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Washington Post will not bring in Robert Winnett as its top editor after report raised ethical questions

<i>Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Robert Winnett
Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Robert Winnett

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — The Washington Post said Friday that Robert Winnett, the British journalist who had been slated to take over as the newspaper’s top editor, will no longer join the publication that has been ensnared in a weeks-long crisis over ethics questions.

“It is with regret that I share with you that Robert Winnett has withdrawn from the position of Editor at The Washington Post,” Will Lewis, The Post’s embattled publisher and chief executive, told staff in a Friday morning memo.

Winnett, who had been tapped this month by Lewis to join The Post following the November election, will now remain deputy editor of London’s Telegraph newspaper. The decision comes after Winnett’s journalistic integrity was questioned in a 3,000-word front page expose published by The Post, which reported that Winnett had previously used materials from a self-described “thief” for reporting.

The news Winnett will no longer join The Post comes as the Jeff Bezos-owned publication remains engulfed in turmoil over serious journalistic ethics questions facing Lewis, the former Rupert Murdoch lieutenant who has been accused of helping the right-wing media mogul cover up for senior executives in a decade-old UK phone hacking scandal.

Lewis has denied wrongdoing but recently attempted to suppress stories on the matter, according to private accounts from Sally Buzbee, the former executive editor of The Post, and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. The allegations have been revived by a lawsuit from Prince Harry and other high-profile figures, in a case which is scheduled to be adjudicated in court early next year.

Amid questions about Lewis’ role in the phone hacking scandal, additional reporting has raised concerns about his journalistic integrity at large. The Guardian published a story this week accusing Lewis of having once advised then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “clean up” his phone during the so-called “Partygate” scandal. Lewis and Johnson denied the report.

Inside The Post’s newsroom, morale has plunged as staffers express alarm over Lewis’ conduct and worries over the future direction of the newspaper under his leadership. Interviews with nearly a dozen Post staffers and others familiar with the internal dynamics of the newspaper this week revealed a workforce that has grown increasingly dismayed by the situation, with some searching for work elsewhere.

Patience has also worn thin for owner Bezos, who has yet to address the crisis in a meaningful way. In a short memo to top newsroom leadership Tuesday, Bezos reiterated his commitment to “very high” standards, but has yet to take any meaningful action to quell his newsroom’s anger.

A spokesperson for Bezos did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday when asked if the Amazon billionaire planned to take any additional steps to right the ship. Thus far, Bezos has tepidly signaled that he is supporting his controversy-plagued publisher, whom he installed into the top role at The Post in January.

A new search begins

Lewis told staffers in his Friday memo that he will “immediately launch a new search” for a new editor. Lewis said that Matt Murray, the former top editor at The Wall Street Journal who was brought in to take over on an interim basis after Lewis ousted Buzbee, will continue in his role.

Lewis’ memo, laying out The Post’s future plans, suggested he will remain at the newspaper, despite concerns from staffers. This week, two Pulitzer Prize-winning Post journalists went on the record, calling for leadership changes at the newspaper.

“I don’t know a single person at the Post who thinks the current situation with the publisher and supposed new editor can stand,” David Maraniss, an associate editor who has worked at The Post for nearly five decades and won two Pulitzer Prizes at the newspaper, wrote in a candid Facebook post. “There might be a few, but very very few.”

Maraniss also zinged Bezos, writing that he is “not of and for the Post or he would understand.”

Scott Higham, another Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Post, echoed Maraniss’ call for Lewis to exit the newspaper.

“Will Lewis needs to step down for the good of The Post and the public,” Higham replied in a comment on Maraniss’ post. “He has lost the newsroom and will never win it back.”

Independent corporate governance experts have also said Lewis should be shown the door.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, told CNN on Monday that Bezos should dismiss Lewis.

Sonnenfeld, who has advised US presidents and scores of corporate leaders, said that if he were advising Bezos, he would tell him Lewis has “lost legitimacy to lead” and it’s time to “clean the house.”

“This is a tragic meltdown of the conscience of American journalism bringing shame to the Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, Marty Baron legacy of collaboration, courage and integrity,” Sonnenfeld said. “Bezos must recruit an accomplished, experienced editor whom journalists admire and trust.”

This story has been updated with additional developments and context.

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