In a phone interview, Brauchli declined to discuss the salon affair. Questions about his role linger. A few hours after the scandal broke, Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote: “Brauchli said he never saw the flier and would not have approved it.” Alexander then quoted Brauchli directly: “I had no idea.” On July 3, Brauchli told Howard Kurtz that he was “appalled” by the plan: “It suggests that access to Washington Post journalists was available for purchase.” Under intense pressure from other news organizations, and from three Post staffers (Alexander, Kurtz, and Paul Farhi) tracking the story from within the newsroom, Brauchli tripped over his own shoelaces. Farhi wrote in the Post on July 5: “Brauchli has said he had planned to attend the dinners but was unaware that a flier was describing them as a ‘collegial’ and non-confrontational opportunity for a paying sponsor to gain exclusive access to Post journalists. If he had known, he said, he would have refused to participate. . . . ” On July 12, ombudsman Alexander published an autopsy of the affair—calling it an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions” and noting that two hundred Post managers, including the investigations editor, learned of the plan in an internal meeting on June 24.
The employee who approved the flier, Charles Pelton, hired a shrewd, energetic lawyer, George Frost, who attempted to reverse what he viewed as the systematic destruction of his client’s reputation. Frost demanded that Brauchli clarify the record with regard to Pelton, an effort that bore fruit. The Web site that broke the salon story also put closure on it: in October, Politico obtained a letter from Brauchli to Pelton; it was dated September 25, 2009, and it was written on Post letterhead. Brauchli wrote:
Dear Charles. . . . 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 also discussed the off-the-record nature of the dinners . . . please feel free to share this letter with anyone who questions whether you kept me informed about the way the dinners were being promoted. Sincerely, Marcus Brauchli.
In the days after the scandal exploded, Brauchli had much explaining to do. “He sat there in that conference room,” says Maralee Schwartz, “and took it, from reporter after reporter. That won him some personal loyalty.” Others remain troubled. One Post reporter says: “This wouldn’t have happened under Len.”
A notable feature of Dave Kindred’s Morning Miracle is his scathing treatment of Katharine Weymouth, whom he portrays as a journalistic featherweight. People who know Weymouth say that she never devoured the Post with Don Graham’s intense interest, and unlike him, she never worked in the Post newsroom. Thus far the salon scandal is the ugliest blemish on her tenure, but there are other reasons for concern: in 2009 she took issue with a story planned for the Post’s Sunday magazine about a young fashion-school graduate who endured the amputation of four limbs. The piece was killed by editors after Weymouth told its author, Matt Mendelsohn, that advertisers wanted “happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones.” (She also criticized Gene Weingarten’s powerful 2009 article about young children who perished after being left in parked cars. That piece, which appeared in the Post’s magazine, won a Pulitzer.) Last year, Weymouth accepted a bonus of nearly $500,000, a decision that drew a stinging letter from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents many employees at the Post. (Don Graham, the Guild noted, had declined to take a similar bonus.)
Before my June interview with Brauchli, I had breakfast with Walter Pincus, who, owing to knee trouble, hobbled into the restaurant with a cane. Pincus, seventy-seven, is a direct link to the Bradlee era, and a man acquainted with the Post’s dark corners. He admires Brauchli: “Marcus impressed Katharine as somebody who is more than a newsroom editor. And he is. He’s interested in the whole business.” Pincus is a strong proponent of a cutting-edge Web site for the Post, and he occasionally e-mails Raju Narisetti with suggestions about new digital products the Post should roll out. But he also cautions Post management not to neglect the print edition, which still provides most of the revenue for the Post.
One doesn’t envy the burden that rests on the shoulders of Weymouth and Brauchli. They have a newspaper that is rapidly losing circulation and a Web site whose profits cannot yet sustain a well-staffed newsroom. Brauchli is obviously energized by the challenges presented by the Web. When he talked to me about Washingtonpost.com, there was a sparkle in his eye. He seemed more detached and somber about the print edition.