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Jeff Bezos is facing a dilemma as ethical questions surrounding The Washington Post publisher grow louder

Editor’s Note: Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here. New York CNN  —  Jeff Bezos has a decision to make — and it is one that will determine the future course of one of the nation’s most prestigious news organizations. The Washington Post owner and Amazon billionaire can continue to stand by Will Lewis, the controversy plagued Fleet Street veteran he tapped as publisher and chief executive of the iconic national broadsheet. Or he can side with his Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom, which is repudiating their new leader in clear and unmistakable terms. But based on conversations with CNN on Monday with nearly a dozen staffers and others familiar with the internal dynamics of The Post, it appears increasingly unlikely that Bezos can have it both ways. Lewis, who continues to face heavy scrutiny over a series of troubling decisions both past and present, has unquestionably lost the room, alienating staffers and creating an untenable position in which it is difficult to see him effectively leading the respected army of reporters under his command. There may have been a moment in which the former Rupert Murdoch lieutenant could have turned the tide and quelled the uproar within The Post. That fury first saw life shortly after his decision to oust top editor Sally Buzbee. In the wake of her sudden exit, it was revealed that he tried to suppress stories at The Post and NPR about his role cleaning up the U.K. phone hacking scandal for Murdoch (which he denies wrongdoing in). Instead of deescalating the situation early on, Lewis lashed out, going so far as to criticize his own media reporters and launch an on-the-record attack aimed at the well-respected NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. And while Lewis later sent the newsroom an apologetic memo following the episodes, it did little to quell concerns, setting into motion a series of stories that have raised serious questions about his judgment and journalistic values, as well as those of his hand-picked future top editor, Robert Winnett. The New York Times reported over the weekend that, in his Fleet Street days, Lewis assigned an article that was based on stolen phone records. And The Post reported Sunday that a “thief” who used deceptive tactics to obtain private material had ties with Winnett. The stories landed like a one-two punch in The Post newsroom, raising even more alarm and upping the panic level at the newspaper to new heights. Incensed, anxious, and demoralized staffers stressed to CNN Monday that they just want Bezos to bring this “shit show,” as one staffer put it, to an end. When Bezos first appointed Lewis, staffers at The Post understood that he needed to appoint a publisher and chief executive who would shake things up in the newsroom. They acknowledged to CNN that, under previous boss Fred Ryan, The Post had fallen behind outlets like The Times in the post-Donald Trump years, both from audience and financial standpoints. And so, when Lewis took the reins in January, the newsroom was more or less, cautiously optimistic about how he would transform the institution. They were willing to give him a chance. Will Lewis, founder of The News Movement, at the publisher's headquarters in London, UK, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Lewis said he's lined up funding for a takeover of his former employer Telegraph Media Group Ltd., in an auction he expects will kick off in the next couple of weeks. Carlotta Cardana/Bloomberg/Getty Images Related article Washington Post CEO Will Lewis’ status ‘increasingly untenable’ as newsgathering controversies mount But they’re not willing to let him shred the newspaper’s reputation in the process. While the journalists continue to worry about the financial state of their newsroom and want a boss who can seriously address its business woes, they fiercely guard its editorial independence and integrity. And, with respect to that, they strongly believe Lewis and Winnett pose a significant danger. “We are losing audience and money and the top of the company is a clown show,” a staffer explained to me, adding, “All we have is our credibility and we’ve just taken a gun to that.” The newspaper’s credibility, of course, is inextricably linked to whether it can be a thriving business. Good luck getting people to subscribe to a newspaper that they believe has been ethically compromised. (I would love to see that sales pitch!) And, as one staffer at The Post noted to me, behaving in an ethical manner matters greatly when trying to convince a newsroom to reinvent itself. As the person said, “It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if you have a no-confidence vote from your entire staff.” That said, what Bezos will decide to do as he assesses the situation at The Post remains a mystery. Questions to his spokesperson went unanswered on Monday. And an email sent directly to Bezos went unreturned. But certainly, the tech baron is aware of the rapidly deteriorating situation over on K Street. And, presumably, Bezos does not want his stewardship of The Post to be stained by an ugly chapter in which he allowed grave problems to fester and eat away at the institution as he sat idly by. Dismissing Lewis would bring with it some pain for Bezos, sure. It would require him to concede that he got it wrong with Lewis and restart the time-consuming process of finding another publisher. And it might cost him a nice chunk of change — though an irrelevant one for someone of Bezos’ wealth — to pay out Lewis’ contract. But keeping Lewis in the position could deliver an even greater level of pain and, with it, unflattering headlines over time. More stories about Lewis are sure to drop in the days and weeks ahead. Top talent may soon head for the exits (indeed, I’m told some staffers are already looking for work elsewhere). And at some point it becomes hard to see how Bezos justifies having a boss oversee a newspaper that is publishing A1 stories spotlighting his ethically-challenged decisions. The best advice in crisis public relations is to reach to the end result as quickly as possible, to avoid an unrelenting drip-drip of bad news. Bezos can surely do the math on this one, given it is not too complicated. And perhaps that is why his camp is not voicing public support for Lewis. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the renowned professor and senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, told CNN on Monday that Bezos has a simple decision to make. Sonnenfeld, who has advised U.S. 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.”