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After editor’s departure, Washington Post’s publisher faces questions about phone hacking stories

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Washington Post’s new publisher is facing questions about whether he made efforts to conceal — in his own newspaper and elsewhere — his involvement in a British phone hacking scandal from his time working for Rupert Murdoch a decade ago.

The weeklong saga, which began with the abrupt departure of the Post’s executive editor Sunday night, offers a window into differences between approaches to journalism in Britain and the United States — and touches on delicate issues of trust in the American media community as it approaches a contentious and seismic presidential election.

The publisher and CEO, Will Lewis, has denied any wrongdoing in Britain and at the Post.

Lewis, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, arrived in January to turn around the Post, which is awash in red ink and seen its digital readership drop by a half since 2020. Lewis is also the vice chairman of The Associated Press’ board of directors.

He announced a restructuring plan on Sunday that did not include the top news executive, Sally Buzbee, who apparently was either forced out or chose not to accept a demotion. Buzbee, the former top news executive at the AP, has led the Post newsroom for three years. She has not talked about her departure.

This week, The New York Times reported that Lewis told Buzbee in a phone conversation last month that a development in litigation by Prince Harry about the phone hacking scandal did not warrant coverage in the Post.

That sprawling case involved the alleged interception of voicemails of celebrities and royals by Murdoch-owned newspapers in Britain. Plaintiffs in a civil case have alleged that Lewis was involved in efforts to tamp down trouble, in part by destroying evidence. Lewis has denied this.

The Times said Lewis told Buzbee that it would be a lapse in judgment to run the story, which was eventually published. The Post said Friday that that account was inaccurate and Lewis did not pressure Buzbee not to publish any stories. “To suggest otherwise is completely false,” the newspaper said in a statement.

Buzbee did not respond to a message from the AP on Friday requesting comment on her own characterization of the conversation.

In mainstream American journalism, it’s generally considered an ethical breach for a publisher to get involved in these kinds of news decisions, particularly one that involves him.

Later Thursday, National Public Radio media reporter David Folkenflik wrote that Lewis, before he took over at the Post, “repeatedly and heatedly” offered NPR an exclusive interview about his plans — in return for Folkenflik dropping a story that he was writing about the executive’s involvement in the phone hacking case.

Folkenflik refused, and the story ran on Dec. 20, 2023.

Asked about this, Lewis called Folkenflik an activist instead of a journalist, telling the Post: “I had an off-the-record conversation with him before I joined 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.”

Folkenflik said that the offer, later confirmed by a press representative, was not off the record.

“Certainly journalists at The New York Times, CNN and inside his own newsroom have concluded that what I reported this week about him and previously has been newsworthy,” he said on Friday. “I think that’s the verdict on our carefully reported journalism. He can say what he wants, but that doesn’t make this go away.”

In an email to staff members Friday, Lewis acknowledged that he needed to improve on how well he listens and communicates. He invited them to a series of discussions next week on his restructuring plan.

“I know trust has been lost because of scars from the past and the back-and-forth from this week,” Lewis wrote. “Let’s leave those behind and start presuming the best of intent. If we do that, you will see where we are going in a different light. We don’t have to agree about everything but we all are dedicated to building the future of The Post, and mapping our way there together.”

In his Post comments, Lewis said that he decided early that he was not going to talk about his job dealing with the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal. “And it’s either right or wrong that I’ve done that,” he said.

Lewis grew up as a journalist in Britain, where there is a more bare-knuckle style of reporting. One of the editors he has hired in the Post’s restructuring, Robert Winnett, worked with Lewis at the Daily Telegraph. One of their biggest stories, about abused expense accounts by members of Parliament, was based in part on records the newspaper reportedly paid for — an approach that would be forbidden in most American newsrooms.

While some Post journalists have voiced questions and concerns about the restructuring plan that Lewis is pursuing, he has emphasized the need for decisive, urgent action. He told the staff in a meeting his week that he can’t sugarcoat that “people are not reading your stuff.”

The turmoil at one of the nation’s most important sources for political journalism comes at a delicate time, a month before Republicans are due to nominate Donald Trump for president and the campaign against incumbent President Joe Biden begins in earnest.

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Associated Press correspondent Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

By DAVID BAUDER
AP Media Writer

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