Updated June 21, 2024 at 12:20 PM ET

Beset by crisis, Washington Post Chief Executive and Publisher Will Lewis' pick to be its lead editor, Robert Winnett, has withdrawn from the job as Lewis seeks to salvage his own tenure at the newspaper.

Lewis said he would start a process to name a replacement — steps he did not take in announcing his old friend Winnett to the job less than three weeks ago. The ethical records of both men have come under withering scrutiny in recent days.

Lewis worked with Winnett at the Sunday Times in Britain in the early 2000s. After Lewis was named the youngest editor in the Daily Telegraph's history, he hired Winnett there. The two men, both Brits, worked hand-in-glove and won accolades in the U.K. for their scoops.

Yet NPR, the New York Times and the Post have reported on a parade of episodes involving both men in conduct that would be barred under professional ethics codes at major American news outlets, including the Post.

The incidents include paying a six-figure sum to secure a major scoop; planting a junior reporter in a government job to obtain secret and even classified documents; and relying on a private investigator who used subterfuge to secure people's confidential records and documents. The investigator was later arrested.

Neither Winnett nor Lewis has responded to requests by journalists — including at the Post — for comment on these episodes. The Post had set up a dedicated team to report on the two men under Cameron Barr, a retired senior managing editor at the paper.

"It is with regret that I share with you that Robert Winnett has withdrawn from the position of Editor at The Washington Post," Lewis wrote in a message to the Post newsroom Friday. "Rob has my greatest respect and is an incredibly talented editor and journalist."

Winnett is currently deputy editor at the Telegraph Media Group in the U.K., where he will stay. "He's a talented chap and their loss is our gain," Telegraph editor Chris Evans said in a memo.

The move does not resolve the status of Lewis, who is also contending with allegations in Britain that he helped protect executives at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids following a massive hacking scandal years ago. Lewis has been named in court documents filed by lawyers for Prince Harry and other victims.

I wrote about those accusations in December, just before Lewis started at the Post. He had pressured me not to publish the story, and even offered me an exclusive interview if I dropped it. He also tried to discourage the Post from coverage.

A distrustful newsroom

Journalists throughout the paper have told NPR they are outraged, saying the two men's actions, while illustrative of the ferociously competitive world of British newspapering, violate principles held dear at the Post.

A highly regarded Post writer and associate editor, David Maraniss, recently expressed disgust in a Facebook post. He contended that the scandal that has erupted this spring around Lewis and Winnett is worse than the revelation that a Pulitzer Prize-winning account was fabricated by Janet Cooke, a junior Post reporter fed by the hunger of her editors to land a story.

"The troubles of today are more serious by many orders of magnitude," Maraniss wrote on a Facebook page for former Post staffers. "The staff is rightly and fearlessly investigating and questioning the acts of its publisher and supposed next editor whose refusal to answer all questions is inexcusable and unacceptable."

"The body," Maraniss wrote, "is rejecting the transfusion." Another retired Pulitzer-winner, Scott Higham, chimed in on Maraniss' post that Lewis needed to resign.

Winnett's brief-lived association with the Post even started inauspiciously. Lewis revealed Winnett's appointment abruptly on a Sunday night early this month, apparently to foreclose being scooped by The New York Times. 

It coincided with the ouster of the Post's then-executive editor, Sally Buzbee. She had declined to accept a diminished role assigned to foster new forms of journalism, new products and new revenues for the paper.

Winnett was absent and his name was barely mentioned in a contentious meeting with a stunned newsroom the next day. He was to start the role after the November elections. Winnett never stepped foot in the Washington newsroom as editor.

Lewis had asked former Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray to run the newsroom until Winnett took over, and then permanently take the job Buzbee had rejected. Murray has been seen since as a calming force, according to Post journalists.

Murray also has close ties to Lewis. When the latter was publisher of the Wall Street Journal, he promoted Murray to the top position there in 2014. Lewis has named other close associates to top jobs in the Post's corporate hierarchy in his five months since becoming chief executive, including chief growth officer, chief strategy officer and new hires as his chief of staff and personal director of communications.

And yet in a few short weeks since that announcement, it became increasingly clear that the choice of Winnett for the permanent newsroom editor role was unsustainable.

A message from Jeff Bezos

Post owner Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, picked Lewis to help reverse the paper's foundering financial performance. The company lost more than $100 million in 2022 and $77 million last year. Its digital audience dropped by 50% from 2020.

Bezos issued a statement earlier this week to reassure staffers. "I know you've already heard this from Will," Bezos wrote to Post employees on Tuesday, "but I wanted to also weigh in directly: the journalistic standards and ethics at The Post will not change."

He made no reference to Winnett. In less than a week, the Lewis pal who was to lead the paper's news reporting in the future was history. Lewis' own fate at the paper rests in the hands of his owner. Bezos' statement has been interpreted in myriad directions, as it acknowledged Lewis' role but gave no commitments to the future.

Copyright 2024 NPR



Next, we bring you an update on a story that NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has been following. The British journalist selected to become the new editor of The Washington Post has decided not to take the job. Robert Winnett and The Post's new CEO, Will Lewis, are surrounded by controversy over ethically questionable practices they used in the U.K. and that wouldn't be acceptable in the U.S. Now, Lewis says he will begin the process of finding a new editor while he seeks to salvage his own tenure at the media company. David Folkenflik is on the line to talk about this. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So before we get to Winnett's announcement, can you just catch us up on what the scandal is surrounding Post CEO Will Lewis?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I think there's three basic baskets of concerns. One is stemming from court cases currently swirling in Britain itself, in which evidence has been used to accuse Lewis - although he's not a defendant - of covering up criminal wrongdoing at Rupert Murdoch's tabloid newspapers more than 12 years ago. The second is that he took steps to pressure journalists from both The Post and me not to cover that story. although we covered it, and ultimately, The Post did, too. And thirdly, there were these - the question of his own practices in Britain, as his own record came under scrutiny. As editor, he paid $110,000 for a database about parliamentary expenses. There was a huge scoop, but it also would have violated ethical norms at The Washington Post and NPR. And in a number of other ways, his record and Rob Winnett's record have come under scrutiny for the usage, for example, of putting a reporter in as an undercover secretary in the prime minister's office, relying on private investigators to - who misrepresented himself to obtain confidential documents, things that wouldn't be kosher here in the states.

FADEL: And so the concerns are also including Winnett and his involvement.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're close colleagues and friends, stemming back basically two decades. Their work at The Sunday Times of London, also a Murdoch property, and also at The Telegraph, where currently Winnett is the deputy editor - Winnett was involved in a number of these things, including bringing that database to Lewis when Lewis was heading up The Telegraph there.

FADEL: Now, did Winnett give any indication that he's resigning specifically because of this controversy?

FOLKENFLIK: He didn't, but his position here wasn't tenable. You know, it was amazing. His announcement was a shock to staff here about 2 1/2 weeks ago. He was not present for it when Will Lewis stood in the hub of the newsroom on that Monday morning to talk about it. And staff was sort of taken by surprise that their old editor had been replaced. So he really didn't have a constituency here, given all the controversy swirling around him.

FADEL: And so where does this all leave The Post?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Will Lewis' own stature right now is in doubt as well. He's under great scrutiny. I think Winnett's withdrawal gives him some breathing room to try to prove - build up good faith and prove that his plans for The Post are valuable. But these controversies about him still exist about his past record and happening in court in London. And the ultimate vote resides with owner Jeff Bezos.

FADEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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