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Post publisher receives more attention after a commotion in the newsroom

Washington Post publisher and CEO William Lewis is facing increasing criticism after press reports describe him trying to stop journalists — including those at The Post — from reporting on his involvement in a long-running British phone hacking lawsuit .

The reports emerged after the abrupt resignation of The Post’s editor-in-chief Sally Buzbee, who resigned without public explanation on Sunday after three years in the role, and Lewis’ announcement of a major restructuring of the newsroom.

Reports of his involvement in The Post reporting – which Lewis denied – raised concerns about the appearance of violating traditional firewalls that prevent media bosses from influencing news editors’ decisions.

On Wednesday, the New York Times first reported a tense meeting in May between Lewis and Buzbee over The Post’s plans for a story about a long-running civil case brought by Prince Harry and others involving a phone hacking scheme at some of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, where Lewis once worked.

The Post has confirmed that account from two people familiar with the meeting, which Buzbee described at the time with multiple people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive conversation.

Lewis told Buzbee that the story — about a judge’s decision to implicate Murdoch executives, including Lewis, as individuals accused of covering up evidence — did not warrant coverage and that its publication was a lapse in judgment, these people said.

The Post published his story, but Buzbee was concerned about the tenor of their exchange. Buzbee had a similar conversation with Lewis in March about an earlier story on the case, another person said.

In an email to a Post reporter Thursday afternoon, Lewis called the account “inaccurate” and said he “didn’t pressure her in any way.” He acknowledged that Buzbee had informed him of plans to publish a story, but that he was “professional the entire time.” He also said he doesn’t remember ever using the term “serious error of judgment.”

He described a process, which he said was common, of asking for a story and offering thoughts or input “if appropriate.” where it became clear that the decision to publish ultimately rested with the editor.

“I know how this works, I know what to do and what not to do. I know where the boundaries are, and I respect them,” he wrote, adding: “The editor-in-chief is free to publish when, how and what he wants. I fully support that.”

Buzbee refused comments on Lewis description of their meetings.

The other press account came from NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who published a story Thursday describing his experiences with Lewis: After he was named The Post’s next publisher, but before his first day at work, Lewis “repeatedly — and heatedly” offered to give Folkenflik an exclusive interview about the future of The Post in exchange for dropping a story about new court documents in the phone hacking case. He refused.

In his email to The Post, Lewis called Folkenflik — who published a book in 2013 about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — “an activist, not a journalist.” Lewis added: “I had an off-the-record conversation with him before I joined you at The Post and about six months later he dusted it off and made an excuse to turn a non-story into a story .”

Folkenflik told The Post late Thursday that their off-the-record agreement covered the content of the hacking case and the story he reported, but not “his efforts to get me to end my story.” He added that Lewis and a London-based press assistant “subsequently” confirmed the nature of the offer in exchanges “that were not placed off the record.”

Folkenflik noted that Lewis did not deny the offers. As for Lewis’s description of him as an “activist,” Folkenflik noted that “The Post itself and the New York Times consider my stories newsworthy.”

Many in The Post newsroom found the reports appalling. A publisher and CEO oversees the entirety of a newspaper, but traditionally does not direct or supervise the decisions about what to report.

It’s considered a third rail in journalism when business leaders intervene or try to influence reporting in their own publications, especially when it concerns them and their own interests, said Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the New York University. Wisconsin-Madison.

“The firewall is there to protect the credibility of reporting,” she said. “It’s there so people can’t exert influence that ultimately keeps important information from readers or viewers.”

Sometimes publishers and CEOs are consulted or informed about sensitive reporting, such as Katharine Graham’s involvement in The Post’s reporting on the Pentagon Papers. But Culver said, “We shouldn’t shift the messaging about ourselves.”

Lewis joined Murdoch’s British publishing house in September 2010, after the phone hacking scandal came to light. The following year he was appointed to a committee set up to monitor the business response to the scandal, including liaising with police and parliamentary investigations. Ongoing lawsuits allege that some Murdoch executives, including Lewis, were involved in hiding evidence in the case from police.

Lewis downplayed his involvement in clearing phone hacks in an interview with a Post reporter last year. He said he was in a junior role and his job was to ensure journalistic practices were respected during the investigation, such as protecting sources. He said “the opposite is true” of criticism from some News Corp journalists that he had handed over journalist information. “I did everything I could to preserve our journalistic integrity,” he said.

He later added, “I was of the opinion very early on that I would never talk about it. And it’s right or wrong that I did that.

Lewis became The Post’s top executive in January to oversee the company during a tumultuous time. The Postal Service has suffered staff cuts, declining subscriptions and a $77 million loss in the past year. He began an effort to turn around The Post’s financial fortunes, announcing a major reorganization Sunday evening, including new subscriptions and the creation of a separate newsroom focused on social media-driven and service journalism aimed at an untapped audience.

Lewis also announced that former top Wall Street Journal editor Matt Murray would replace Buzbee in overseeing the newsroom, and that former deputy Telegraph editor Robert Winnett will oversee core news reporting after the presidential election. Murray will then take over the new unit. Both Murray and Winnett have previously worked for Lewis.

After the first press reports of Lewis’ interactions with journalists on the phone hacking case emerged, Murray confirmed that Post reporters should discuss the case.

“I have every confidence that The Post will treat everything we have to say independently, objectively and fairly,” he told the editors during a meeting Thursday morning.

Lewis has been known to answer questions from staffers in informal settings and all-staff meetings. On Monday, he addressed several about the lack of diversity within the company and the future he saw for The Post.

Sometimes the exchanges became controversial. He declined to provide details about Buzbee’s departure.

The Post reported Monday that Lewis had offered Buzbee oversight of The Post’s new newsroom department — a position she declined — and that Buzbee had tried to convince Lewis to delay his reorganization until after the election. When a reporter approached him Wednesday to move forward with scheduling an interview, he expressed disapproval of The Post’s recent reporting on his own leadership changes.

When asked via email on Thursday to identify inaccuracies in the piece, he replied: “Forgive me, a lot has been written by different people. It is entirely possible that you have recorded this accurately.’ He went on to say that he had offered Buzbee a new editorial department, that she had considered the offer and helped make plans for the restructuring, but Then she changed her mind and resigned.

“I was sad to lose her, I wish we could have worked together longer, but it wasn’t to be,” Lewis added.

Lewis has described his role as publisher as a defender of journalism. During his first meeting with staffers in November, he cited the advice of former Post publisher Don Graham: that publishers should support editors and communicate constantly because “there should never be any surprises.”

“I will never cross the border,” he added. “These are the editors. I am the publisher. There is a very clear line there, which will be maintained at all times.”