By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Matt Murray

Let’s not overlook Will Lewis’ ‘controversial’ decision to pay £110,000 to a source

Washington Post publisher Will Lewis. 2019 public domain photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Although it’s been previously reported, it’s been lost amid the outrage over Washington Post publisher Will Lewis’ aggressive attempts to play down his role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal: 14 years ago, as editor of Britain’s Telegraph, he was involved in paying a source £110,000 for a database that contained information about dubious expenses incurred by members of Parliament. At the current exchange rate, that would equal about $140,000.

The payoff has been overlooked to some degree because British and U.S. ethical standards are different. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who mentioned the payoff last week in a larger story about the phone-hacking turmoil, put it this way: “It was hailed as a huge story, leading to resignations and reforms. But it violated a key component of major U.S. news outlets’ ethics codes against paying sources.”

That may be true, but even in the U.K. it was noteworthy enough to warrant a story in The Guardian, which in 2009 called it a “controversial payment.” Two other British papers, The Times and The Sun, both refused to pay for the information, although The Guardian did not specify whether ethical considerations had anything to do with that.

Not only was Lewis involved in the payment but so, too, was Robert Winnett, a reporter for The Telegraph back then and now its deputy editor. Lewis announced last week that Willett will become executive editor of The Washington Post this fall while interim executive editor Matt Murray will move over to head up a new operation devoted to service journalism and social media.

Correction: Matt Murray is not a Brit. I’ve updated this post and also corrected Winnett’s name.

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Lewis keeps digging and demands a bigger shovel

Photo (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

Embattled Washington Post publisher Will Lewis not only keeps digging but he’s demanding a bigger shovel. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, whose coverage of the Post’s meltdown has been exceptional, writes that Lewis’ response to his own paper following Thursday’s bombshell NPR story has only made things worse — much worse. Darcy writes:

At The Post, according to more than half-dozen staffers I spoke with Thursday, morale has fallen off a cliff since Lewis abruptly ousted Executive Editor Sally Buzbee on Sunday. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, truly,” one staffer confided in me Thursday, noting that The Post has hit “rough patches” before, but that the stormy atmosphere hanging over the Washington outlet is unprecedented.

In an interview with the Post, Darcy notes, Lewis labeled NPR’s respected media reporter, David Folkenflik, as “an activist not a journalist,” which is just astonishing.

Darcy also ties up another loose thread. After Folkenflik reportedly rejected Lewis’ offer last December for an interview in exchange for not writing about Lewis’ role in the Murdochian phone-hacking scandal, that first interview went instead to Dylan Byers of Puck. Darcy writes: “Byers told me Thursday night that no restrictions were placed around the interview and he would ‘have never agreed to anything like that.’”

Are Lewis’ days numbered? I think so. The Post is taking a terrible hit to its reputation, and owner Jeff Bezos has to realize that Lewis is no longer the right person to rebuild the sagging news outlet — if he ever was. Bezos might see this as a public relations problem rather than a genuine ethical quandary. Well, fine. But it’s a PR disaster that’s not going away as long as Lewis is in charge. And if Lewis goes, what happens to his handpicked editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett?

What a mess.

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Media notes: Will Lewis’ unethical ask, Biden is still old and Hub Blog is back

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Once the mishegas over the shake-up at The Washington Post dies down, we are left with a question: Is publisher Will Lewis the right person to set a new direction for Jeff Bezos’ money-losing, reader-hemorrhaging newspaper? The New York Times has some disturbing news (free link) on that front.

According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, executive editor Sally Buzbee clashed with Lewis over a story about new developments in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Lewis had some involvement as an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and he reportedly told Buzbee that he didn’t want the story to run. Buzbee ran it anyway. The Times reports that the exchange was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Buzbee’s decision to leave the Post rather than accept a reduced role under Lewis’ plan to reorganize the staff into three newsrooms.

And lest we forget, Max Tani of Semafor reported a couple of weeks ago that the Post’s director of newsletter strategy, Elana Zak, sent out a missive instructing staff members “don’t distribute this story” in its newsletters. At the time, Zak’s email was attributed to some sort of internal mix-up, but the Times story casts that in a new light.

Buzbee, at least, stood up to Lewis and his ethically inappropriate demand. The problem is that his handpicked new editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett, may prove to be more malleable.

A flawed WSJ story

The Wall Street Journal has published a lengthy inquiry (free link) into President Biden’s mental acuity that has inflamed liberal critics. I read it with an open mind, but the story, by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, is based almost entirely on the observations of partisan Republicans like former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s quoted on the record, and current Speaker Mike Johnson, who isn’t.

The article, we’re told, is based on interviews with 45 people — but apparently six of those interviews were devoted to what Johnson had told people about a meeting he had with Biden in February. The story also contradicts earlier reporting about McCarthy, who has privately praised Biden’s mental sharpness even while mocking him in public.

One of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan media observers out there is Tom Jones of Poynter Online, so I was curious as to what he would have to say about it. Here’s his take:

Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

That “money quote” from McCarthy, by the way, is this: “I used to meet with him [Biden] when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

Despite Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s news coverage is generally superb. It was the Journal’s reporting, after all, that led to Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions last week. You have to wonder how a slanted piece like this passed muster.

Fairly or not, the Journal has raised the stakes for Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump, who, it should be said much more often than it is, is nearly as old as Biden and whose own problems with age-related mental slips tend to play out in public rather than (allegedly) behind closed doors.

Jay Fitzgerald returns

Veteran journalist Jay Fitzgerald, one of the original Boston bloggers, has revived Hub Blog (via Contrarian Boston). It looks like Jay is mainly writing an old-fashioned link blog with a few longer posts on the turmoil at The Washington Post.

I started writing an early version of this blog in 2002, shortly after Hub Blog launched. I was actually doing it by hand — I had no idea there was this thing called blogging software that automated the process of date-stamping, archiving older posts, adding permalinks and the like until Jay asked me, “What are you using.” He led me to Blogspot, though I’ve been using WordPress since 2005.

Anyway, it’s good to have Jay back in harness.

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Post notes: Buzbee’s departure, diversity concerns and a squishy-soft profile

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2018 by Collision Conf.

I’m reading everything I can find about the still-unfolding story of what’s next at The Washington Post, and I think it makes sense to hold back until the picture comes more clearly into focus. Here, though, are a few bullet points of note:

• It sounds like Sally Buzbee could have stayed as executive editor, at least for a few months, if she’d been willing to accept the reduced role that publisher Will Lewis envisions under his three-newsrooms idea. New York Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson report that Buzbee told senior editors in advance of her departure, “I would have preferred to stay to help us get through this period, but it just got to the point where it wasn’t possible.”

• Lewis presided over a staff meeting Monday that devolved into a “shit show,” according to Matt Fuller and Tara Golshan of NOTUS. Particularly outspoken was political reporter Ashley Parker, who pointed out, “Now we have four white men running the newsroom.” Lewis responded, “I’ve got to do better.” Well, this was his chance, and now all the top jobs have been filled. NOTUS, by the way,  is part of the Allbritton Journalism Institute, begun recently by Robert Allbritton, the former publisher of Politico, part of a family whose members are ancient rivals of the Post going back to the long-gone Washington Star.

• Check out this squishy-soft Post feature on the new top editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett. I don’t want to judge the Post on one article, and in fact this story on Buzbee’s departure is straightforward and reasonably tough. But I’m reminded of some of the brutally candid stories the Post produced after Jeff Bezos announced in August 2013 that he was buying the paper. As I wrote in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls”:

Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as “ruthless” and a “bully” in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching “tirades” that “humiliated colleagues.” An infamous story was repeated about Amazon stationing an ambulance outside one of its Pennsylvania warehouses during a heat wave rather than installing air conditioning…. Shel Kaphlan, Bezos’s first employee, who left Amazon after his role within the company was marginalized, was quoted as saying, “I saw him just completely destroy people on several occasions.” Kaphlan added that he felt “nauseous” at the prospect of Bezos owning the Post and the possibility that he would convert it “into a corporate libertarian mouthpiece.” If there is an example of newspaper reporters’ sucking up to the new boss, well, this was surely its opposite.

As is his custom, Bezos refused to cooperate with the team of reporters who worked on that story. But the national investigative reporter Kimberly Kindy, who was among those journalists, told me there were no repercussions from Bezos after publication. “I don’t think that we have shied away from covering him. And he certainly has invited us to,” she said.

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Jeff Bezos is reinventing The Washington Post — again. And this time he’s on his own.

Jeff Bezos. Painting (cc) 2017 by thierry ehrmann.

Having tracked the rise of The Washington Post under owner Jeff Bezos, executive editor Marty Baron and chief technologist Shailesh Prakash in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I’ve watched its dispiriting decline with sadness. On Sunday, that decline was underscored by Sally Buzbee’s departure as executive editor. CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has the story.

Lest we forget, Bezos did not choose Baron and Prakash; rather, he inherited them from Graham family ownership after he bought the paper in 2013 for $250 million. And though Bezos had the good sense to keep them and give them the resources they needed, it was their vision that created a great digital, nationally focused news organization that was positioned perfectly for the rise of Trump. Maybe an early warning sign was that when Bezos did get to make a big hire, he chose Ronald Reagan apparatchik Fred Ryan as publisher. As Baron makes clear in his book “Collision of Power,” Ryan did not prove to be an inspired choice.

Since Donald Trump left office, it’s been nothing but a downhill slide for the Post, which, according to the new publisher, Will Lewis, lost $77 million last year and about half its audience since 2020. Was that entirely the fault of Buzbee, a former Associated Press executive editor who took the Post’s helm after Baron retired in early 2021? Of course not. But it all happened on her watch, so it’s not a surprise that she’s leaving.

As Poynter media reporter Tom Jones points out, it’s not 100% clear that Buzbee was fired. It’s possible that she decided she wanted nothing to do with Lewis’ recently articulated vision, which includes having “AI everywhere in our newsroom,” according to Semafor media reporter Max Tani. Ugh.

The new executive team sets off some alarm bells. Lewis is a former publisher of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal who reportedly was involved in helping Murdoch clean up his tabloids’ phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. a dozen years ago, according to David Folkenflik of NPR. Buzbee will be replaced on a temporary basis by Matt Murray, a former editor-in-chief of the Journal. After the 2024 election, Murray will slide over to a newly created position creating service and social media journalism while the main news product will be under the direction of Robert Winnett, currently deputy editor of The Telegraph Media Group, a right-wing news organization. Media critic Dan Gillmor wrote on Mastodon:

The Washington Post is about to lurch sharply to the right politically as former Murdoch apparatchik solidifies his grip on the organization. Current editor Buzbee is out, and he’s bringing in people from Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph (right-wing UK news org).

I’m willing to wait and see, in part because The Wall Street Journal remains a great newspaper notwithstanding its editorial page, whose right-wing orientation precedes Murdoch’s ownership. I’m deeply concerned about what Lewis has in mind with his artificial intelligence initiative, though.

For the second time since he bought it in 2013, Jeff Bezos is faced with the challenge of reinventing The Washington Post. He succeeded spectacularly the first time, with years of growth, profitability and influence. This time, though, he’s doing it with people he chose himself — and there are caution signs all over the place.

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