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The Washington Post delves into a difficult story: Itself

The turmoil at the Post started early this month when Buzbee abruptly resigned and Lewis announced that she would be replaced temporarily by Murray, a former top editor of The Wall Street Journal.
Last Updated : 18 June 2024, 03:34 IST

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The backyard goodbye party for Sally Buzbee, the recently departed executive editor of The Washington Post, was beginning to break up Sunday evening when the newspaper published a critical investigation into her permanent successor.

The headline: “Incoming Post editor tied to self-described ‘thief’ who claimed role in his reporting.”

The article focused on Robert Winnett, the British journalist poised to take over the Post’s newsroom in November, and described his links to a private eye who used unethical media practices to land big exclusives. It noted that Winnett had declined to comment to the Post’s reporters — the same ones he will be managing in a few months.

The party was a farewell gesture by Patty Stonesifer, who was temporarily the Post’s CEO last year and is a close ally of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and the paper’s owner. As part of her job, Stonesifer helped recruit the new permanent CEO, Will Lewis, whose reorganisation of the newsroom prompted Buzbee’s resignation.

But the upcoming article contributed to an occasionally awkward mood at the party, held at Stonesifer’s home in Washington’s upscale Cleveland Park neighborhood and attended by senior editors and executives, according to two people with knowledge of the party.

It was just the latest uneasy moment for people at the Post. Employees have been reeling in recent weeks from successive revelations about Lewis and Winnett, who are charged with turning around one of America’s top news organisations. A day before the party, The New York Times reported that Lewis and Winnett had used stolen records for newspaper articles earlier in their careers in Britain. The Post declined to comment on that article.

At the party, Buzbee stood up to give remarks after Stonesifer encouraged her to speak, three people who were present said.

Buzbee said the Post stood for holding powerful people and institutions to account — especially when it was hard to do. That comment, the people at the party said, struck some there as a note of praise for the Post’s aggressive coverage of Lewis and Winnett over the past two weeks.

The editing of Sunday’s nearly 3,000-word investigation was aided by Cameron Barr, a former senior managing editor who was brought back as a consultant to help shepherd the Post’s coverage of itself. Matt Murray, who is overseeing the Post’s newsroom on a temporary basis, told editors last week that he had recused himself from involvement in one of the Post’s articles that directly mentioned him.

A spokesperson for the Post said the newspaper covered itself “independently, rigorously and fairly,” adding that Lewis had no role in the coverage.

“Given perceived and potential conflicts, we have asked former senior managing editor Cameron Barr, who stepped down from that position in 2023 and now has a contractual relationship as a senior associate editor, to oversee this coverage,” the spokesperson said. She added that Murray and other top editors would review and provide feedback as well.

The turmoil at the Post started early this month when Buzbee abruptly resigned and Lewis announced that she would be replaced temporarily by Murray, a former top editor of The Wall Street Journal. At the same time, Lewis announced a major restructuring of the Post’s editorial hierarchy, including a so-called third newsroom that would focus on social media, innovation and service journalism. Under the plan, Murray would run the new division after the November election, when Winnett would take over as editor of the core news coverage.

Lewis, who started in the top role in January, has been charged with making the publication profitable again after several years of big losses. He has been blunt with the staff about the company’s business struggles, including a 50 per cent drop in audience since 2020.

Days after Buzbee’s exit, the Times reported that she and Lewis clashed in the weeks leading up to her resignation over whether the Post should cover a development in a phone-hacking court case involving Lewis. Lewis has denied pressuring Buzbee. In her comments at the party Sunday, Buzbee said she was proud of her conduct in her final weeks at the paper.

In addition, an NPR reporter disclosed that Lewis had previously offered him an exclusive interview if he stopped covering the phone-hacking case. Lewis said he’d had an off-the-record conversation with the reporter, whom he described as “an activist, not a journalist.”

The unfolding controversy has unsettled many Post journalists. Some have discussed among themselves whether Lewis and Winnett share their ethics, three people familiar with the matter said.

On Monday, Murray tried to rally Post editors during a morning meeting. He praised the paper’s article about Winnett and encouraged them to remain focused on the journalism, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

Lewis has already changed some of his plans. This week he was expected to attend the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, a glittering confab in the south of France where advertisers and media grandees mingle over glasses of rosé.

Lewis had told select attendees that as part of his visit, he was organizing a “seriously glam dinner” at an upscale restaurant, La Colombe d’Or, that would be the best invite of the year and “set the tone for the upcoming week.”

On Sunday night, invitees got a terse email: The dinner was off.

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Published 18 June 2024, 03:34 IST

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