Washington Post: We Had Alito Flag Story 3 Years Ago

Newspaper explains why it chose not to publish at the time
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 29, 2024 3:00 AM CDT
Washington Post : We Had Alito Flag Story in 2021
FILE - Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito pauses after swearing in Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense during a ceremony with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 23, 2019.   (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Nine days after the New York Times reported about the political symbolism of an upside-down American flag that flew at the home of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the Washington Post acknowledged it had the same story more than three years ago and decided not to publish it, the AP reports. The Post's story was both an extraordinary example of journalistic introspection and an illustration of how coverage of the Supreme Court has changed since the incident itself, shortly after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. That day, some of the demonstrators who marched in support of former President Trump carried the upside-down flag. Both newspapers reported that the same symbol was displayed outside of Alito's home in Fairfax County, Virginia, before President Biden's inauguration.

  • The Times, in its story that ran on May 16, said it had "recently obtained" photographs of the flag that flew outside of the Alito home. The Post, in its own story Saturday, said that it had been told of the story in January 2021 and investigated, choosing not to write about it because it appeared Alito's wife was responsible and that it was not clear the neighborhood argument was over politics. (Alito has said that his wife, Martha-Ann Alito, raised the flag as part of a dispute with neighbors who had placed "personally insulting" yard signs directed at them.)
  • Semafor reported that Cameron Barr, then the Post's senior managing editor, said he took responsibility for the decision. He said he suggested the newspaper write about the neighborhood dispute, with the flag as one element. But that wasn't done and Barr expressed regret for not pushing harder for it. Barr left the Post in 2023.
  • "It was a surprising admission from such a major news organization," said Jesse Holland, associate dean of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and a former journalist who covered the Supreme Court for five years. "Very, very rarely do you have a major news organization say they likely would have made a different decision."
  • Nowhere in the story, however, does the Post say that its decision more than three years ago was wrong, and a spokesperson on Tuesday declined to elaborate. Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said it was a bad call. And, she added, if she were at the Post she would have argued for the paper to be more forthcoming.
(More Samuel A. Alito stories.)

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