Morale plummets inside The Washington Post as staffers express alarm over publisher’s attempts to squash story

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Will Lewis is quickly losing the confidence of his newsroom.

The chief executive and publisher of The Washington Post, who took the helm of the venerable newspaper in January — and was initially welcomed by staffers with cautious optimism — has over the course of the last several days alienated his troops and raised larger questions about his fitness to run one of the nation’s most prestigious news organizations.

At The Post, according to more than a half-dozen staffers who spoke with CNN 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 said Thursday, noting that The Post has hit “rough patches” before, but that the stormy atmosphere hanging over the Washington outlet is unprecedented.

Lewis’ uncouth dispatching of Buzbee poisoned much of the goodwill he had earned with his employees over the preceding six months. Indeed, the day after he announced Buzbee’s exit, staffers pressed him in a town hall about the circumstances that led to her departure. While staffers who spoke with CNN have praised Matt Murray, the former top editor at The Wall Street Journal who will lead the newsroom through the election, they have raised serious concerns about the appointment of Fleet Street veteran Robert Winnett, who will take the reins after the conclusion of the presidential contest.

But Lewis and his team of spokespeople (he has a personal representative, in addition to those who handle public relations on behalf of the outlet), would have likely been able to contain the mess, if it were to have remained isolated. Unfortunately for Lewis, it did not. Buzbee’s ouster led to the revelation that weeks beforehand Lewis had pressured her to refrain from publishing a story about his alleged involvement in the U.K. phone hacking scandal. At the time of the scandal, which engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and was revived by a new Prince Harry lawsuit, Lewis was a senior executive at News Corporation, a position that has left an indelible stain on his resume.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing in the hacking scandal. Regardless, the coverup often can be worse than the crime. And so, when The New York Times first reported the news about the pressure Lewis had applied to Buzbee, which CNN has since confirmed, all hell broke loose inside The Post.

Will Lewis, the publisher of The Washington Post, finds himself embroiled in a scandal affecting the newsroom itself. - Carlotta Cardana/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesWill Lewis, the publisher of The Washington Post, finds himself embroiled in a scandal affecting the newsroom itself. - Carlotta Cardana/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Will Lewis, the publisher of The Washington Post, finds himself embroiled in a scandal affecting the newsroom itself. – Carlotta Cardana/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The story sparked a wave of fear that was only exacerbated by a follow-up story published by veteran NPR media reporter David Folkenlik, who disclosed Thursday that Lewis “repeatedly — and heatedly — offered to give” him an “exclusive interview about The Post’s future,” so long as he dropped a story about the phone hacking allegations. Folkenflik said a spokesperson for Lewis confirmed to him “that an explicit offer was on the table: drop the story, get the interview.” Folkenflik, of course, did not drop the story. Lewis’ first interview ultimately went to Puck’s Dylan Byers. (Byers told CNN Thursday night that no restrictions were placed around the interview, and he would “have never agreed to anything like that.”)

Which is why one might have thought that Lewis, who surely must sense the trust of his staffers quickly slipping away, would have offered a mea culpa of sorts on Thursday night. Apologize, vow to do better, etcetera. ChatGPT could have written the note for him! But instead, bizarrely, Lewis has chosen to go a very different route.

Suffice to say, the behavior demonstrated by Lewis up until that point was alarming and raised serious questions about his judgment. As one veteran media executive told CNN Thursday, playing off The Post’s “democracy dies in darkness” tagline, “Democracy dies in pressuring editors to drop stories about publishers.” One doesn’t need to go to Columbia Journalism School to know that the head of a newsroom should not be trying to intimidate journalists from publishing unflattering stories about themselves. It is obviously inappropriate!

In astonishing comments sent to The Post’s Sarah Ellison and Elahe Izadi, Lewis went nuclear on Folkenflik. Lewis referred to the NPR media reporter, widely considered to be one of the best in the industry, as “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.” Additionally, Ellison and Izadi reported that Lewis had “expressed his disapproval with The Post’s recent reporting on his leadership change.” When asked later to identify inaccuracies, Lewis replied, “Forgive me, there has been a lot written by various people. You may well have captured this accurately.”

Folkenflik responded to Lewis’ below-the-belt insult Thursday night. In a statement, Folkenflik said that while Lewis may call him an activist, his own newsroom has found his reporting “on this to be newsworthy.”

“As he stated, we had an agreement to have an off the record conversation about the subject I was reporting on late last year,” Folkenflik told me. “That agreement did not cover his efforts to induce me to kill my story. What was off the record was our discussion of his alleged role in covering up the hacking scandal.”

Folkenflik added that Lewis “did not deny making the offers” to him.

How Lewis cleans up this mammoth of a mess that he has created for himself remains to be seen. Can he do it? One wonders what Jeff Bezos, the billionaire owner of The Post, who must be growing quite tired of constantly seeing his newspaper ensnared in controversy, thinks of the situation. Inside the newsroom, though, the sentiment is plain as day.

“He’s really losing the newsroom on a large scale,” a staffer said, sizing up the state of affairs. “People don’t trust him, don’t believe he has the same values and ethics as our journalists and there are major concerns of how far he would go to censor or shut down coverage.”

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