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Unfolding Ethics Scandal at Washington Post Raises Questions About Its Future

“Executives in charge of news in the public interest should not be suppressing news,” says Chris Lehmann of The Nation.

We look at the unfolding ethics scandal at The Washington Post that has rocked one of the nation’s leading news outlets and raised questions about its future. The controversy centers on CEO and publisher Will Lewis, who has reportedly pressured journalists inside and outside the newsroom not to run unflattering stories about him. His efforts to reshape the newsroom in the face of steep financial losses have also alarmed staff, and British editor Robert Winnett, Lewis’s pick for a top editorial role, withdrew amid concern over his history of using fraudulently obtained information in newspaper articles. Lewis is also implicated in the long-running U.K. phone hacking scandal. Both Lewis and Winnett are veterans of conservative British papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, and The Guardian recently revealed that Lewis advised then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on how to cover his tracks amid public outrage over violations of COVID precautions at the height of the pandemic. “At the most basic level of how journalism should operate, executives in charge of news in the public interest should not be suppressing news. It’s a pretty simple bar, and Will Lewis has failed to clear it,” says Chris Lehmann, D.C. bureau chief for The Nation.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show with media news and the unfolding ethics scandal at The Washington Post that’s rocked the paper’s newsroom and raised questions about the future of one of the leading U.S. news outlets.

A British editor who was tapped for a top position at The Washington Post will no longer take that post as outcry continues to mount over a plan to shake up the Post’s newsroom. The editor, Robert Winnett, will now stay at The Daily Telegraph in Britain instead of coming to The Washington Post. The decision comes days after it was revealed that Winnett had a history of using fraudulently obtained phone and company records in newspaper articles.

The Post’s chief executive, Will Lewis, is also coming under scrutiny over his record. Both Lewis and Winnett are veterans of British papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. The Guardian also recently revealed Lewis advised then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and top officials to, quote, “clean up” their phones amidst public uproar over government violations of COVID-19 safety precautions, in what became known as “Partygate” in the U.K. Will Lewis has also been accused of trying to suppress stories about his connection to the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World newspaper in Britain. The owner of The Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has supported Lewis.

For more, we’re joined by Chris Lehmann, D.C. bureau chief for The Nation, where his recent piece is headlined “How the Publisher of The Washington Post Allegedly Helped Cover Up a Scandal.”

Chris, welcome back to Democracy Now! It was great having you on Friday responding to the debate between Trump and Biden, and we’re going to ask you to talk a little more about the fallout from the weekend. But first, lay out what’s happening at The Washington Post.

CHRIS LEHMANN: Well, it’s not good, Amy. Will Lewis is basically the successor to Katharine Graham, the famed publisher who stood up to the Nixon administration in the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandals. And Lewis is sort of playing the part of a Nixon apparatchik in this Boris Johnson scandal. He went to great lengths to tell Johnson aides not to disclose sensitive communications, after a public investigation was launched in the Partygate scandal.

And as you noted, this is on top of the whole phone-hacking scandal. There’s actually been another report in The New York Times, since I wrote my piece for The Nation, in which investigators for Scotland Yard detailed to the phone-hacking case say that Lewis did not disclose what turned out to be millions of sensitive emails, as he claimed initially to have done.

So, you have, you know, the leading executive for one of the nation’s great newspapers in this position of covering up both for Boris Johnson, when he was running a political consultancy, and covering up for himself. And at the most basic level of how journalism should operate, executives in charge of news in the public interest should not be suppressing news. It’s a pretty simple bar, and Will Lewis has failed to clear it, clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the relationship between Winnett and Will Lewis, with Will Lewis saying he’s so sorry to lose —

CHRIS LEHMANN: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — his colleague as a result of the outcry? But the two of them — I guess you could say Murdochians from Britain, people who work for Rupert Murdoch — worked together and are being investigated together.

CHRIS LEHMANN: That’s right. Basically, Winnett was a protégé of Will Lewis at the Telegraph, and they worked together on these stories involving what’s called a blagger, which is someone hired on contract to misrepresent himself to obtain information that will be embarrassing to various institutions and figures. And what’s sort of — you know, this is typical of the British tabloid press. The information they sought was kind of banal and not of any great public interest. You know, there was reporting on a Manchester United ownership spat and then a story about rich Britains who were lining up to buy a luxury Mercedes vehicle. And, you know, under British law, you can use sort of sketchy means of obtaining information if it serves a public interest. It’s very, very difficult to see how any of these stories met that standard. So, you know, you have this kind of squalid tabloid culture that produces titillating clicks. And that appears to be what Jeff Bezos wanted at The Washington Post. And, boy, is he getting a full dose of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we pivot to the debate, Chris, I wanted to ask you about the level of outcry in The Washington Post newsroom, having people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Maraniss and others actually —

CHRIS LEHMANN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — speaking out and writing articles. Some of the best coverage of the debacle —

CHRIS LEHMANN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — at The Washington Post is The Washington Post.

CHRIS LEHMANN: Yes, and that was to the credit of Sally Buzbee. You know, one of these episodes involved Lewis reportedly strong-arming Sally Buzbee to not cover a new development in the civil suit involving the phone-hacking scandal, and she went ahead and did it anyway and resigned shortly afterwards. Lewis denies having done that, but, you know, David Folkenflik, an NPR reporter, has written that he tried the same tactic with him when Folkenflik was considering doing an article about Will Lewis. And Lewis basically said, “I’ll give you an exclusive, so long as you don’t write about this phone-hacking business.”

So, again, suppressing information is bad for journalism. It’s sad that we live in an age where this, you know, has to be reiterated. And that is why people like David Maraniss and a lot of other people at the Post are really distressed, and a lot of talented reporters are, you know, reportedly eyeing the exits. And, you know, it’s a sad — I came to Washington originally to work for The Washington Post, and a big reason was Katharine Graham’s ownership. You know, it was a family-owned newspaper that stood up to the state. That is what journalism should be. Now we have a Washington Post that’s owned by an absentee billionaire who just apparently likes the Rupert Murdoch business model and has been pushing it in that direction. It’s really a sad and scandalous set of developments.

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