Washington Post adds Editor's Note to Romney bullying story; Ombud weighs in

DC Porcupine | Big Journalism | The Washington Post

The Washington Post has added an editor's note to its story about Mitt Romney's high school days. “We should have been clearer about it and we are adding an Editor’s note to the story to explain the change,” Post spokesperson Kris Coratti told me by email.

Earlier, the paper had argued it didn't need to address the change it made to its story about Romney bullying John Lauber. Coratti told Washington media blogger DC Porcupine:

“Following an erroneous report about our story, more detail was added to address any perceived inconsistencies,” Coratti writes in an email. “Nothing in our story was inaccurate, therefore no correction was needed.”

That's a generous reading of the change, which DC Porcupine detailed in a blog post earlier on Friday:

Here’s the original, emphasis added in both:

“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. “But I was not the brunt of any of his pranks.”

And the update:

“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.”

The new Editor's Note reads:

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that White “has long been bothered” by the Lauber incident. White later clarified in a subsequent interview that he has been disturbed by the incident since he learned of it several weeks ago from a former classmate, before being contacted by The Washington Post.

Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton told Poynter early Friday he was looking into the change. He published the results of his investigation early Friday evening:

The Post is not calling it a correction. I think it is a correction, but not germaine [sic] to the central theme of the story. ...

Mitt Romney (left, shown with his father George Romney, right) graduated from Cranbrook in 1965.

Right wing blogs went bananas over this correction: "WASHINGTON POST ROMNEY HIT PIECE IMPLODES" is one of Big Journalism's headlines on the story, which in fact provides a remarkably nuanced portrait of the presidential candidate as a young man. (So nuanced, in fact, that it really lends itself to a print re-reading, which I did this morning.)

Among the evidence for this implosion, according to Ben Shapiro: The sister of John Lauber, the victim of the incident with Romney and his school chums, "said that she didn’t know anything about the bullying incident." Moreover, Lauber went on to live well:

But Lauber, at least according to his obituary in the South Bend Tribune, led an incredibly full life. He graduated from Vanderbilt, became a member of the British Horse Society, had his seaman papers, was a licensed mortician in three states and head chef at the Russian River Resort in California, and even served as a civilian contractor to the troops in Iraq. This does not sound like someone crippled by a supposedly crucial incident back in high school.

The mortuary business: The last place you'd ever look for anyone haunted! But seriously, Horowitz found five people who independently confirmed the incident. Shapiro's speculating; Horowitz reported. The non-correction correction is ridiculous, but it doesn't dent the story much. And I haven't heard anyone objecting to the portrait of Romney, the thoughtful and altruistic natural leader. That's also in Horowitz's piece.

Readers also questioned the timing of the story's publication, which Pexton addressed:

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.

Post National Editor Kevin Merida told me Thursday:

We were mindful of both the flood of news coverage yesterday surrounding President Obama’s same-sex marriage remarks and the desire to give the Romney campaign as much time as possible to respond. It’s also just a very long and involved tale, sensitive and complex, and it needed to be edited to our collective satisfaction. So that was yesterday’s decision. That said, in the competitive real-time journalism sphere we operate in, we felt it was best to publish it when it was ready.

Merida underscored that reality in a statement to Pexton, “You always run the risk that people have heard about it and someone else will publish before you.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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