Top WaPo editor Marcus Brauchli has some questions to answer tomorrow

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, last seen saying the Post needs to be more responsive to conservatives, seems to have been less than honest about what he knew about the WaPo's widely-denounced attempt to sell access to its reporters off to the highest bidder.

When the story of the Post's planned corporate-sponsored dinners broke over the summer, one of the most criticized aspects of the whole affair was that the Post was marketing them as off-the-record. At the time, Brauchli told the New York Times that he had always been "explicit" with his paper's marketing department that the dinners would be on the record, suggesting that he was unaware the dinners were being marketed as off the record.

It turns out that wasn't exactly true.

Yesterday, the New York Times' corrections section included an unusual item billed as a "postscript" to its July 3 article about the dinners. In the postscript, the Times explained that a lawyer for Charles Pelton, the Post marketing executive who lost his job over the controversy, had provided the Times with a letter in which, as the Times described it, "Mr. Brauchli now says that he did indeed know that the dinners were being promoted as 'off the record,' and that he and Mr. Pelton had discussed that issue."

Strange.

Later yesterday afternoon, Politico reporter Michael Calderone got his hands on the Brauchli letter, and posted it online. Here's the key part:

I knew that the salon dinners were being promoted as "off the record." That fact was never hidden from me by you or anyone else. For instance, the dinners were described as "off the record" in two slide presentations that I attended. You and I discussed the off-the-record nature of the dinners. The phrase was also used in marketing materials for the salons and in correspondence to the newsroom that you e-mailed to me.

Interestingly, the Times postscript didn't mention Brauchli's letter went on to claim that "The New York Times reporter apparently misunderstood me."

Even more interestingly, Calderone says he, too, talked to Brauchli over the summer:

Brauchli made similar comments to me that he gave to the Times, and my understanding from our conversation was that he did not know the salon dinners were being promoted as off the record.

So ... Either two separate reporters at two separate news organizations misinterpreted two separate comments Brauchli made to them, or Brauchli wasn't telling the truth over the summer.

The New Republic's Gabriel Sherman explains how the Times' postscript came to be:

According to a series of letters, Pelton was successful in proving that Brauchli changed his story and the Times' reporting failed to reflect that he walked-back from his original claims of not knowing about the off-the-record ground rules. It wall began on September 25, when Pelton, through his lawyer George Frost, succeeded in getting Brauchli to send him a personal letter stating that he "knew that the dinners were being promoted as 'off the record.'" For Brauchli, the letter was an embarrassing reversal of his prior public comments and an admission that he knew far more about the conferences than he first let on.

With Brauchli's revised-comments in hand, Pelton and his lawyer pushed back hard against the Times. On Sept. 28, three days later after receiving Brauchli's letter, Pelton's lawyer Frost wrote a letter to Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, executive editor Bill Keller, Pena and the public editor that cited Brauchli's revised comments on the off-the-record question and demanded the Times issue a correction.

According to Sherman, Pelton's request was denied -- by the Times' general counsel, not a newsroom executive -- and the Times ultimately ran the post-script only after Pelton's lawyer threatened legal action.

Politico's Calderone tried to reach Brauchli for comment yesterday, but was told by a Post spokesperson that "The letter speaks for itself."

Obviously, it does not. But the letter, combined with the Times' reporting and Calderone's account of his own conversation with Brauchli and the refusal of Brauchli and the Post to discuss further, certainly suggest the top editor at one of the nation's top newspapers has been lying about his involvement in a newsroom scandal -- a scandal in which the Post was caught trying to auction off access to its reporters to corporate interests. It's worth keeping in mind that just a couple of months after trying to develop such a relationship between the Post and corporate interests, Brauchli began talking publicly about the Post listening more to conservatives.

If Brauchli will not answer questions from journalists he previously misled, perhaps he will answer to Washington Post readers. Brauchli is currently scheduled to participate in an online Q&A Monday at noon on Monday. It seems certain questions will be submitted about Brauchli's honesty in addressing the dinners; it will be interesting to see if he takes those questions.

It will also be interesting to see if he takes any questions asking him to reconcile his absurd claim that the Post needs to be more responsive to conservatives with the Post's shameful treatment of Al Gore, its notably pro-Bush coverage of the 2000 election, or its role as cheerleader-in-chief for Bush's Iraq war. Brauchli's deputies dodged just such a question last month.

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