James McLaughlin Defends the Free Press

As the Washington Post’s deputy general counsel and director of government affairs, James McLaughlin is not only a newsroom lawyer but also a government lobbyist

James McLaughlin, Deputy General Counsel and Director of Government Affairs, The Washington PostJason Wong/The Washington Post

Journalism is in Jim McLaughlin’s blood. His parents met while working as reporters at the Chicago Tribune in the 1960s—covering, among other things, the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago—and previous generations of his family included several other newspaper reporters, editors, and publishers.

Rather than follow directly in their footsteps, McLaughlin pursued a JD, graduating from Yale Law School in 1998. He still ended up in the news business, though: today he’s deputy general counsel and director of government affairs for the Washington Post.

A one-year fellowship at the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press introduced McLaughlin to the field of media law, following several years as a litigation associate at the D.C. firm of Covington & Burling. “I’d had an interest in free-press issues since before law school, when I read the Pentagon Papers case for a college class,” McLaughlin recalls. “The Reporters Committee job was a chance to do that kind of work full-time.”

Though the position didn’t yield an immediate job in the media world, it afforded McLaughlin experience and connections that paid off in 2006, when he jumped at a rare opportunity to join the Washington Post’s small legal team. (The Post currently has four in-house lawyers—a much leaner staff than some of its peers in the industry.)

Within a few months of being hired, he was working on the Post’s strategy for responding to trial subpoenas for three its reporters, including the legendary Bob Woodward, in the perjury trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to then-Vice President Cheney—the biggest story in Washington at the time. “I was sitting there as the junior lawyer in the room, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m in this meeting,’” McLaughlin says now.

More than a dozen years later, McLaughlin is the Post’s most experienced newsroom lawyer, with duties that include prepublication review of content, advice on news gathering, libel and copyright matters, fending off subpoenas, and managing litigation (which is typically handled by outside counsel). His practice also involves “going on offense,” as he calls it, to help the Post’s newsroom gain access to information for stories—typically through Freedom of Information Act appeals and lawsuits or motions to unseal court documents.

The pace is fast, and no two days are alike. “On a day-to-day basis, in some ways it’s like an ER, because we have over two thousand employees and just a handful of lawyers,” he says. “Part of what we do is almost like triage. What has to get done right now, what can wait a few hours, what can wait a day?”

“I’d had an interest in free-press issues since before law school, when I read the Pentagon Papers case for a college class.”

The second part of McLaughlin’s title—director of government affairs, which he has held since 2015—is a little different from the majority of his job. He describes it as similar to a lobbying practice, in which he works to represent the Post’s interests in legislation, both at the federal and state levels. He has testified more than twenty times for or against proposed bills, and is a regular in meetings affecting the news media on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies.

Plenty has changed at the Washington Post in the thirteen years that McLaughlin has worked there, most notably its sale to Jeffrey Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, in 2013. “At the time, none of us could fathom the Post being owned by anyone other than the Graham family,” he says. “But it’s actually worked out better than anyone could have hoped.” Bezos, he says, has stayed true to his public pledge not to interfere with the Post’s editorial decisions, and his presence “has helped transform the Post into a much more tech-savvy operation.”

When digital page views are counted, the Post’s readership has been at an all-time high over the past few years, McLaughlin notes, and at a time when many newsrooms are cutting staff, its newsroom staff has grown by more than 100 people.

In 2016 (an election year), the Post had months in which the website saw more than 100 million unique visitors, often competing neck-and-neck with the New York Times for most page views. The fast pace can be relentless, McLaughlin says: “There just seem to be more blockbuster stories these days than ever before, and everything moves faster because of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. There are very few quiet days.  It’s tiring sometimes, but that’s what keeps it fresh and challenging.”

Not all stories that the Post publishes get vetted by the legal team before publication; there is just too much content for that, and many of them don’t pose substantial legal risks. “We don’t have a lawyer sit in on the daily story conference, the way some news organizations do,” McLaughlin says. “Just about every major investigation is lawyered, but other than that, we rely on editors to flag to flag things that they think should be reviewed by legal.”

 “On a day-to-day basis, in some ways it’s like an ER, because we have over two thousand employees and just a handful of lawyers. Part of what we do is almost like triage. What has to get done right now, what can wait a few hours, what can wait a day?”

And not all of the Post’s courtroom appearances are on the defense side of things: in 2019 the newspaper won a prolonged legal battle in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to get access to the ARCOS database, which the DEA created to track the manufacture and distribution of prescription drugs. The data shed new light on the opioid crisis—and when they finally got access to the information, McLaughlin says, there was so much that the newsroom’s IT staff purchased a separate server to handle just that data. More recently, in December the Post published a massive project about the war in Afghanistan, based on records it obtained through two federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

“I think of those cases as playing offense, as opposed to playing defense on things like subpoenas or libel suits,” McLaughlin says. Threats of libel suits from unhappy story subjects are a regular part of the job, McLaughlin says, and though most of them do not result in litigation, they are all carefully reviewed. “Sometimes we find that we made an error, and when we do, we correct it—not for legal liability reasons, but because it’s the right thing journalistically,” he says. “Other times, we find that what we published was accurate, and we explain that conclusion to the subject or their counsel.”

So far the Post has never lost a libel case, which McLaughlin says is a point of pride among their lawyers—both in-house and at their longtime libel defense counsel, Williams & Connolly—and senior editors. (In one case in the 1980s involving the president of Mobil Oil Corporation, the Post lost at trial but eventually prevailed before the en banc DC Circuit.)

“We’ve been very well represented, legally, over the years, but that record is mostly a testament to the newsroom,” he says. “We’re in the position, in most cases, of defending really solid, high-quality reporting.”

Sometimes, McLaughlin defends the reporters themselves. He was part of a small working group—two lawyers and two journalists—that worked daily for the release of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was arrested in Tehran in 2014 and charged, months later, with espionage. “I was proud of the way our organization responded to that crisis,” he says. “There was a continuous effort for eighteen months, with no expense spared and no stone unturned.”

According to McLaughlin, that involved extensive efforts to apply leverage through numerous channels, including diplomacy, pressure on multiple governments, business levers, and even appeals to religious and humanitarian leaders. In January 2016, Rezaian was released and returned safely to the US with his wife.

McLaughlin calls the Rezaian case one of the most rewarding matters he’s ever worked on—and overall, he seems very satisfied with his job. “One of the appealing things about working here is that the lawyers are expected to be counselors in the broader sense of the word—not just counseling on legal matters, but giving advice on whatever the most sensitive issues of the day happen to be, including things as important as the safety and freedom of our employees. That broad role makes it a challenging but rewarding place to be.”

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Davis Wright Tremaine:

“I am lucky to work with Jim both as outside counsel to the Washington Post and cochair of the Bench, Bar, Media Dialogues. In both, Jim is thoughtful, supersmart, judicious, and dedicated.”

–Laura Handman, Partner