Was The Romney “Bullying” Story Good Journalism?
There's much to question about The Washington Post's decision to run a 47 year old story about Mitt Romney.
In the days since The Washington Post broke the story about an alleged bullying incident from Mitt Romney’s days as a High School student (which James Joyner wrote about here and here) there’s been much debate about whether or not the story was proper or not. As many critics have pointed out, the original post story got several facts wrong, including the fact that one of the classmates it quoted about the incident now says he wasn’t even aware of it until a few weeks ago when a Post reporter called him to ask about. We’ve also learned that the family members of the alleged victim have objected to the way he was portrayed in the article, and said that he never told them about the alleged incident before he died. There have also been questions raised about the timing of the story, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere on the morning after President Obama had made clear is support of same-sex marriage, given the fact that there was at least the implication in the article that the alleged victim was attacked for being “effeminate” the parallels were hard to miss. In the end, the question one is left with is whether the Post dropped the ball in even running the story.
Patrick Pexton, the Post’s Ombudsman, takes a look at the criticism and, not surprisingly, concludes that his paper acted properly. Pexton does admit, because there’s really no way around it, that the paper did act improperly in failing to advise readers that it had made a substantive change to quotes from one of Romney’s classmates that changed what he said completely:
This is the original online paragraph:
“I always enjoyed his pranks,” said Stu White, a popular friend of Romney’s who went on to a career as a public school teacher and has long been bothered by the Lauber incident [emphasis added]. “But I was not the brunt on any of his pranks.”
This is the new paragraph as it appeared in print and now appears online:
“I always enjoyed his pranks,” said Stu White, a popular friend of Romney’s who went on to a career as a public school teacher and said he has been “disturbed” by the Lauber incident since hearing about it several weeks ago, before being contacted by The Washington Post. “But I was not the brunt of any of his pranks” [emphasis added].
The Post changed the story after talking to White again and discovering that White only learned of the prank in recent weeks after being told of it by a Cranbrook classmate.
Kevin Merida, national editor of The Post, said on Friday that “We should have updated it with a note.” I agree with Merida. I would have used strike-through text online to make it clear to readers that that part of the online story was changed. I think that’s just the better part of candor. There is now an editor’s note at the very bottom of the story. The Post is not calling it a correction. I think it is a correction, but not germane to the central theme of the story.
This part of Horowitz’s story is tangential at best. It is only about how one person, who was not an eyewitness, felt about the incident.
Four of the five witnesses to the forcible haircut cited by the Post are on the record, by name, and remember it well. Their accounts remain unchallenged. I also think it’s important to point out that Romney quickly apologized after the story was published, and although not a detailed apology, I think his demeanor in the apology seemed genuine.
Perhaps a fair point, and I think we can even agree that the incident actually did occur. The real question, the one that actual journalists used to ask themselves back in the day, is whether it is now, or ever was, a relevant story about Mitt Romney. The only thing we know about Mitt Romney after reading the story that appeared on the Post’s web site on Thursday is that he was kind of a prick when he was in High School. As James Joyner noted in his initial post about this story, though, it’s hard to see what relevance that has to Mitt Romney the 65 year-old man who, after High School, married, went on a Mormon mission, and attended BYU and Harvard Law School, experiences which he has said in the past changed him as a person. There’s no evidence that Romney engaged in any kind of similar activity as an adult, and the Post’s story does absolutely nothing to try to tie the admittedly cruel actions of Willard Mitt Romney the young man to the character of Mitt Romney the husband, father, businessman, former Governor, and candidate for President. For that reason alone, it strikes me that the entire story was a waste of time. Journalism isn’t just about digging up some old story from the past, it’s about explaining how that story is relevant to the current day. Last Thursday, the Post completely failed to do that.
Getting beyond that issue, there’s also the question of timing, which Paxton seems to suggest was purely coincidental:
The other criticisms are that this story was published knowing that President Obama was going to announce his shift in favor of gay marriage. The allegation is that somehow The Post is working with the White House to time the story.
Do I think The Post took advantage of the timing? Yes. Vice President Biden had telegraphed the president’s position on gay marriage just days earlier. This story on Romney was in preparation for three weeks. It is part of a series of biographical stories on Romney being written by Horowitz and others and edited by The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and associate editor, David Maraniss, who is known for his best- selling biographies of major U.S. political figures.
If I were an editor I might have sped it up a little, too, to take advantage of the national discussion on gay marriage. Does that mean Post editors are timing stories with the White House? I hope not, and I doubt that is the case.
Merida said they held the printed version for a day because they didn’t want it clashing with the Thursday front page coverage of Obama changing his mind on gay marriage.
“It just happened to coincide with the time when President Obama made his statement. We factored it in and that was the decision not to run it in print on Thursday,” Merida told me.
Reading between the lines, it appears that this article was originally intended to be part of a multi-part biographical series on Mitt Romney that would be running in the Post at a future date. We’ve seen those kinds of series before, of course, so there’s nothing unusual about that. Indeed, I recall similar multi-part series about John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, and similar pieces about John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. What’s unusual, though, is for those pieces to be published in anything other than a chronological order over a period of a week or so. Obviously, the Post ran with this story at this time because they thought it had some relevance to the same-sex marriage debate that had been reignited by Vice-President Biden’s comments last Sunday. What that relevance is, only they seem to understand though. Were they trying to pain the picture of Mitt Romney as a mid-60s gay basher, for example, as contrasted with the President’s “evolution”? I’m not sure, and I generally don’t buy into media conspiracy theories, but I honestly don’t see what the editors were thinking when they came to the conclusion that someone that happened 47 years ago at a private High School in Michigan has anything to do with “the national discussion on gay marriage.”
So, in addition to feeding us a story that was largely irrelevant, the Post ended up publishing at perhaps the oddest and most inappropriate time of all. All in all, I’d say that was pretty crappy journalism in the end. Let’s hope they do better with the rest of that Romney biography they’re working on.