needed to take “decisive, urgent action” to reverse course. His solution, as this week revealed: bringing aboard people he knows. (Murray did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

But his reported obstruction in editorial matters flies in the face of the role of a publisher, whose job is traditionally to oversee the company’s business dealings while the executive editor handles the actual journalism.

“That’s basic Journalism 101 that the publisher stays out of editorial decision-making that can lead to situations like this,” a third Post staffer said.

“It’s important for news organizations to be able to report fairly on themselves, and that includes their own executives, their own staff, their own editors, and as it comes, their own reporters,” Guardian columnist Margaret Sullivan, who previously served as the Post’s media columnist, told The Daily Beast.

Sullivan, who also served as the Times’ in-house watchdog, said the Gray Lady was usually respectful of her role as internal ombudsman, a firewall that was important for a news organization dedicated to truth and accountability.

“It’s also important for top editors to have autonomy and for there to be some sort of boundary between the business side and the newsroom,” Sullivan said.

To earn back the newsroom’s trust, Sullivan said, Lewis needs to “talk with the staff, take questions, [and] be transparent.”

Sullivan and the third Post staffer pointed to how the Post has repeatedly covered its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos and his various companies without any apparent attempts at tampering, a fact ex-editor Marty Baron praised the billionaire mogul for last year.

“Attempts by [Bezos] to do so would probably trigger mass resignations,” the second Post staffer said. “But coming from the publisher? That’s really worrisome.”

Lewis’ alleged meddling seems to run counter to his initial town hall with WaPo staffers last November, during which he repeatedly touted the merits of independent journalism.

“I will never buckle,” Lewis said at the time. “I will never yield when it comes to defending you. We will always get the story done.”


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