Post Photographer Repays Group for Trip Expenses

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

To Washington Post photographer James Thresher, it was a vacation lark in which his only role was to drive the RV and to take a few pictures.

But to Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., the online travelogue was a violation of the paper's policy on outside work. And to Business Week, it was a story because Thresher's anonymous work was underwritten by a group closely associated with the controversial retail giant Wal-Mart.

The upshot is that Thresher agreed yesterday to repay about $2,200 for his share of vacation expenses to Working Families for Wal-Mart, an advocacy group that was launched and is financially supported by the retail chain. The organization paid Thresher and his girlfriend for their airfare, RV rental, gas and food on the 10-day trip.

"Maybe it's something I shouldn't have done, in hindsight, obviously, but I didn't think I was out there compromising The Washington Post," Thresher said yesterday. "It really seemed harmless."

Said Downie: "We do not allow our staff to freelance for competitors, governments or special-interest groups. I regard Working Families for Wal-Mart as a special-interest group. . . . We are covering the debate going on over Wal-Mart's locations, business practices, et cetera. We can't work for one side or another in a public debate." He declined to say whether other disciplinary action was being taken.

After noticing that recreational vehicles are welcome to park overnight in Wal-Mart lots, Thresher's girlfriend, Laura St. Claire, a federal employee who does freelance writing, called her brother, a publicist whose firm represents Working Families for Wal-Mart. The advocacy group offered to pick up the tab for her and Thresher to visit stores around the country and blog about the experience.

Thresher, a 25-year Post veteran, asked his boss, Assistant Managing Editor Joe Elbert, for permission to take on an assignment involving Wal-Mart. In their brief conversation, Thresher said, he did not specify that it was the Working Families organization.

"I just got bushwhacked," Elbert said. "I feel terrible about it." Calling Thresher a "wonderful photographer," Elbert said: "He probably didn't seriously consider the repercussions, and I didn't look into it enough."

But Thresher emphasized that "I asked my boss if I could do this, and he said yes."

Thresher drove the RV on a 2,853-mile trek from Las Vegas to Perry, Ga., while St. Claire, who has done more than 70 restaurant reviews for The Post, described their travels on a new Web site, Wal-Marting Across America . The couple were identified as "Laura" and "Jim." St. Claire interviewed various Wal-Mart employees and customers on the journey, which ended Tuesday, and quoted them saying positive things.

"Sound like a great Wal-Mart publicity campaign?" asked Business Week, noting that some critics had questioned whether Laura and Jim were real. "Anyone familiar with Wal-Mart and its reputation for being quite stingy with wages and benefits will roll their eyes at such a rosy picture."

The public-relations benefit was underscored when Working Families issued a press release as Thresher and St. Claire were beginning their trip in the RV, dubbed Wally 1. "America's working families benefit from Wal-Mart," Interim Chairman Catherine Smith was quoted as saying. "We wanted to take that a step further so two of our members are hitting the road to hear, first hand, the many opportunities Wal-Mart provides to its customers and associates."

Donna Lewis-Johnson, a spokeswoman at Edelman public relations for Working Families, said the trip was designed "to capture Wal-Mart stories," and that the organization knew Thresher was a Post photographer. "It was Jim's idea not to give his last name," she said. Lewis-Johnson said Working Families does not disclose its level of financial support from Wal-Mart.

Thresher defended the trip, saying that "everything we wrote on that blog was true" and that Wal-Mart opponents had "outed" him in an attempt to embarrass the company. "I really didn't think anybody would know who I was," he said. "I was sort of nameless and faceless in all this."

The incident prompted Downie to tighten The Post's policy by requiring that all future freelance proposals by photographers be requested and approved in writing.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company