Pressing Matters

The New Washington Post Leadership Is a Disaster for Democracy

Our trusted national newspapers influence the public opinion and shape the narrative of our history. Which is why it is incredibly worrisome that Rupert Murdoch has appointed his cronies to run two papers of record in the months leading up to the 2024 Election.

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In the weeks leading up to a presidential election, the quality of a media outlet’s coverage can swing an entire country from calm prosperity to complete chaos.

It sounds hyperbolic, but political races, especially at the state level, are often determined by a few thousand votes, and those votes can make the difference between a U.S. Senate that protects reproductive freedom and one that outlaws it. Those votes swap a House of Representatives that addresses climate change and economic inequality for one plagued by infighting over who sits in which chair. 

So if a national newspaper, for example, published dozens of stories about one presidential candidate’s age and memory, and made scarce mention of the other’s frequent lapses into incoherence and violent incitement, that could change enough minds to sway a race to the latter, no matter the virtues of the former.

If that same newspaper’s new editor, a veteran of the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, decided that things like voting rights and fairness in public representation and general respect for the Constitution were icky “partisan” things he felt no requirement to support, that could influence sufficient votes to flip a chamber of Congress. 

If a national newspaper, whose leadership once declared it was all that stood between democracy and darkness, appointed a right-wing publisher and editor with a history of lying and propagandizing, its coverage could degrade public understanding to the point that the darkness wins. 

That’s what’s at stake as Will Lewis, newly appointed publisher of The Washington Post, slashes and burns his way through the newsroom. Just a few months into the job, Lewis fought to have his name excluded from stories about a civil lawsuit over phone hacking in England in which he was named. Lewis tried to argue the scandal, which embroiled British royals and media executives, wasn’t newsworthy at all.  

Washington Post editor Sally Buzbee refused to back down. Lewis threatened her with demotion, and she quit.  

Lewis then appointed Matt Murray and Robert Winnett as editors, neither of whom has ever worked at the Post. They both, however, worked for conservative billionaire Rupert Murdoch at his British and American newspapers, as did Lewis, and all three newbies attacked the Pulitzer Prize–winning newsroom in their first days on the job.

“Your audience has halved in recent years,” Lewis told Post reporters, who are not responsible for audience development nor marketing. “People are not reading your stuff. Right. I can’t sugarcoat it anymore.”

When respected NPR media critic David Folkenflik wrote about Lewis’s attempts to keep his name out of his own press, Lewis went nuclear, describing Folkenflik as an “activist, not a journalist,” saying his stories were inaccurate without detailing any of the supposed errors. 

Lewis followed that up by announcing plans to divide the Post into three separate newsrooms, without saying who would work for which or what any of them would do.

This bumbling, hostile mess of conservative white men might just look like the usual media chaos to outsiders, coming as it does after months of layoffs and business failures where high-profile projects like The Messenger crashed and burned. But Lewis’s ascent is particularly alarming, representing the culmination of Murdoch’s quest to remake American media in Fox News’s image, disseminating right-wing disinformation in service of tax cuts for the wealthy and hatred for the marginalized. 

Murdoch made his aims obvious decades ago, and journalists failed to listen. For 40 years, mainstream American journalists treated Fox News employees like colleagues, even as Fox’s leadership blasted American journalism as biased towards liberal causes. Mainstream American publishers like Simon & Schuster teamed up with right-wing activists to publish books that legitimized odious commentators whose most memorable utterances were calls to murder. They defended conservatives from attacks by their own colleagues, and refused to hold themselves accountable or allow others to do so.

They gave their imprimatur of respectability to such anti-democratic attacks as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, published by Times Books in 1994 (and in 1996, Gingrich’s To Renew America, from HarperCollins), which demonized public assistance for the poor and promoted mass incarceration, along with major tax cuts. They hired Republican hacks and war criminals straight from the ranks of GOP White Houses, like torture enthusiast John Yoo, who instructed former president George W. Bush how to crush the testicles of a child to make his parents talk. 

Sunday news show panels offer white male Republican after white male Republican to discuss how Democrats are destroying the country, allowing liars to lie with impunity, assuring them of being invited back on the air. 

And now, at this critical moment, these dishonest creatures are taking over the Journal and the Post. We’re just five months out from the most consequential election in American history, in which Murdoch and conservatives’ chosen presidential candidate is a would-be dictator promising mass deportations and jailing of his political enemies. The problem goes beyond the corrupt, clownish publisher and his cronies. 

To combat this, active resistance is needed across the board. Those who claim to care about journalism must be the ones to fight their own feckless leadership for its future, and not allow their words and work to be used in service to anti-democratic causes. 

It’s happened, albeit rarely. This past spring, after NBC News hired former RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel as an on-air commentator, NBC staffers protested loudly. The “conservative viewpoint” is a position of dubious utility often filled by horrible people, but an election denier and architect of Trump’s plan to seize power proved too monstrous even for a network filled with Republicans.

NBC and MSNBC’s prominent on-air talent fought back, McDaniel was fired, and NBC Universal chairman Cesar Conde issued an apology to “team members who felt we let them down.”

If more journalists stood up against those who tarnished their trade, instead of chatting with them politely at parties and pretending they were pals who merely disagreed on some minor civic points, these right-wing incursions into journalism might be more easily repelled.

So far, the response to the Washington Post’s disastrous few weeks has been encouraging. Post reporters, among many other media observers, are publicly pushing for answers as to why Lewis is hiring his pals and protecting his own ethically dubious actions

Amplifying their concerns, readers are also pushing back, though their individual power is limited. In the wake of these high-profile right-wing takeovers, liberals have asked why not simply cancel subscriptions? Why not divest from the readership of the paper and thus absolve oneself of caring about what they publish at all? 

The answer is that until the entire journalism establishment also stops taking its lead from the   New York Times and the Washington Post, these outlets remain influential to an outsize degree. A story in the Post or Times still lends legitimacy to a political viewpoint, brings attention to an under-covered aspect of politics, shines a spotlight on some dark corner of electoral goings-on, in a way no other news organization’s coverage can match.

Television programs interview their reporters. They repeat and amplify their stories. Publishers order books based on coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Local newspapers, often more widely read in the kinds of swing districts in battleground states that can decide national elections, pick up Times and Post stories and imitate their tone and focus. 

These newspapers are considered the publications of record and shape the political narrative in this country. During the lead-up to the fall elections, that narrative and the votes in which it results will determine whether our democracy survives. 

These papers’ owners know this. It’s part of why they’re fighting so hard to turn coverage to the right. And while it may be tempting to roast marshmallows as the papers’ reputations burn, with democracy on the line, readers and non-readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post are at risk of burning with them.

Without strong democratic systems in place, after all, journalists may find their jobs impossible, and their lives under constant threat. The right-wing victories publishers like Will Lewis cheer for have always ended, historically, with people like Lewis in chains. 

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