By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Semafor provides some clarity on The Washington Post’s massive failure

We now have some clarity as to why The Washington Post sat on information it had in January 2021 that an upside-down American flag, adopted as a symbol by supporters of the failed coup that had just taken place, was flying outside one of Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s homes.

Ben Smith and Max Tani report in Semafor that then-senior managing editor Cameron Barr and reporter Robert Barnes didn’t think it was worth a story in and of itself, and that they discussed reporting a deeper story about a dispute between Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito, and her neighbors. That story never came together.

“In retrospect, I should have pushed harder for that story,” Barr told Semafor. You think?

As I speculated on Sunday, Barr said that executive editor Marty Baron, then in his final weeks on the job, did not know about the flag. What remains unclear is what prompted the Post at long last to reveal what it knew (free link) three and a half years later. Did Barnes, who’s now retired, or Carr tip someone off? Or has the story remained part of the institutional memory of the newsroom, and that someone finally decided to surface it following reporting by The New York Times about the Alitos’ pair of insurrectionist flags?

Smith tries to run interference for the Post, but even though the story may not have seemed like as much of a big deal then as it does now, taking a pass on it until now was nevertheless a deeply wrong decision by the Post. It makes you wonder what else they know that we don’t.

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3 Comments

  1. Jerry Ackerman

    A little too much chin-stroking going on here, Dan. Everyone, including media, knows more than they have time or motivation to report when balanced (formally or more-likely not) against all other pressures in their lives and activities. Judgment calls are a way of life, motivated by what we know (or not) at the time. Life then moves on, and much is forgotten or shelved in back-shelf synapses, sometimes prompted to raise their heads anew, other times not. Blame brain-freeze too. It happens. Bob Phelps conceded as much in his memoir, “God and the Editor,” as he acknowledged missing cues about Watergate. But that omission, despite its shadow, did not diminish the value he brought to the Boston Globe and its hundreds of thousands of readers.

    • Dan Kennedy

      But the Times’ failures on Watergate were shocking, and might have changed the course of history if the Post hadn’t been on the case.

  2. David Scannell

    One positive by-product of the decision is that the Post’s restraint in this case gives lie to the right’s oft-spoken complaint that the mainstream media will eviscerate any journalistic standard to print stories that shine an unflattering light on conservatives.

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