I thank the Fates every day that my greatest professional mistakes came when nobody was watching. This morning, as her newspaper reported the spiking of a piece of the sort she had bad-mouthed, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth must be wishing that the Fates had been as kind to her.
Earlier this summer, Weymouth got in Dutch when a Post plan to sell off-the-record access to reporters and government officials at "salons" at Weymouth's home was made public by Politico. Weymouth and Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli quickly canceled the events after much confusion over whether the paper had put its soul up for sale or whether miscommunication on the part of the management team was to blame.
In the latest Weymouth miscue, she appears to have told freelancer Matt Mendelsohn, a friend of hers, that advertisers desired "happier stories, not 'depressing' ones" like the one he had been working on about a young woman whose arms and legs were amputated. His piece was ultimately killed by the Post's Sunday magazine. The editor who killed it, Sydney Trent, told the Post's Howard Kurtz that the spike had been delivered "because it was clear the newspaper wanted to move in a different direction. That handwriting was very clearly on the wall."
Mendelsohn doesn't blame Weymouth directly, telling the Post that "unfortunately, an offhand comment by Katharine might have set the stage for the piece to get killed. ... Something she said perhaps created a climate for somebody down the chain to think that's what Katharine wanted to happen." [Ellipsis in the original.]
The controversy has both Weymouth and Brauchli standing on their chairs insisting that the church-state boundary at the paper was never, ever breached. Brauchli tells the Post, "We are not driven by what one of our business-side colleagues, or even our publisher, thinks about a piece. We follow a journalistic compass." From Weymouth: "I would never interfere in an editorial decision and I had no intention of interfering."
Can you believe for a moment that Katharine Weymouth's ideas don't drive what the Post prints? Or, to put a finer point on it, that her ideas shouldn't drive what the Post prints? Weymouth is the one in charge! She replaced the previous top editor, Leonard Downie Jr., with a top editor more to her liking—Brauchli. If she is unhappy in any way with what Brauchli puts in the paper or doesn't put in the paper, she's completely within her rights to interfere and replace him, too.
It's ridiculous to believe that Weymouth occupies some clean room at Post headquarters at 15th and L Streets, leaving the editorial team uncontaminated with her views. Indeed, Kurtz quotes Weymouth as saying that although she had not read Mendelsohn's piece, she had, in her words, "used it as an example" with editors "of the kind of fare we should be moving away from." If citing a specific piece that you haven't read as the kind of piece the Post shouldn't run isn't interfering, intervening, and intruding, what is?
Kurtz really gets the goods on Weymouth when he reports that "Weymouth has been telling editors that there have been too many stories similar to the one last November about a 13-year-old dwarf undergoing surgery to lengthen her legs." (Is Weymouth trying to say that she's imposing a limb quota at the Post?)
Every editor and reporter wants a publisher who dips his hands into the editorial process—as long as the dipping is positive. They want to hear "attaboy" and "attagirl" from the publisher and receive pats on the back every time they do extraordinary work. The newsroom hangs on every word spoken, every gesture made by the publisher, especially at a paper like the Post that is controlled by Weymouth and the other heirs to the fortune of Eugene Meyer, the financier who purchased the paper at a bankruptcy auction in 1933.
For that reason, a boss needs to be careful when he tells a random guy in the lunchroom that he likes ketchup on his hot dogs lest an executive overhear him and ban mustard from the premises. If a boss wants mustard prohibited, he should say so unequivocally. Otherwise, he should just order his hot dog, eat it, and shut up.
Weymouth is obviously still learning on the job, which has become as painful for me as it must be for her. A newspaper is not a symposium, especially a newspaper that's part of a division that lost $143 million in the first six months of 2009. One of the things she's got to learn is that she can't have it both ways. She can't pretend that the newsroom floats in its own accountable-only-to-Brauchli ether at the same time she is telling editors (plural) enough with dwarf-leg stories.
Like it or not, the ultimate editorial hand is the publisher, which makes it absolutely vital that the right person hold the job.
Addendum, 5:55 p.m.: Don't miss Erik Wemple's take on the controversy in Washington City Paper.
That snappy ketchup-and-mustard line was contributed by Slate politics editor Michael Newman, who provides interference for my best work. If you feel like interfering, send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to my limb-centric Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)