It's becoming increasingly, dismayingly clear that The Washington Post (WPO) made a mistake when it hired Marcus Brauchli to be its executive editor.
Brauchli came into the Post job a little more than a year ago with a big strike against him: As managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he had allowed Rupert Murdoch, the paper's new owner, to push him around -- and ultimately out the door -- in contravention of the editorial-independence framework that the News Corp. (NWS) owner had agreed to. Rather than sound the alarm, Brauchli held his tongue, his amiable silence purchased by $3 million (or more) of Murdoch's money.
A failure of journalistic principle, or an instance of an honest guy making the best of tough circumstances? The case for the former scenario became apparent in July when the Post was revealed to be planning a series of off-the-record salons that offered corporate underwriters access to the paper's journalists and government policymakers. Brauchli and his boss, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, distanced themselves by claiming they didn't know that the events were conceived in such a way as to violate the Post's ethics guidelines.
I took them at their word when I called for more moderation in the media feeding frenzy then under way. Still, an executive editor ought to know what his journalists are being used for. Strike two.
And now, strike three: Brauchli admitted he knew all along that the salons were meant to be off-the-record. He says the reporters who published his ignorance defense merely "misunderstood" the distinction he was trying to make, but he acknowledges that he knowingly allowed a false impression to be propagated -- one that misleadingly diminished his share of the blame and unfairly reassigned it to a business-side employee, Charles Pelton. It was only through the diligence of Pelton's lawyer that the truth ever came to light.
This is serious. This isn't about journalistic judgment; it's about integrity. Brauchli was given a chance to take responsibility, and he responded by falling back on the exact sort of obfuscation and hair-splitting that newspapers like his exist to demolish. And he's still doing it: In a chat with Post readers today, Brauchli faulted himself for failing to see to it that the salons were marketed correctly, but said nothing about his own role in propagating the "misunderstanding." No doubt he's a fine journalist in many regards, but the top editor of an institution like The Washington Post -- one of a handful of great American newspapers, and the first line of defense against government perfidy -- has to be more than just a fine journalist. He has to be a paragon.
Brauchli will probably survive this episode, if only because his boss, at whose pleasure he serves, shares his culpability. But he should offer his resignation. Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman wrote back when Brauchli was merely a candidate for the Post job: "The day will come when the next executive editor of The Washington Post will have to choose between the easy way or the hard way." That day just came and went.
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