Washington Post Publisher Apologizes to Readers, Not Employees

The best leaders among us take responsibility when things go wrong.

In today’s Washington Post, the paper’s Publisher & Chief Executive Officer Katharine Weymouth attempted to do just that by apologizing to The Post’s readers for the now cancelled “salons”, the first of which was to be held in Weymouth’s home on July 21. The question remains if her apology is enough for readers whose confidence in the journalistic integrity of the paper has been shaken or for Post employees, who were not mentioned by Weymouth, but who may have lost confidence in her leadership. 

The uproar began last Thursday when POLITICO reported that The Post was selling off-the-record dinners with Weymouth, Post editors and reporters to K Street and Capitol Hill lobbyists. In addition to Post employees, the dinners would also feature members of Congress and officials with the Obama administration. Lobbyists attending were asked to pay between $25,000 and $250,000 to gain admission to the dinners.

In the face of an outraged newsroom and readership, Weymouth cancelled the dinners by Thursday afternoon.

Weymouth’s apology today was included on The Post’s Sunday editorial page  in what the paper called, “A Letter to Our Readers”.

“As publisher it is my job to ensure that we adhere to standards that are consistent with our integrity as a news organization. Last week, I let you, and the organization, down,” Weymouth wrote. “We all make mistakes and hope to be forgiven for them. I apologize to our readers for the mistakes I made in this case.”

Weymouth further commented on what went wrong in a separate Sunday story for which she was interviewed Saturday. Weymouth and her executive editor Marcus Brauchli offered several explanations for what went wrong, but at least one critic was still not satisfied.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, said, “Newspapers owe their first allegiance to the public. Their first obligation is to make information public and to inspire public debate and discussion. . . . In this case, The Washington Post would be arranging events that only insiders have access to and profiting from those events. It’s fundamentally antithetical to what news organizations do. It’s quite different from holding a conference and inviting the public to attend.”

I’m with Rosenstiel on this one. While I appreciate Ms. Weymouth’s apology letter to readers, after reading it and the accompanying story, I wonder if she really understands why there was such a stink.

In neither piece, did Weymouth specifically preclude holding a revised version of the “salons” in the future.  (In fact, in her email last Thursday to employees, she promises that The Post, “will begin to do live events in ways that enhance our reputation and in no way call into question our integrity.”) Additionally, she failed to spell out in any meaningful detail what procedures she will establish to ensure that something like this never happens again.

An apology to readers is a good idea, but unless readers are assured that the paper is taking steps to ensure this episode isn’t repeated, the apology rings hollow. Don’t just tell me that you’re sorry, show me that you are by establishing new procedures to make sure the paper doesn’t go down this path in the future.

While apologizing to readers is an important step, I hope that Ms. Weymouth will apologize to her co-workers at The Post, particularly those in the newsroom. At the end of the day, the most important asset of any journalist is their integrity and personal credibility.  By any measure, this “salon” debacle damaged the reputation of the paper and by extension, every journalist who works in the newsroom.

As a public relations professional in Washington, I’ve worked with numerous reporters in that newsroom for nearly 20 years. They are a hard working dedicated bunch who did nothing to deserve this criticism brought upon them by an overzealous marketing department who doesn’t have much understanding  or appreciation of journalism.

Hank Stuever, a Post staff writer explained the perspective of The Post’s newsroom employees to David Carr in a Saturday New York Times column on the matter. Carr quoted Stuever as saying, “Katharine should expect the journalists who work for her to be disappointed and upset about this and should also understand that the details so far have been unsatisfying.”

“The people I know in the newsroom are still waiting for a lot better answer to what the goal was here, what was really happening with this idea, and how it got so far along without raising red flags,” Mr. Stuever added.

Sadly, in my view, while certainly sincere, Ms. Weymouth’s apology to readers didn’t do enough to address these questions.

If I were Weymouth’s internal communications director, I would recommend she hold a town hall meeting in the newsroom on Monday afternoon to clear the air. Giving employees a chance to hear directly from Weymouth would help address the remaining questions and would help begin the process of regaining their trust.


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