Jason Horowitz’s account of a bullying prep school Mitt Romney in 1965 has become the talk of the political media for the past 48 hours, both for what it suggests about the presumed GOP Presidential candidate, and for questions about the story that may undermine the credibility of the Washington Post reporter that authored the hit piece.
The story revolves around an incident in which high school senior Romney is accused of cutting the hair of another student.
John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.
A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
The story gained some traction on the political left because of it’s unflattering portrayal of Romney, but was largely blunted by a realization among most readers that I was a jerk in high school, too… and that was 47 years ago,anyway.
The hair-cutting incident was the highlighted issue of a 5-page article on the Post’s web site that otherwise portrayed Romney as what could almost be construed as a practical-joking Hogwarts student… one of the Weasley twins, perhaps.
But a s strongly as Post reporter Horowitz portrayed the incident, few of those related to the story actually seem to remember it.
Stu White, originally credited in the Post article as one of the students who had “long been bothered by the Lauber incident” according to the original article, admitted to ABC News that he only first heard of the incident 46 years later in 2011… from a reporter at the Washington Post.
The Post then changed White’s story, without issuing a correction:
“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 first insinuates that White has been haunted by the incident for almost five decades, then changes the story to inform us he just heard about it. That is not a minor discrepancy. That is journalistic fraud of the most naked and brazen kind, and an incident of purposeful media malpractice that the Post attempted to sneak by readers by issuing a stealth correction to the article, as if to avoid have to face accountability for their actions.
Interestingly enough, a close reading of the ABC News story credits the Post with being the source of White’s knowledge of the story. The Post attributes it to … no one.
Considering the nature of the charge and the newspapers unethical whitewashing of a key claim in the original story, it would seem the Post owes readers a series of truthful explanations for what occurred, starting with where White actually heard of the hair-clipping incident, to an explanation of how such a major fact error made it into print, to why the news organization broke with long-understood ethical guidelines to whitewash the disputed claim out of the article without issuing a correction.
For his part, Mitt Romney immediately apologized for any of his high school pranks from nearly five decades ago that went too far, even though he states that he does not remember the hair-cutting incident.
The family of John Lauber, the student who allegedly had his hair cut in the incident, has issued a statement that they have “no knowledge” of the incident. They also deny the inaccurate Post claim that Lauer was a day student when he was in fact a boarder, and states of John Lauer that, “If he were still alive today, he would be furious,” about being used in a political hit piece.
“It’s two 16-year-old kids at school. And it was 40 years ago!”
Interesting enough, one of the witnesses to the alleged incident, Phillip Maxwell, claims to be a political independent, but noted in a prior interview that he was a Democrat and that he would not vote for Romney. The same Auto Mag article interviewed Romney friend and fellow student Gregg Dearth reveals that Matthew Friedemann, one of Romney harsher critics in the Post article, made bitter criticisms about Romney in the article that he says weren’t factually true, including the claim that Romney had a car at 16 (he didn’t) and that Romney was aloof and didn’t invite fellow students home on weekends (he did). Another alleged witness, Thomas Buford, volunteered for Barack Obama’s 2008 political campaign.
Ultimately, a nearly 50-year-old story of high school pranks should have no bearing whatsoever on a political campaign in the next century. What does bear further investigation and public scrutiny, however, is the fact-challenged and unethical behavior of one of the nation’s most influential newspapers.
The Washington Post has a history of recent ethical issues, including a wrist-slap suspension of one reporter for “substantial” plagiarism. Another, Elizabeth Flock, just resigned as a result of “serious factual errors” and a “significant ethical lapse” regarding another Romney hit piece where she attempted to claim that Romney used a Ku Klux Klan slogan in his speeches.
This latest hit piece on Mitt Romney, focusing on an incident that might have happened 47 years, is just the latest example of news organization that puts narrative over ethics and accuracy.