Less than 48 hours after the Washington Post published a major, 5,000 word exposé that portrays Mitt Romney as a homophobic, high school bully, the story has started to unravel. Jason Horowitz’s profile alleged that Romney high school chum Stu White has “long been bothered” by an unconfirmed incident in which Romney supposedly cut the hair of a fellow student. But White wasn’t present at the alleged incident, Romney doesn’t remember it, the alleged victim has been dead for eight years, and White only learned about the incident decades after it supposedly happened.
In response to that, the Post today airbrushed the story. Until today, Horowitz’s story read:
“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.”
Today it reads:
“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 Post did not publicly acknowledge that alteration for hours — more on that below. It just appeared in the online version. Also today, Lauber’s family has come out to contradict key parts of the story, and they further suggest that the Post smeared their deceased family member, who obviously is in no position to defend himself. Despite Lauber’s having been deceased since 2004, the Horowitz story directly quotes him, through another so-called witness to the haircut event. Is it standard Post practice to quote the dead, and use them as props in political stories?
Thursday afternoon I tweeted and emailed Horowitz directly about the White discrepancy. Horowitz never responded and has gone silent on Twitter, but today, the Post quietly altered the story to clean up that problem. The paper is evidently paying attention to criticisms of the story, but not responding directly to queries about it. This morning, I emailed the Post ombudsman about the White timeline problem and the Lauber family’s reaction to Horowitz’s story. I sent the ombudsman two polite emails on the subject. The ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, has not responded at all. But while I have been putting this report together, the Post did publish an editor’s note regarding the White timeline.
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.
The editor’s note raises more questions: Who is the classmate, and where did the classmate hear about the haircut story? In what context did the unidentified classmate tell it to Stu White? It’s possible that Horowitz brought it up to the classmate over the course of working on the story, who then told it to White. If that’s the case, Horowitz tainted the witnesses.
The Jason Horowitz story is no small matter. Its release coincided perfectly with the week’s messaging from President Obama. It depicted Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney, in a sharply negative light. It was a front-page, 5,000+ word story that must have taken weeks or even months to write. Significant resources went into the production of that story. Yet the Post has gone silent as cracks have started to appear in it.
I have sent Mr. Pexton a third email on the subject, asking questions raised by the editor’s note. The ombudsman, who is supposed to be the readers’ representative at the newspaper, has not responded.