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Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.

By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one.

The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

Mr. Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Mr. Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as “a senior adviser to the president,” and remains close to Jared Kushner.

The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.

The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Mr. Biden’s candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.

As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and Mr. Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.

Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for President Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew’s carefully laid plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.

While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal’s Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Mr. Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Mr. Biden trading on his family’s name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.

Mr. Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19, according to Mr. Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week’s news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An “important piece” in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day.

His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.

“The editors didn’t like Trump’s insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job,” a Journal reporter who wasn’t directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House’s frantic timeline.

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Finally, Mr. Bobulinski got tired of waiting.

“He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not,” Mr. Bannon said.

At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Mr. Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville to attend the debate as Mr. Trump’s surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son’s business dealings.

When Mr. Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he told Mr. Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.

As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,” The Journal reported.

Asked about The Journal’s handling of the story, the editor in chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. “Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself,” Mr. Murray said in an emailed statement.

And if you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.

The McLean group’s failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated “disinformation” machinery feared by liberals.

But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.

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Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Perhaps the most influential media document of the last four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news “revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set.”

Mr. Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as “anchor left, pivot right,” and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book “Clinton Cash,” an investigation of the Clinton family’s blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by the writer Peter Schweizer.

Mr. Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won’t find his work in mainstream outlets. He’s over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.

And the fact that Mr. Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Mr. Bannon’s nightmare, and Mr. Benkler’s fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden’s doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Mr. Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.

“SO USA TODAY DIDN’T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK,” the conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained Oct. 20, posting the article instead to his blog. President Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.

“This is ‘60 Minutes,’ and we can’t put on things we can’t verify,” Lesley Stahl told him. Mr. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Mr. Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.

The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.

We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Mr. Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.

“For years, we’ve respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press,” wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. “Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences.”

There’s something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you’ve seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.

But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumor, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it,” my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified “Steele dossier,” in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.

This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election’s outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Mr. Herschmann, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Schwartz weren’t exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.

I’d prefer to put my faith in Mr. Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms’ product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralized it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.

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The Intercept Promised to Reveal Everything. But It Didn’t Protect a Source.

Where were you when you first heard about the Snowden leak?

The huge breach of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program in June 2013 was one of the proudest moments in modern journalism, and one of the purest: A brave and disgusted whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, revealed the government’s extensive surveillance of American and foreign citizens. Two journalists protected their source, revealed his secrets and won the blessings of the Establishment — a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar for it.

One of the people who fell in love with that story was Pierre Omidyar, the earnest if remote billionaire founder of eBay. That October, he pledged $250 million for a new institution led by those two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Mr. Omidyar was the benefactor of journalists’ dreams. He promised total independence for a new nonprofit news site, The Intercept, under the umbrella of his First Look Media. The Intercept was founded in the belief that “the prime value of journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.” The outlet’s first mission was to set up a secure archive of Mr. Snowden’s documents, and to keep mining them for stories.

The recent history of the news business has been about what happens when your traditional business is disrupted by the internet and your revenues dry up. But at The Intercept and First Look, the story is of a different destabilizing force: gushers of money.

In 2017, the for-profit arm of the company had budgeted $40 million for a growing staff and bets on movies and television shows, a former executive said, while the nonprofit arm spent about $26 million in 2017 and again in 2018 according to its public filings, most of it on The Intercept.

High-profile stars collected big salaries — Mr. Greenwald brought in more than $500,000 in 2015 —  and they sometimes clashed in public with their titular bosses over the rocky efforts to build an organization. Writers warred on Twitter and in Slack messages over Donald Trump, race and the politics of the left. Mr. Greenwald continues to infuriate younger colleagues with tweets like one denouncing “woke ideologues.”

Not long after Mr. Omidyar wired his first dollar, he found himself presiding over chaos so public that Vanity Fair asked in 2015 “whether First Look Media can make headlines that aren’t about itself?”

All the drama would make this another colorful story about extreme newsroom dysfunction had The Intercept not caught the attention of a naïve National Security Agency linguist with the improbable name of Reality Winner in 2017. Ms. Winner, then 25, had been listening to the site’s podcast. She printed out a secret report on Russian cyberattacks on American voting software that seemed to address some of Mr. Greenwald’s doubts about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and mailed it to The Intercept’s Washington, D.C., post office box in early May.

The Intercept scrambled to publish a story on the report, ignoring the most basic security precautions. The lead reporter on the story sent a copy of the document, which contained markings that showed exactly where and when it had been printed, to the N.S.A. media affairs office, all but identifying Ms. Winner as the leaker.

On June 3, about three weeks after Ms. Winner sent her letter, two F.B.I. agents showed up at her home in Georgia to arrest her. They announced the arrest soon after The Intercept’s article was published on June 5.

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Credit…Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle, via Associated Press

“They sold her out, and they messed it up so that she would get caught, and they didn’t protect their source,” her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, said in a telephone interview last week. “The best years of her life are being spent in a system where she doesn’t belong.”

Failing to protect an anonymous leaker is a cardinal sin in journalism, though the remarkable thing in this instance is that The Intercept didn’t seem to try to protect its source. The outlet immediately opened an investigation into its blunder, which confirmed the details that the Justice Department had gleefully announced after it arrested Ms. Winner. They included the fact that The Intercept led the authorities to Ms. Winner when it circulated the document in an effort to verify it, and then published the document, complete with the identifying markings, on the internet.

Internal emails and records I obtained reveal the tumult that led to one of the highest-profile journalistic disasters in recent memory and provide broader insights into the limits of a news organization dependent on an inattentive billionaire’s noblesse oblige. A spokeswoman for Mr. Omidyar declined to make him available for an interview. The New York Times is not publishing the documents, which run to more than 100 pages, because they include discussions of sourcing and security measures.

The documents, among them two internal reports on the Reality Winner incident that have not been made public, were given to me by people who were senior employees in 2017 and contend that the organization failed to hold itself accountable for its mistakes and for what happened to Ms. Winner as a result.

Some current and former staff members I interviewed expressed fundamental questions about the internal investigation into the debacle, including why The Intercept hadn’t brought in an outside law firm or other independent entity to conduct the inquiry, and they also asked why Betsy Reed, the editor in chief, had assigned the investigation to Lynn Dombek, then The Intercept’s head of research, who reported directly to her.

Ms. Reed, who had been brought in to stabilize The Intercept and rein in its big personalities in 2015, told me she faced “a treacherous situation” after the article was published. She needed to balance a “legitimate demand for transparency” that aligned with The Intercept’s founding values with lawyers’ strong advice to stay silent to protect her reporters and their sources.

Ms. Poitras said The Intercept should have held itself to a higher standard.

“We founded this organization on the principle of holding the powerful accountable and protecting whistle-blowers,” Ms. Poitras said in an interview. “Not only was this a cover-up and betrayal of core values, but the lack of any meaningful accountability promoted a culture of impunity and puts future sources at risk.”

The internal tensions were boiling over one night, just before Thanksgiving 2017, when the two American journalists who helped bring Mr. Snowden’s revelations public were exchanging late-night emails, which I obtained. They were writing not about government misconduct, but their own newsroom’s.

Ms. Reed’s oversight of the investigation, Ms. Poitras wrote, was an attempt “to cover up what happened for self-protective reasons.”

It was, Mr. Greenwald agreed in response, a “whitewash.”

The documents fall short of revealing a conspiratorial cover-up. Instead they show an extreme version of the human errors, hubris and mismanagement familiar to anyone who has worked in a newsroom — and the struggle of The Intercept to live up to its lofty founding ideals in dealing with its own errors.

Ms. Winner may have thought she was mailing the documents to Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras, who went to great lengths to protect Mr. Snowden. But Mr. Greenwald was in Brazil and when he heard about the document, he was not interested. He told me that he considered its claims about Russian hacking during the 2016 race “wildly overblown” and that it didn’t include direct evidence to persuade him otherwise.

Ms. Poitras, meanwhile, had at that point left The Intercept, and gone on to establish a nonprofit production firm, Field of Vision, a part of First Look Media, which also includes The Intercept and Mr. Omidyar’s other ventures.

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Credit…Jeremy Chan/Getty Images

Ms. Reed and her deputy, Roger Hodge, gave the story to a pair of established television journalists: Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito. Mr. Cole, formerly of NBC, had collaborated with Mr. Greenwald on the Snowden stories and was on staff. Mr. Esposito, also a veteran of broadcast news at NBC News and ABC News, was brought in from outside and is now the top spokesman for the New York Police Department.

Ms. Reed told me she’d brought them in partly because The Intercept’s outsider posture had left it without the inside sources who could verify documents like Ms. Winner’s. But their reflex to reach out to national security officials carried its own risk.

“If you get a document that purports to be from the N.S.A., it should be a five-alarm fire,” a member of The Intercept’s high-powered security team, Erinn Clark, said in her interview for the internal inquiry. “Go to a secure room, with an editor, freeze where you are. You are not aware who you are exposing or putting at risk.”

Instead, Mr. Cole put the document in his bag and got on a train to New York.

One concern did cross his mind.

“I thought at the time there would be an audit if they printed on a government printer,” he said, according to the internal review notes. “I forgot about that thought.”

Later, he called a source in the intelligence community in an attempt to verify the document, and casually revealed its postmark.

”My source said something about, ‘How did it come to us?’ I said in the mail, from Georgia, and my source laughed about that,” he recalled during the internal investigation. Then, Mr. Cole mentioned that the postmark was Fort Gordon, Ga., which is home to the N.S.A.’s Cryptologic Center. “‘There’s a logic to that,’ the source said.”

The startling carelessness about protecting Ms. Winner was particularly mystifying at an organization that had been founded on security. The Intercept had hired leaders in digital security, Ms. Clark and Micah Lee, for just such situations. Mr. Cole did not involve them at all.

Mr. Cole and Mr. Esposito said they’d been pushed to rush the story to publication, but Mr. Cole also acknowledged that failing to consult with the security team was a “face plant.”

The Intercept’s leaders argued in 2017, and still contend, that the narrative laid out by the Justice Department in its prosecution of Ms. Winner was shaped to make The Intercept — a thorn in the government’s side — look bad. And Ms. Winner’s own carelessness — she printed the document at work — could easily have gotten her caught even if The Intercept had been more cautious. But they also knew they had made real journalistic errors.

And so a key question was who to blame for this catastrophe and what consequences they should suffer. Ms. Dombek, who undertook the internal investigation, concluded that the editors — Ms. Reed and Mr. Hodge — needed to take responsibility. Others, including Mr. Greenwald, were demanding that Mr. Cole and Ms. Reed be fired, and The Intercept provide a public reckoning. (Mr. Greenwald later relented, and said he understood the desire not to “scapegoat” for an institutional failure.)

On July 11, 2017, Ms. Reed published a post on The Intercept announcing that First Look would pay for Ms. Winner’s legal defense. Ms. Reed also announced that an “internal review of the reporting of this story has now been completed.”

“We should have taken greater precautions to protect the identity of a source who was anonymous even to us,” she wrote. “As the editor in chief, I take responsibility for this failure, and for making sure that the internal newsroom issues that contributed to it are resolved.”

But the drama didn’t end there.

Mr. Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, an investigative reporter who is the third founder of The Intercept, publicly demanded a more thorough investigation, and in response to their pressure, the company commissioned a second internal report, by a First Look lawyer, David Bralow. Mr. Bralow’s report, issued four months later, cited as central issues the decision to share the document with the N.S.A., Mr. Cole’s discussion of the postmark and the publication of the identifying markings.

“While each of these actions may or may not amount to an error in all cases, in this instance, these actions fell below The Intercept’s goals of protecting sources who seek to share information of significant public importance,” he wrote. “The procedures for authenticating leaked, classified documents reveal institutional weaknesses.”

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Credit…Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press

Ms. Winner was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison in 2018, and The Intercept has covered her case regularly, always noting its own role — “an important part of accountability,” Ms. Reed said.

But there hasn’t been any further accounting. Neither internal report was shared with the public. Nobody at The Intercept was fired, demoted or even reassigned.

Ms. Reed and Mr. Bralow argued that any public reckoning could still expose other sources they spoke to about the document.

The story has clearly been a psychic blow to the idealism that marked the founding of The Intercept. The outlet has stepped back from its early ambitions. The archive of Snowden documents, which it received from Mr. Greenwald and Ms. Poitras on the condition that the company maintain a specific, complex security protocol and a staff to support it, was closed after Ms. Reed reduced its staff, citing budget cuts. Ms. Poitras, who furiously objected to the cuts at the time, called the move “staggering.”

The repository had been “the most significant historical archive documenting the rise of the surveillance state in the twenty first century,” Ms. Poitras wrote in a memo to The Intercept’s parent company. Closing it did a disservice to “the public for whom Edward Snowden blew the whistle.”

***

The Intercept never fully regained its swagger after the Reality Winner case, though it has continued to produce notable stories. It has broadened its original mandate to reporting on “civil liberties, social justice, the fight against corruption,” Ms. Reed said, and broken stories including revelations from the Snowden files of AT&T’s role in N.S.A. surveillance and an investigative profile by Mr. Cole of Erik Prince, the founder of the private security contractor Blackwater.

Nowadays, it seems more taken by politics, both in Brazil, where Mr. Greenwald lives, and in the United States, where it has become a hub for the fiery ideological battles playing out among the American left.

A leak to Mr. Greenwald last year showed how corruption investigations had been politicized in Brazil; the reporting reshaped the country’s politics. In the United States, Mr. Greenwald has been increasingly engaged in the bitter feuds with others on the left, charging that liberals — including some of his Intercept colleagues — have become fixated on identity politics and Russia, and ignored the more insidious workings of corporate power. His most memorable television appearances these days seem to be on Fox’s Tucker Carlson show, during which the two men denounce the so-called “deep state.”

Meanwhile, his colleagues have refashioned the site to champion insurgents and critics of the Democratic mainstream, including a woman who accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, Tara Reade, as mainstream outlets raised doubts about her story.

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Credit…Leo Correa/Associated Press

The business conceived to underwrite the journalism at The Intercept — the for-profit moviemaking arm — has sputtered, too, failing to produce another hit since “Spotlight” in 2015. The documents I obtained show a bitter internal fight over leaders’ refusal to give a top female executive a producer credit. Another of its highest-profile hires, the former Topic.com editor Anna Holmes, who left in 2019, told me: “I’ve always admired First Look Media’s stated commitment to free speech, transparency and speaking truth to power. So in that spirit I’ll say this: My tenure there was creatively rewarding — it was also personally and professionally demoralizing.”

Reality Winner, meanwhile, is recovering from the coronavirus in federal prison in Texas. She’s still short of breath sometimes, said her mother, who still blames The Intercept for the disastrous consequences of her daughter’s incautious effort to blow the whistle, though First Look is also paying the legal bills.

Ms. Winner-Davis recently abandoned her retirement to take a job as a corrections officer at a local jail so she could feel closer to her daughter, and understand her experience behind bars.

“It tears me apart every day going into that setting and knowing this is what my daughter is going through,” she said.

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Marty Baron Made The Post Great Again. Now, the News Is Changing.

Almost anyone who works in the Washington Post newsroom can look inside its publishing system, Methode, to see what stories are coming. And at the height of the furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, some who did saw a shocking article awaiting publication.

In the article, Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”

Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)

The article, described by two Post journalists who read it, would have been explosive, arriving as the nominee battled a decades-old sexual assault allegation and was fighting to prove his integrity.

The article was nearly ready when the executive editor, Martin Baron, stepped in. Mr. Baron urged Mr. Woodward not to breach his arrangement with Mr. Kavanaugh and to protect his old source’s anonymity, three Post employees said. (The three, as well as other Post journalists who spoke to me, insisted on anonymity because The Post prefers that its employees not talk to the media.)

Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and “bad for Bob” to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.

And the steadfast adherence to the longstanding rules of newspaper journalism and the defense of the institution, which have defined Mr. Baron’s tenure at The Post, prevailed.

Happy newsrooms are all alike but every unhappy newsroom is unhappy in its own way. And in this moment of cultural reckoning, most American newsrooms are unhappy places. They’re reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and under attack from the president of the United States even as they reckon with America’s racial inequalities in their own institutions. At The Post, black staff members’ discontent burst onto Twitter, as a set of high-profile journalists who have left the paper discussed how they felt pushed aside or pushed out. Their complaints, along with previously untold stories recently shared with me, paint a picture of an essential American institution caught in fierce cultural crosscurrents.

The revival of The Post by Mr. Baron and its owner, the Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, is perhaps the greatest news business success story of the past decade. But that journalistic revival has in some ways masked a messier story, one of many contradictions.

The Post has published some of the best reporting in the 20th century American newspaper tradition that’s ever been done, like the sprawling exposé of America’s war in Afghanistan — all wrapped in a digital marketing, advertising and publishing machine that The Post licenses lucratively to news organizations around the world. It’s a faceless institution in an era of influencers and personal brands. It’s a place where one of the managing editors, Tracy Grant, still hands new reporters a copy of Katharine Graham’s 1997 memoir, though, of course, The Post is no longer owned by the beloved Graham family, but by the world’s richest man. Mr. Baron’s fearless focus on White House coverage and investigations has put it at the center of the American media’s response to President Trump.

But it’s also a top-down institution whose constrained view of what journalism is today has frustrated some of the industry’s creative young stars.

At the heart of The Post’s identity is Mr. Baron, 65, the ultimate old school editor. He rose through the ranks of The Miami Herald and The Los Angeles Times, then arrived at The New York Times in 1996, where he took over the powerful role of night editor, the stern gatekeeper and final approver of any article headed into the print newspaper.

But he frustrated reporters with his punctiliousness, and didn’t play the internal politics of succession. He left The Times in 2000 to take over The Miami Herald, leading its staff to a Pulitzer Prize, and then The Boston Globe, where he published a historic investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. That showdown became the movie “Spotlight,” in which Liev Schreiber played Mr. Baron as introverted, irascible, and unbending — a depiction that Post employees describe as uncannily accurate.

He arrived at The Post in 2013 “stubbornly retro,” according to a National Journal profile, but when the Amazon founder, Mr. Bezos, bought the paper later that year, Mr. Baron proved the perfect ballast: He wasn’t personally a man of the internet, but he made clear he was all for it. And his journalistic gravitas gave the newsroom comfort during its frantic, overdue shift to the digital age. When other publications seemed unnerved by the election of President Trump, Mr. Baron’s assertion, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” seemed to fortify journalists everywhere.

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Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Mr. Baron’s opposition to Mr. Woodward’s story, people who work with him said, wasn’t about favoring Mr. Kavanaugh, or being afraid of a fight. Publishing the article would simply violate the traditional principle that sources should be protected. And it would veer into an uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing new form of journalism, and, in Mr. Baron’s view, imperil the reputation of the institution.

When I asked, repeatedly, for an interview with Mr. Baron, The Post’s spokeswoman, Kris Coratti, instead sent me 4,000 words of excerpts from his many speeches about journalism. The speeches reflected his sophisticated articulation of the importance of open-minded, rigorous and brave journalism. But the speech excerpts didn’t include the credo that stuck with me from a recent memo written by Mr. Baron.

“The Post is more than a collection of individuals who wish to express themselves,” Mr. Baron wrote. “The reputation of The Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression.”

This principle reflects Mr. Baron’s frequently expressed frustration that his reporters’ tweets could undermine The Post’s journalism. It sometimes seems that Mr. Baron is standing athwart Twitter yelling, “Stop!” and nobody’s listening.

The intensity of the debate inside The Post over its journalists’ tweets emerged in an internal survey of reporters’ attitudes, commissioned by the national editor, Steven Ginsberg, without Mr. Baron’s participation. The report, which was circulated in April, described Post management as “ill-equipped to deal with social media in the modern era” and suggested that managers are more forgiving of mistakes “by white men and newsroom stars than they are of women, minorities and less high-profile reporters.”

(The Times, where management has cultivated stars and taken a relatively softer line on Twitter, has its own challenges, and was forced last week to try to purge the vitriol from its internal conversations on Slack. Its chief executive, Mark Thompson, asked employees to avoid “saying insulting and threatening things about co-workers.”)

The Post survey presaged the more intense concerns expressed this month by current and former black journalists about the news industry, in general, and The Post, in particular. Such concerns are not new.

But many Posties (which is how some on the staff refer to themselves) date the current gap between black staff members and leaders of The Post — Mr. Baron and his three managing editors, Cameron Barr, Ms. Grant and Emilio Garcia-Ruiz — to the departure in 2015 of Kevin Merida, then The Post’s managing editor, to lead the ESPN sports and culture site The Undefeated. A handful of black journalists followed him.

The union that represents newsroom employees, The Washington Post Guild, now says it has assembled 32 pages of concerns from current and former employees of color. Black staff members active with the union are pushing for a Twitter campaign to highlight the issues, modeled after a similar recent demonstration at The Los Angeles Times. But such a step would be more provocative at The Post, given the paper’s institutional unease about expressing opinions on Twitter.

Some have already surfaced. Kimbriell Kelly, who left The Post last year for The Los Angeles Times after being passed over for an editing job, tweeted that she was the “only black investigative reporter on WaPo’s Investigative Unit for most of my 7 years there.”

“The notion that only you had to prove yourself as an editor, while sooo many others who didn’t look like you, never did, steamed many of us,” replied Dana Priest, a white veteran national security reporter.

Questions have also arisen within The Post’s video operation, which, like other areas outside Mr. Baron’s core obsessions, has suffered from a lack of clear strategy. Employees said in a meeting this month that personal favoritism had substituted for clear goals, according to detailed notes of the meeting by a participant. One employee said black video editors felt they had to ask permission to get up even to go to the bathroom, when white producers didn’t. Two black editors, who spoke on the condition they not be named, said they’d felt that difference in treatment.

“Staff are always free to take breaks,” Ms. Coratti said. “They are just asked to give others a heads-up that they will be away to ensure that the video hub is not unoccupied in the event of unanticipated news developments.”

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Credit…Alex Wong/Getty Images

A particularly striking issue arose from the coverage of the 2018 killing of a Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi agents. Karen Attiah, Mr. Khashoggi’s editor, rallied support for him on Twitter, on television and on The Post’s op-ed pages. But when it came time to apply for a Pulitzer Prize — an unscientific process that often serves as an X-ray of newsroom politics and power — Ms. Attiah’s work wasn’t among the 20 pieces submitted. The exclusion, she told me, “stung,” and surprised people who had been following The Post’s work closely.

“I was appalled,” said Mohamed Soltan, a former Egyptian political prisoner and friend of Mr. Khashoggi, who described Ms. Attiah as one of the key journalists on the story.

The Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, defended the decision in an email to me: “What you have to leave out in such situations, in this case including excellent work by Jackson Diehl, Karen Attiah and several others, is never easy.”

One thing that is clear is that The Post — which prides itself on providing not just jobs for its staff but long enriching careers — has lost some people any newsroom would want to keep, including Ms. Kelly and Wesley Lowery, who left to become a correspondent for a new “60 Minutes” project on the streaming service Quibi. Another is Soraya Nadia McDonald, who said she had hoped to stretch beyond blogging twice a day on pop culture, which she did at The Post, and wanted “permission and support to be ambitious.” She followed Mr. Merida to The Undefeated, where she was a Pulitzer finalist this year for “essays on theater and film that bring a fresh, delightful intelligence to the intersections of race and art.”

”I don’t think any of that would have been published there,” she said of The Post. “This place just seems to run off its best people.”

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Credit…Laurent Chevalier

The last time Mr. Baron faced sustained complaints from his black staff was in 2016, after Mr. Merida left. Then, a group of black Posties sent Mr. Baron a memo making the case for a new deputy managing editor for diversity. Mr. Baron responded that The Post was relatively diverse compared with other newsrooms and that Ms. Grant had diversity issues in hand. “They represent the bulk of her work and the most rewarding aspects of her job,” Mr. Baron wrote in the memo. “I can’t imagine taking them away from her.”

This time, as The Post rushed to quell the kind of staff uprising that broke out at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, that role suddenly held appeal to Mr. Baron. The Post announced on June 18 that it would hire for the role, and an internal email says the deadline for applying is July 3. Mr. Baron would vet applications himself, and he reached out to Shani O. Hilton, my former colleague who is now a deputy managing editor at The Los Angeles Times overseeing its Washington bureau, its national coverage and its foreign desk, suggesting she apply.

“You may have seen the announcement of our new initiatives focused on race, ethnicity and identity,” Mr. Baron wrote to Ms. Hilton.

Ms. Hilton was not interested.

“I have seen over the years that diversity roles, particularly for black women, are the fastest way to be sidelined out of the most important conversations about coverage and hiring,” she wrote back. “The moniker lets other managers think the work of improving representation and newsroom culture doesn’t fall on them.”

Mr. Barr, one of the managing editors, said the job would, in fact, focus on coverage, even if it might not involve directly managing reporters. “This is a job that brings together the journalism and the leadership of the room,” he said.

That new editor will face questions about identity and journalism that extend beyond race. Two Post employees said editors had barred a Post reporter who publicly accused another journalist of sexual assault, Felicia Sonmez, from writing about the subject, citing the appearance of conflict of interest in her public comments. But it’s hard to imagine reporters are expected to be neutral on the issue of sexual assault — and the decision seems almost a caricature of the old idea that only people imagined to have no stake in an issue, often white men, can cover it.

It can, in this fraught moment, be difficult to untangle the forces driving the arguments about newsroom culture, objectivity and fairness. There are, no doubt, real disagreements around the issue of how much journalists’ opinions, identities and experiences should shape coverage and be shared with their audience, and when “objectivity” simply means a dominant point of view.

But one clear strain in the tensions at The Post is simply, and sometimes hilariously, generational. In the happier times of early January 2020, the writer Maura Judkis blew up the internet with the article “People are seeing ‘Cats’ while high out of their minds.” It featured irresistible testimonials from people who described watching the film of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical while on marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms or other substances, such as: “The most terrifying experience of my life. I swear to God my soul escaped me.”

Mr. Baron, who had not seen the piece before it was published, erupted, two Post employees said, furious that the story was “glorifying recreational drug use,” one of them said.

Ms. Coratti said that Mr. Baron was not “upset” but did “advise that we should be careful not to be seen as celebrating or championing recreational use of drugs.” So the dispute seems to be less about journalistic principle than about whether you like edibles.

Even those who are frustrated by Mr. Baron’s strong-willed style of management speak with reverence of his obsessive commitment to reporting. Still, some of The Post’s challenges will probably be left to his successor. Mr. Baron has told colleagues he will be around through next year’s presidential inauguration, but perhaps not much longer. “Marty will give us a great deal of notice before he retires, and that notice has not been given,” Ms. Coratti said.

But what separates today’s cultural conflicts inside newsrooms from previous generations’ is that they now play out, in real time, in public on social media. And they offer a window into an industry, and society, struggling to find its moral footing around issues of racism.

That seemed a painful takeaway from the recent Post article about a white woman who came as Megyn Kelly-in-blackface to a Halloween party at the home of a Washington Post cartoonist in 2018. The woman lost her job when she told her employer about the coming article, which readers reacted to with outrage and questions about its news value.

“Was this ⁩story intended to be a spoof of our culture?” Patrick Gaspard, who served as ambassador to South Africa during the Obama administration and is now the president of the grant-making Open Society Foundations, asked on Twitter. “Did they really invest all this Investigatory resource on this piece to shame this average person who holds no discernible power?”

The story’s handling inside The Post underscores some of the paper’s underlying tensions.

After a guest at the party who believed the woman was a Post employee complained to the paper, editors assigned it to two trusted veterans: Sydney Trent, an experienced former editor, and Marc Fisher, a reporter whom The Post also turned to when someone had to write about Mr. Bezos’s explicit text messages. Mr. Fisher, who is white, reportedly told people he had doubts about the news value of the costume party story, though he led the reporting and writing. Ms. Trent, who is black, saw it as worth doing, three Post journalists said.

White senior editors, including Mr. Baron and Mr. Barr, signed off on the story and sided with Ms. Trent on some questions of tone. That played to old reflexes and new ones: They chose to address a complex moment with the most traditional reportorial form, and they trusted the judgment of a black reporter with a long history of writing and reporting about race. And while many Posties were conspicuously silent about the story on social media, Ms. Trent stood by it, and posted it to her Facebook page to a positive reception.

But black reporters are, of course, not monolithic, and many reporters of all backgrounds at The Post found the 3,000-word investigation puzzling. A random person “dressing like a famous lady in blackface at a party 2 years ago seems the least of our concerns right now,” Ms. Attiah tweeted.

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