How Low Will the 'Washington Post' Go?
In Ken Auletta’s sterling New Yorker profile of Rupert Murdoch’s new BFF, Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thompson, he makes a startling observation: the reason Murdoch was able to put his man in the job without triggering any of the provisions of the sale designed to protect the paper’s integrity and independence was that the previous editor, Marcus Brauchli, who resigned under pressure but accepted a large severance, “did not object to his removal.” Thus, “Murdoch was able to circumvent the restrictions of the Independent board.” Given that, as Scott Sherman reported in Columbia Journalism Review, “Brauchli himself played a major role in drafting the editorial independence agreement that established the special committee,” one might almost suggest a plot. (Brauchli’s payout for going quietly, Sherman writes, was $6.4 million.)
Barely ninety days later, having proved his value as a company man, Brauchli emerged as publisher Katherine Weymouth’s surprise choice to run the Washington Post. Among his first acts as editor were to shutter the paper’s bureaus in New York, Chicago and LA, and eliminate the paper’s stand-alone business and book review sections. These unpopular decisions, however, were soon overshadowed by the role he played in one of the most humiliating episodes in the Post’s recent history: the effort to peddle the paper’s influence to big-money interests through the creation of a series of salons at Weymouth’s home, co-hosted by Brauchli. Priced up to $250,000, they were advertised to industry lobbyists as a means to spend “an evening with the right people [who] can alter the debate.” When the story broke, a clearly embarrassed editor went into bunker mode, but the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote that “Brauchli said he never saw the flier and would not have approved it,” and quoted him saying, “I had no idea.” Brauchli next told Howard Kurtz, then of the Post, that he was “appalled” by the offer because “it suggests that access to Washington Post journalists was available for purchase.”
Unfortunately for Brauchli, Charles Pelton, the executive designated to be thrown under the bus for this “appalling” attack on the paper’s integrity, proved unwilling to lie down and die for the cause. He hired a lawyer, who forced the paper to reveal the truth. Brauchli eventually admitted in a letter to Pelton that he “knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as ‘off the record.’ That fact was never hidden from me by you or anyone else.”
All of the above—ancient history in newspaper time—is worth recalling in light of another, more recent ethical controversy in which the Post is embroiled. The salons were clearly a desperate measure to try to shore up the finances of a newspaper that lost a combined $357 million in 2008–09 and continues to hemorrhage not only readers but also many of its most talented reporters and editors. Today the Post is dependent for its survival on the profits of its Kaplan Higher Education subsidiary, which provides more than 60 percent of its revenue, derived from some extremely shady business practices designed to entrap low-income people—especially veterans—into enrolling in degree programs that they cannot afford and from which they will likely get little benefit. But here’s the kicker: this business model relies on the federal student loan program to put up the tuition payments without too many questions asked. These under-regulated government programs, in other words, are subsidizing the publication of the Washington Post in its role as government watchdog. In the meantime, the paper editorializes against new government regulation, and the owner of its parent company lobbies legislators in person for the same cause.
The Post in general and Brauchli in particular have received a great deal of criticism for their handling of this issue, and they gave a response of sorts recently by publishing an extremely critical examination, by Steven Mufson and Jia Lynn Yang, of Kaplan and the lucrative industry of for-profit higher education. The article did not appear to pull any punches with regard to dirty business practices at Kaplan—all of them now ended, according to spokesmen—or the degree to which the money-losing newspaper has grown dependent on the profits generated by the $2.9 billion in annual revenue Kaplan now enjoys. What it did ignore, however, is the role the Post has played in fighting the Obama administration’s attempt to regulate the kind of abuses that appeared to be rampant at Kaplan and in the industry at large. It also included no critical comment regarding the extensive involvement of Post Company president and CEO Donald Graham in lobbying Congress to reject these regulations.
True, the editorial in which the Post inveighed against these regulations did mention a relationship to Kaplan, but it did not even hint at the fact that Kaplan’s nefariously obtained profits have kept the Post in business. Nor has the paper ever faced up to the issues raised by Graham’s lobbying campaign. Imagine you’re a senator lobbied by the chairman of the Washington Post Company on a matter relating to his personal profit. Whatever the disclaimers, might you imagine that future coverage in the paper could be influenced by whether you go along with the guy?
Before he bought the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch was willing to write off as much as $70 million a year to publish the crappy tabloid New York Post, largely because it gave him an instrument with which to punish and reward politicians and business associates on behalf of his business interests. Sadly, Katherine Weymouth, Marcus Brauchli and Donald Graham appear willing to risk giving the rest of us the impression they would do the same with the far more important, influential and justly respected Washington Post. However cloudy the financial future of this once-great newspaper, such shameless shenanigans can hardly be the best way to save what remains of it.