Postgate? Washington Post behaving scandalously in wake of Romney hit piece (Updated)

The Washington Post is behaving in a rather Nixonian fashion, refusing to openly admit that its hit piece on Mitt Romney in high school yesterday contained serious errors that seem to reveal malevolent intentions. The coverup -- quietly altering the text in the online version, but not admitting error there, or publishing a formal correction -- may be worse than the crime, in classic "-gate" fashion.

Matt Lewis explains one problem:

How can Romney's old pal Stu White tell the Washington Post that he has "long been bothered by the Lauber incident" - and then later admit to ABC News that he was "not present for the prank" and "was not aware of it until this year when he was contacted by the Washington Post"?

This is curious.

The Washington Post story reports: "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 ABC News, says: "White was not present for the prank, in which Romney is said to have forcefully cut a student's long hair and was not aware of it until this year when he was contacted by the Washington Post."

(Emphasis mine.)

What are we to make of this?

Moreover, as Ben Shapiro explains:

But it gets worse. Tonight, Christine Lauber, John Lauber's sister, said that she didn't know anything about the bullying incident. More importantly, she said that the story had factual inaccuracies. Betsy Lauber, another of John's sisters, told ABC News, "The family of John Lauber is releasing a statement saying the portrayal of John is factually incorrect and we are aggrieved that he would be used to further a political agenda. There will be no more comments from the family." Said Christine, "If he were alive today, he would be furious [about the story]." Jason Horowitz, the reporter on the Post story, did speak to both sisters and quoted them in the story - but apparently still botched the facts.

The Post piece implies that the Romney incident was somehow the beginning of the end for Lauber:

Sometime in the mid-1990s, David Seed noticed a familiar face at the end of a bar at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

"Hey, you're John Lauber," Seed recalled saying at the start of a brief conversation. Seed, also among those who witnessed the Romney-led incident, had gone on to a career as a teacher and principal. Now he had something to get off his chest.

"I'm sorry that I didn't do more to help in the situation," he said.

Lauber paused, then responded, "It was horrible." He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and acknowledged to Seed, "It's something I have thought about a lot since then."

Lauber died in 2004, according to his three sisters.

Even worse for the Post, the Lauber family now is aggrieved over exploiting John for political purposes.

Update: Susan Swift of Big Journalism discovered that David Murray of Automobile Magazine has an article in the June 2012 edition about Romney's youth, interviewed some of the same people, and painted a very different picture. Read the whole thing.

There is further evidence that a disinformation campaign is underway:

After nearly 50 years, Stu White only heard of the Lauber incident a few weeks before the Post contacted him for his impressions of it.  Yet "investigative journalist" Jason Horowitz does not ask the basic journalistic question of "who" told Stu White of the incident--and "why" suddenly now, after 50 years.  Does WaPo just dismiss this as miraculous coincidence? 

Isn't that perhaps the most crucial element to the Post story--the question of why Obama's epic same-sex marriage announcement seemed to have been timed so precisely with someone tipping off Stu White after 50 years, and with the Post's publication of its gay-bullying hit piece on Romney? White's anonymous informant and the Post's piece seem hardly coincidental.

To summarize: two current articles based on interviews with some of the same former classmates. But they present two differing and largely inconsistent portraits, with Horowitz's Washington Post either failing to investigate, or deliberately omitting, crucial and relevant information revealed by Murray in Automobile Magazine about Romney's character in high school. It would seem that the Post's investigative journalism standards leave much to be desired.

It is a matter of no small public concern what sort of operation was put in place to warm up an informant for a contemplated major story in the national media. Somebody was putting this together.

The Post timed publication of this long investigation into Romeny's high school days to coincide with President Obama's sudden "evolution" on gay marriage (which has alreasdy generated millions of dollars for his campaign) and implicitly paint a picture of Romney as a homophobic bully. Coincidentally, the Obama administration has a propaganda campaign targeting bullying of homosexuals.  Needless to say, the Post has never bothered to investigate Barack Obama's high school days, which included self-admitted drug use and physical bullying of a girl, in the five years he has been a presidential candidate and president.

This effort by the Post seems to be part of an organized disinformation campaign, implanting false information in millions of minds, that will remain influential even if the true facts come out. Following publication of the phony Post expose, the three broadcast networks featured the story on their nightly newscasts, and other media joined the fray, empahsizingn the contrast to Obama, who cares about gays, and Romney, who purportedly beat them up as a thuggish youngster. See David Corn's allegation that it was an assault, for an example of how to develop the phony meme.

Political bias may be the sole reason why the Post seems to have signed up for lead role in a disinformation campaign, but I am skeptical. Cynic that I am, I see a once proud newspaper caught in a financial crisis that threatens its  very survival.  The circulation and ad revenue of the Post are collapsing even faster than at most other major newspapers.

I see a management and ownership that is reeling after being forcefully reminded that the Chicago-style regime can inflict mortal damage on the financial life raft on which the journalistic enterprise floats. Ryan Chittum explains the background in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The Washington Post Company's dismal quarterly earnings release last week was received with something of a shrug-more of the same. But the report is worse than the reaction suggests and raises fundamental questions about the Post's strategy, not just for the newspaper, but for the whole company.

If you hadn't heard, the Washington Post Company is basically a for-profit college/SAT-prep firm that sidelines as a cable-TV provider and newspaper publisher. The augustWashington Post (I'll italicize Post here when referring to the newspaper and won't when referring to its parent) contributed just 15 percent to its namesake company's revenue in the first quarter but was a $23 million drag on the bottom line.

Kaplan, the Post's education division, is the company's cash cow, and a few years ago looked like the newspaper's savior. But its revenue has fallen sharply over the last year and a half since for-profit schools, very much including Kaplan's, came under pressure for predatory practices. Its sales tumbled 14 percent from 2010 to 2011 and dropped another 11 percent in the first quarter.

Its deteriorating prospects spells more trouble for the Post's newspaper division, whose very bad first quarter included not only that $23 million loss but also a 7 percent decline in revenue. Crucially, its digital ad revenue-the paper's main hope for the future-went into reverse and hit negative 8 percent. It's just the latest in a long line of bad results.

The Post's newspaper division (which includes Slate) has posted losses in thirteen of the last fifteen quarters, a trail of red ink that has led to cumulative losses of $412 million over the period. Its revenue has declined in twenty of the last twenty-two quarters and last year it brought in fully one-third less-$314 million-than it did at its peak in 2006. Layoffs have reduced the Post's newsroom to a little more than half its peak size.

Despite this, the company continues to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars to shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases. The Post is disgorging the cash, as JW Mason calls it, to investors and depriving its businesses of resources.

The "pressure" Kaplan is coming under has its origins in the Obama administration's FTC, which is attacking the private for profit universities that supply unwanted competition for the Obama administration's big donors in academia. The Washington Post Company's largest shareholder is Berkshire Hathaway, controlled by none other than Obama ally Warren Buffet (he stepped down from the company's board of directors last year, just as the company came under federal pressure).

Just last week, a notorious secret meeting took place at the Washington Post, that was first exposed by industry trade publication Ad Week:

Washington Post staffers are buzzing about a secret meeting between some 10 big-name Post journalists including Dana Priest, David Finkel and Carol Leonnig, and Steve Hills, the president and gm of the newspaper. The April 17 meeting was highly unusual for two reasons-the executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, wasn't present, and the participants agreed not to talk about it. They approached Bradley Graham, a former Postreporter (no relation to Post Co. chairman Don Graham) and Hills friend, who agreed to host the get-together at his Bethesda, MD, mansion. Graham said the journalists were "just interested in knowing him better. Steve isn't as known to them as Marcus or other folks in the newsroom."...

Over sandwiches around the dining room table, the journalists expressed concern about the loss of newsroom resources. Accounts of the evening that are making the rounds suggest it was hardly comforting to their journalistic souls. Hills was said to have shocked with remarks that awards "don't matter," urged more traffic-driving slideshows over original Post photos, and compared the Post to Ohio's Dayton Daily News, a paper with one-fifth the circulation of the 508,000-circ Post.

The story set off a huge amount of buzz in the media world. It sounds as though the realization is setting in that things cannot continues as before, and desperate journalistic measures may be required.

The Washington Post must reveal how it is that the story was sourced. Were they handed opposition research? How did the item get on its agenda, when reportage about Obama's childhood was avoided?  And how did the reporter come to so badly mischaracterize a source?  How did the timing of the story come about? Who first contacted Stu White? What organization and what money were behind this coordination operation?

And why did the Washington Post sign on for a lead role?

This smells terrible.

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