The ombudsman is being bombarded by input from readers, via e-mail and phone calls, about the story that Post reporter Jason Horowitz wrote on Mitt Romney’s teenage years at the prestigious Cranbrook School in Michigan.
The story leads with an anecdote about Romney and some of his friends in his dormitory tackling and pinning to the ground an unpopular classmate and forcibly cutting off his bleached-blond, longish hair. The boy, John Lauber, was frightened and in tears, Horowitz explained, and the boy turned out to be gay.
The rest of the deeply reported story provides extensive context to Romney’s years there, what the school was like, where Romney fit in the boys’ hierarchy, and the fact that a lot of people liked the son of Michigan’s then-governor, George Romney.
Conservative Web sites have criticized the piece on several grounds.
The first is that The Post changed the text of one paragraph from the online version published on Thursday to the print version published on Friday without telling readers. It’s a description of how one of Romney’s high school friends, Stu White, felt after hearing about the hair-cutting prank. White was not present at the prank.
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.
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.[See update.]
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.
Merida also said they wanted to give the Romney campaign enough time to respond to the story. Merida said he and Romney officials had had back and forth discussions on the story for a couple of days before it was published.
The Post got its final response from the Romney campaign Wednesday night at around 7 p.m., Merida said, the story was copy-edited that night and published online Thursday morning and in print on Friday.
“We’re a competitive news organization,” Merida said. “In the real-time journalism environment that we operate it in, we felt it was best to publish when we had it ready. You always run the risk that people have heard about it and someone else will publish before you.”
Conservative Web sites also are citing a statement that the Lauber family evidently made to New York Times reporter Ashley Parker about The Post story. Parker reported some of it in her story and tweeted other parts.
“Mr. Lauber’s family said in a statement that they were ‘aggrieved that John would be used to further a political agenda,’ Parker wrote in her story. In a tweet she also wrote that the family said “ ‘The portrayal of John is factually incorrect,’ but they would not elaborate on how it was inaccurate.”
Jason Horowitz talked to all three of John Lauber’s sisters for the story and carefully explained to them what the story was about, Merida said.
The Post has received no specific complaint of inaccuracy from the Lauber family, Merida said. “We stand by the story. It’s a full portrait. It’s the story of Mitt Romney’s years at Cranbrook.”
“Our intention with this story and future stories about both Mitt Romney and President Obama is to give people the fullest possible portrait of the men who are running for president. We will continue to explore their biographies, their decision-making, and their full lives.”
I think it’s worth noting that Maraniss is publishing in June a long biography of Barack Obama. He also wrote a lengthy piece on Obama’s formative years in Hawaii, including his high school years at the prestigious Punahou School.
I think biographical stories on presidential candidates are fair game even if controversial incidents contained in them are far in the past. Of course we all change and mature. But these stories give clues to the character of the flesh-and-blood human beings we pick to lead us. These men and women all are flawed; none is perfect. But I think it’s the media’s job to describe them and report on them as accurately and as in depth as possible. I think the story was interesting, compelling and well documented.
UPDATE (2:20 p.m., May 14): Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli has read this post and sent me a message saying unequivocally that there was no collusion or coordination between The Post and the White House over the Romney story. The notion is “absurd and the implication is outrageous,” he wrote. I believe him, and based on my time here in the past 14 months I have not seen this kind of collusion or coordination.
Do discussions go on between White House officials and reporters and editors at the Post? Of course, The Post can’t do its job without that. Do administration officials leak to Post reporters and try to pitch stories to them? Of course, every administration does. Do White House officials push back against Post stories they don’t like? All the time. Do White House officials call when they’re concerned that a national security story will disclose secrets? Yes, frequently.
But those conversations are not collusion. I don’t think there’s a reporter or editor in this newsroom who wouldn’t filter any tip from any White House through these kinds of questions: Is this inherently newsworthy? Is this just someone grinding an ax? Am I, or my news organization, being manipulated by this? Can I check this out thoroughly myself and reach my own conclusion based on my own reporting?