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Lawyer-Turned-Publisher Calls in the Lawyers

Out of deference to the newspaper's history-making role in exposing the Watergate break-in, many observers are avoiding attaching a "-gate" suffix to this week's scandal at The Washington Post. Others can't resist the temptation, and one label that has been bandied about is Weymouthgate, for Katharine Weymouth, the former lawyer who last year became the newspaper's publisher and now finds herself the center of unwelcome attention.

Of course, once a lawyer, always a lawyer. So when this former lawyer got in hot water, she called in another lawyer. In a memo to newspaper staff yesterday, Weymouth said she had asked the Post's general counsel, Eric Lieberman, to "review recent events to make sure that our business processes are consistent with, and will not in any way compromise, our journalism."

The brouhaha at the Post broke out last week, when Politico.com reported plans by Weymouth to host an exclusive "salon" at her home where Washington lobbyists and association executives would pay as much as $250,000 to attend and obtain off-the-record access to "those powerful few" -- Obama administration officials, members of Congress and even the Post's own reporters and editors.

Amid charges that the Post was selling off its editorial independence, Weymouth quickly canceled the salons and laid blame on the newspaper's marketing department for distributing a flier about the event that "was never vetted by me or by the newsroom" and that, she said, "completely misrepresented what we were trying to do." On Sunday, Weymouth published a note in the newspaper in which she apologized "for a planned new venture that went off track and for any cause we may have given you to doubt our independence and integrity."

Weymouth is a graduate of Stanford Law School and worked as an associate at Williams & Connolly in D.C. In 1996, when the firm agreed to lend a lawyer to the Post's general counsel's office, Weymouth volunteered, according to a 2007 profile in The Washingtonian. From there, she later become the newspaper's head of advertising. It was probably not her legal skills, however, that earned her the job of publisher. Weymouth is the granddaughter of long-time Post chairwoman and publisher Katharine Graham, for whom she is named, and the newspaper has been owned by her mother's family since 1933.

It is safe to assume that GC Lieberman will come up with some sort of recommendations aimed at assuring both the newspaper's readers and its editorial staff that the Washington Post will not auction off its journalistic integrity to the highest bidder. For Weymouth, the lawyer turned published, the incident is a lesson in crisis communications.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 7, 2009 at 12:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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