Washington Post CEO Will Lewis’ status ‘increasingly untenable’ as newsgathering controversies mount

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A report from the New York Times on Saturday alleges Will Lewis, the Washington Post’s embattled new publisher and chief executive, used fraudulent and unethical methods to obtain information for articles while working at the London-based Sunday Times in the early 2000s.

Citing a former co-worker of Lewis’, a private investigator and its own investigation of newspaper archives, the New York Times said Lewis used phone and company records that were “fraudulently obtained” through hacking and paying sources for information.

Through the haze of accusations, it remains unclear whether these claims will prompt Lewis to step down from the helm of one of the most distinguished outlets in the country. Even so, experts see Lewis’ grasp on the newsroom as one that is increasingly weakening. Margaret Sullivan, executive director of the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, told CNN on Sunday that Lewis’ position is “increasingly untenable.”

These latest allegations of questionable journalistic ethics could also leave an enduring impression on a newsroom already reeling from the blindsiding ouster of its executive editor, Sally Buzbee. The allegations may also end up reflecting on the paper’s own reputation as a standard-bearer for American journalism.

Late on Sunday, the Washington Post itself published a story about Robert Winnett, whom Lewis appointed to take the top job at the Post’s core newsroom after the US presidential election in November. The Post article alleged that Winnett, a Lewis protege, was linked to a man who used dishonest means to obtain information that Winnett then used in his journalism.

In a statement, the Washington Post said: “We cover The Washington Post independently, rigorously and fairly. 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 publisher has no involvement in or influence on our reporting.”

In a follow-up on Monday, the Post added that “The executive editor and relevant masthead editors review and provide input, with Cameron’s concurrence, to ensure that our work meets our highest standards.”

Winnett did not immediately respond to a CNN query via LinkedIn.

The Society of Professional Journalists, which represents about 7,000 members across the country and whose journalism standards are recognized in many newsrooms, warns journalists in its Code of Ethics: “Do not pay for access to news.”

While SPJ does not explicitly address hacking as a means of newsgathering, it does tell journalists to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public” but cautions that “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance of undue intrusiveness.”

The new accusations come as Lewis tries to fend off resurfacing allegations of his involvement in a UK phone hacking scandal coverup, in which he has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Lewis has previously said his role in the scandal consisted of rooting out problematic behavior.

A spokesperson for the Washington Post told CNN Lewis declined to comment.

A Washington Post source with knowledge of internal meetings at the paper last week told CNN that Lewis has told employees “his role as publisher is to create the environment for great journalism and to encourage and support it, that he will never interfere in the journalism and that he is very clear about the lines that should not be crossed.”

The decade-old scandal engulfed right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid and was revived in recent years in a new lawsuit filed by Prince Harry and Hollywood figures including Guy Ritchie and Hugh Grant. At the time of the News of the World controversy, Lewis was a senior executive at Murdoch’s News Corporation.

But a cascade of claims has followed Lewis in recent weeks, mostly involving alleged attempts to suppress stories about his connection with the coverup. Earlier this month, the New York Times first reported that Lewis, who took the reins at the Washington Post on January 2, clashed with Buzbee over publishing an article in May that named him in connection to the scandal, although a spokesperson for Lewis has denied he pressured Buzbee to quash the article, according to NPR.

Buzbee abruptly left the company earlier this month. Days later, an NPR reporter said Lewis offered him an interview in exchange for quashing a forthcoming article about the scandal.

The Washington Post did not respond to CNN with regard to these allegations.

A spokesperson for Lewis told the New York Times earlier this month when the story broke that “when he was a private citizen ahead of joining The Washington Post, he had off the record conversations with an employee of NPR about a story the employee then published.” The spokesperson added that any request for an interview after he joined the Washington Post was “processed through the normal corporate communication channels.”

Buzbee’s departure has seemingly frayed Lewis’ command of his newsroom even further. A number of Post staffers who spoke to CNN have described plummeting morale. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, truly,” one staffer said earlier this month, noting that the Washington Post has hit “rough patches” before but that the stormy atmosphere hanging over the outlet is unprecedented.

In an opinion piece for the Guardian on Wednesday, Sullivan wrote that firing Lewis and finding a new CEO is “the cleanest, best move” Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos could make. Lewis’ insistence on tamping down reporting about him “has motivated several news organizations to look more deeply into his past; it’s possible that some new revelation will make his Post leadership position even more untenable and will force Bezos’ hand,” she added.

Sullivan also wrote in her op-ed that Lewis could try to repair the trust both within and outside the newsroom by acknowledging that he will not cross any ethical lines and reiterating his commitment to giving staffers “true editorial independence.” He could also work toward reinstating an independent public editor or ombudsman — a position the Washington Post nixed more than a decade ago — who would oversee the paper’s implementation of journalistic ethics.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy, Jon Passantino and Hadas Gold contributed to this report.

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