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'Washington Post' CEO tried to kill a story about himself. It wasn’t the first time

<em> The Washington Post</em>'s new publisher and CEO, Will Lewis, announced a newsroom leadership shakeup during a staff meeting on Monday.
Robert Miller
The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Washington Post's new publisher and CEO, Will Lewis, announced a newsroom leadership shakeup during a staff meeting on Monday.

The Washington Post has written twice this spring about allegations that have cropped up in British court proceedings involving its new publisher and CEO, Will Lewis. In both instances Lewis pushed his newsroom chief hard not to run the story.

According to several people at the newspaper, then-Executive Editor Sally Buzbee emerged rattled from both discussions in March and in May. Lewis’ efforts were first reported by the New York Times. The second Post article in May, which was thorough and detailed, ran just days before Lewis announced his priorities for the paper, which is financially troubled.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Lewis denied the publisher had pressured his editor, saying, "That is not true. That is not what happened."

Buzbee did not recuse herself from the stories, which were overseen by Managing Editor Matea Gold, and drew upon reporters from three desks. Lewis did not block the story from running. He unexpectedly announced Buzbee’s departure on Sunday night, about three-and-a-half weeks after the longer story ran, along with a restructuring of the newsroom’s leadership structure.

It is not the first time that Lewis has engaged in intense efforts to head off coverage about him in ways that many U.S. journalists would consider deeply inappropriate.

A surprise offer

In December, I wrote the first comprehensive piece based on new documents cited in a London courtroom alleging that Lewis had helped cover up a scandal involving widespread criminal practices at media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids. (Lewis has previously denied the allegations.)

At that time, Lewis had just been named publisher and CEO by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, but had not yet started. In several conversations, Lewis repeatedly — and heatedly —offered to give me an exclusive interview about the Post’s future, as long as I dropped the story about the allegations.

At that time, the same spokesperson, who works directly for Lewis from the U.K. and has advised him since his days at the Wall Street Journal, confirmed to me that an explicit offer was on the table: drop the story, get the interview.

NPR published the story nonetheless. On Thursday, the spokesperson declined comment about that offer.

That first interview appears to have gone to Puck’s Dylan Byers. It ran a day after the Post’s piece in May.

When the late former Post managing editor Eugene Patterson was publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, he insisted the newspaper report his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol on the front page. Similarly, NPR has reported independently on controversies and the travails of its own leaders.

Lewis comes from a different tradition. In Britain, he earned his reporting spurs at the Financial Times, then moved over to Murdoch’s Sunday Times as business editor for three years. Lewis then made his name as editor of the Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet newspaper favored by elites in political and financial circles. It has historically been considered by British observers to be closely allied with the Conservative Party there.

Lewis has now named one of his former colleagues at the Telegraph who helped him land a major — and controversial — scoop to lead the Post’s primary news reporting. That’s Rob Winnett, the Telegraph Media Group’s deputy editor who, like Lewis, is British.

At the Telegraph, the two journalists arranged to pay a source £110,000 for a database detailing inappropriate expenses of British lawmakers at taxpayer costs. 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.

Lewis left the Telegraph to rejoin the Murdoch media empire. He would later go on to become publisher of the Wall Street Journal, also owned by the Murdochs.

Allegations of cleaning up a hacking scandal

Lewis was initially recruited away from the Telegraph to join Murdoch’s British newspaper wing, now called News UK. And soon Lewis was assigned, along with a close friend, to help the Murdochs address a growing scandal there.

Their tabloids were accused of committing crimes “on an industrial scale,” as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown put it, including hacking into the voicemails and emails of both celebrities and private citizens. The scandal erupted into public view in 2011 when it became clear that the targets of the hacking included the victims of violent crime and veterans killed in combat.

Lewis was to help coordinate with Scotland Yard and Parliamentary investigators.

Instead, attorneys for Prince Harry, Hollywood star Hugh Grant and several former British government officials allege that Lewis stood at the center of an effort to cover up company executives’ knowledge of those practices. In particular, Lewis is accused of giving a green light to the deletion of millions of emails after authorities had asked for the company to retain records for its investigation.

Lewis denies all wrongdoing but has declined further comment. He is not a named defendant in any civil claims, nor has he been charged with any criminality. His actions remain in dispute as part of ongoing cases involving Harry and others.

To date, the Murdoch media empire has paid an estimated $1.5 billion in settlements and costs associated with the hacking scandal. Late last fall, it made a six-figure payment to former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, whose scandals had been intensely covered by the tabloids. More recently, News UK settled with Grant, who said he accepted it for “an enormous sum of money” and to avoid paying close to £10 million in legal fees.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 6, 2024 at 1:05 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly applied a statement from Washington Post Publisher Will Lewis to the wrong element of his story. Through a spokesperson, Lewis denied he had pressured the paper’s then-executive editor not to allow its reporters cover a story that could have been damaging to him.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.