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Post publisher draws more scrutiny after newsroom shake-up | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


Washington Post Publisher and CEO William Lewis is drawing scrutiny after press reports described him as attempting to dissuade journalists — including those at The Post — from covering his involvement in a long-running British phone-hacking lawsuit.

The accounts emerged following the abrupt resignation of The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who, after three years in the job, stepped down Sunday without public explanation, and Lewis’s announcement of a major restructuring of the newsroom.

Reports about his involvement with news coverage at The Post — which Lewis denied — sparked concern for the appearance of violating traditional firewalls that keep corporate media bosses from influencing decisions made by news editors.

On Wednesday, the New York Times first reported a tense meeting in May between Lewis and Buzbee related to The Post’s plans for a story about a long-running civil case brought by Prince Harry and others regarding a phone-hacking scheme at some of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, where Lewis once worked.

The Post has confirmed that account with two people familiar with the meeting, which Buzbee described at the time to multiple people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive conversation.

Lewis told Buzbee that the story — about a judge’s decision whether to include Murdoch executives, including Lewis, in the case as individuals accused of covering up evidence — did not warrant coverage and that publishing it represented a lapse in judgment, these people said.

The Post published its story, but Buzbee was concerned about the tenor of their exchange. Buzbee had a similar exchange with Lewis in March over a previous story about the case, another person said.

In an email to a Post reporter Thursday afternoon, Lewis called the account “inaccurate” and said that he “did not pressure her in any way.” He acknowledged Buzbee had informed him of plans to publish a story but that he was “professional throughout.” He also said he doesn’t recall ever having used the phrase “serious lapse in judgment.”

He described a process, which he said was common, of asking about a story and offering thoughts or input “if appropriate,” and making clear that the decision to publish ultimately rested with the 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, adding: “The Executive Editor is free to publish when, how, and what they want to. I am fully signed up to that.”

Buzbee declined to comment on Lewis’s description of their meetings.

The other press account came from NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who published a story Thursday describing his experience with Lewis: After being named The Post’s next publisher, but before his first day on the job, Lewis “repeatedly — and heatedly” offered to give Folkenflik an exclusive interview about The Post’s future, in exchange for him dropping a story about new court documents in the phone-hacking case. He refused.

In his email to The Post, Lewis called Folkenflik — who published a book in 2013 on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — “an activist, not a journalist.” Lewis added: “I had an off the record conversation with him before I joined you at The Post and some six months later he has dusted it down, and made up some excuse to make a story of a non-story.”

Folkenflik told The Post late Thursday their off-the-record agreement related to the substance of the hacking case and the story he was reporting, but not “his efforts to induce me to kill my story.” He added that Lewis and a London-based press aide “subsequently confirmed” the nature of the offer in exchanges “that were not placed off the record.”

Folkenflik noted that Lewis did not deny the offers. As for Lewis’s description of him as an “activist,” Folkenflik noted that “The Post itself and the New York Times do find my stories newsworthy.”

Many in The Post newsroom found the accounts dismaying. A publisher and CEO oversees the entirety of a newspaper but traditionally does not direct or oversee decisions about what to report.

It is considered a third rail in journalism for business-side leaders to intervene or attempt to influence coverage in their own publications, particularly when it concerns them and their own interests, said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The firewall exists to protect the credibility of the news coverage,” she said. “It’s there so people can’t peddle influence that ultimately keeps important information from readers or viewers.”

Sometimes publishers and CEOs are consulted or notified about sensitive reporting — such as Katharine Graham’s involvement in The Post’s reporting on the Pentagon Papers. But Culver said “we should not be shifting coverage of ourselves.”

Lewis joined Murdoch’s U.K. publishing operation in September 2010, after the phone-hacking scandal had come to light. The following year, he was appointed to a committee created to oversee the corporate response to the scandal, including liaising with the police and with parliamentary inquiries. Ongoing litigation alleges that some of Murdoch’s executives, including Lewis, were involved in concealing evidence in the case from police.

Lewis downplayed his involvement in the phone-hacking cleanup in an interview with a Post reporter last year, saying he held a junior role and that his task was ensuring journalistic practices were honored during the investigation, such as protecting sources. He said “the opposite is true” of criticisms by some News Corp journalists that he handed over journalists’ information. “I did whatever I could to preserve our journalistic integrity,” he said.

He later added: “I took a view very early on that I’m never going to talk about it. And it’s either right or wrong that I’ve done that.”

Lewis became the top executive at The Post in January to oversee the company at a tumultuous time. The Post has endured staff reductions, declining subscriptions and a $77 million loss over the last year. He embarked on an effort to turn The Post’s financial fortunes around and, on Sunday evening, announced a major reorganization, including new subscription tiers and the creation of a separate newsroom unit focused on social media-driven and service journalism aimed at untapped audiences.

Lewis also announced that former Wall Street Journal top editor Matt Murray would replace Buzbee in overseeing the newsroom, and after the presidential election, former deputy Telegraph editor Robert Winnett will oversee the core news report. Murray will then take over the new unit. Both Murray and Winnett have previously worked for Lewis.

After the first press accounts of Lewis’s interactions with journalists over the phone-hacking case emerged, Murray affirmed that Post reporters should cover the matter.

“I’m very confident The Post will cover whatever we have to cover as a story independently, objectively and fairly,” he told editors in a meeting Thursday morning.

Lewis has been known to take questions from staffers in informal settings and all-staff meetings. On Monday, he fielded several about the lack of diversity atop the company and the future he saw for The Post.

At times, the exchanges turned contentious. He declined to offer any specifics about Buzbee’s departure.

The Post reported Monday that Lewis had offered Buzbee oversight of the new division of The Post’s newsroom — a position she declined — and that Buzbee had attempted to persuade Lewis to hold off on his reorganization until after the election. On Wednesday, when a reporter approached him to follow up on scheduling an interview, he expressed his disapproval with The Post’s recent reporting on its own leadership changes.

When asked Thursday via email to identify inaccuracies in the piece, he replied: “Forgive me, there has been a lot written by various people. You may well have captured this accurately.” He went on to say that he had offered Buzbee a new editorial division, that she considered the offer and helped to make plans for the restructuring, but then she changed her mind and stepped down.

“I was sorry to lose her, wish we could have worked longer together, but it was not to be,” Lewis added.

Lewis has described his role as publisher as a defender of journalism. In his first meeting with staffers in November, he cited former Post publisher Don Graham’s advice: that publishers should support editors and be in constant communication, because “there should never be any surprises.”

“I will never cross the line,” he added. “These are the editors. I am the publisher. There’s a very clear line there, which will be maintained at all times.”

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