Most Americans don’t read The Washington Post, even though it is among the most-read newspapers in the U.S., and its influence extends far beyond the Washington Beltway, thanks in part to a long tail of respect that goes back to its reporting on Watergate.

Even those who do read the Post might be hard-pressed to explain its latest personnel drama or name the players involved. The newspaper’s technology reporter, Taylor Lorenz, is a bigger social media star than Robert Winnett, the British editor at the center of controversy at the Post in recent weeks.

But ears perk up when people associated with a publication like the Post are accused of ethics violations — and sometimes for the wrong reasons. People who are already inclined to distrust the media can seize on the flimsiest reasons to justify their distrust.

And unfortunately, it seems that in current unrest at The Washington Post, the reasons are not flimsy in the least.

As the Post reported today, employees were notified in an email this morning that Winnett, who was supposed to become the Post’s executive editor later this year, replacing Sally Buzbee, is staying with his current employer, the Telegraph Media Group in the U.K. The change in plans, the Post’s article said, came amid “questions about past journalistic practices of both Winnett and William Lewis, The Post’s CEO and publisher.”

Both men have been accused of “unethical newsgathering practices” in Britain where they previously worked together, the article said, and NPR detailed some of those practices: “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.”

As NPR noted, each of those techniques, no matter how big the story that resulted, would violate ethics codes at virtually every major American news organization.

Margaret Sullivan, executive director for the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University, told me that while it’s good that these stories came out, “I think it is unfortunate that the Post itself didn’t do a better job of vetting these people. Why should we have to rely on NPR, The New York Times and the Post’s own newsroom to do what should have been done at the vetting process?”

Lewis remains the CEO and publisher at the Post and praised Winnett to the staff, saying “Rob has my greatest respect and is an incredibly talented editor and journalist.”

Lewis was hired by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who purchased the newspaper in 2013. Among the allegations swirling about Lewis is that he proposed a quid pro quo deal to an NPR reporter, saying he would give him an exclusive interview on changes coming to the Post in exchange for the reporter abandoning another story he was pursuing about Lewis’s business dealings in the U.K.

Again, the details of these allegations are unlikely to interest ordinary Americans who paid little attention a few weeks ago when David Pecker, former publisher of the National Enquirer, was testifying at Donald Trump’s Manhattan trial about “catch and kill” practices and “checkbook journalism” at the tabloid.

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Many Americans have already concluded, without actually knowing a working journalist, that “the media” is corrupt and “the news” is fake and have left legacy news organizations for boldly partisan news services. Both Gallup and Pew have reported that trust in media, like many other institutions, is at historic lows. Trust is lowest among people who identify as conservatives, which is not surprising given the partisan skew among people within the profession, and reporting (or, in the case of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the lack of reporting) that often seems to favor Democrats.

Speaking about distrust in media at The Buckley Institute at Yale University earlier this year, former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet said that journalists often show a pronounced disconnect from ordinary Americans. He said, “The internet leaves us with almost cartoonish stereotypes of people we don’t have experience with.”

Those stereotypes go both ways. Just as some journalists may have cartoonish and false pictures of what, say, a Donald Trump supporter looks like, many Americans also have cartoonish and false images of what a journalist looks like and what values they bring to their work. In truth, as the saying goes, it’s usually hard to hate people up close.

But the takeaway from The Washington Post story of this week shouldn’t be “See, journalists aren’t ethical,” as some people will try to frame this by focusing on what Winnett did in a media culture much different from ours.


Instead, it’s a rather remarkable story of how journalism is supposed to work. Post reporters were allowed to examine the history of the man who had been named to lead them. Bezos stood back and let his journalists do journalism, promising that the newspaper would continue to adhere to historical ethical standards. “Sometimes you have to hold your own leaders to account, and it’s very awkward, but the Post has done a great job of that this week,” said Sullivan, who was formerly the public editor for The New York Times and was the media columnist for The Washington Post from 2016 to 2022.

Of course, for all his wealth, Bezos still wants a Post that’s profitable, or at least one that’s not losing as much money as it has in recent years. NPR reported that the company lost more than $100 million in 2022 and another $77 million in 2023. Readership is down, too, and it’s still unclear if Lewis, the CEO and publisher, will weather the present storm.

But Sullivan, who now writes a weekly column for The Guardian, says she sees what’s happening at the Post as a net positive, since the importance of adhering to high ethical standards is at the center of the conversation.

“Good journalism is really important,” Sullivan said. “It’s especially important right now because we’re at such a hinge-point in our democracy, and I think that journalists need to be functioning at their highest and best level. And I hope that they continue to do their jobs, which are protected in the Constitution and are so important for us to remain a democracy. I guess it’s kind of messy sometimes. It’s not always very pretty, but it’s overall extremely important and good.”

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