Deference To Alito The Real Reason WaPo Sat On Flag Story

Despite its “Democracy Dies in Darkness” motto, WaPo created its own darkness by keeping Justice Alito’s flag story under wraps.

The New York Times published two gigantic stories about insurrection-supporting flags flying at Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s house, even as Jan. 6-related cases were pending before the court. The first article was published on May 16, 2024, the second on May 24, 2024.

On May 25, The Washington Post revealed it had known about Alito’s upside-down flag since January 2021 but had decided against reporting on it, ostensibly because it was not clear that the flag was really meant to signal support for MAGA “Stop the Steal” election deniers.

The Post decided not to report on the episode at the time because the flag-raising appeared to be the work of [wife] Martha-Ann Alito, rather than the justice, and connected to a dispute with her neighbors, a Post spokeswoman said. It was not clear then that the argument was rooted in politics, the spokeswoman said.

Kudos to Washington Post columnist Erik Wemple for calling BS, with extra props for doing so in his own backyard, so to speak. First, he noted that then-Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes had based his conclusion on denials from the Alitos:

Barnes told me: “We determined that it wasn’t the justice that flew the flag upside down and we determined it wasn’t a protest about the election or something else on the part of Mrs. Alito.” Asked how they had reached those determinations, Barnes said they were based on the claims of the Alitos, Martha-Ann Alito’s “actions when I saw her and what others in the neighborhood had told me.”

Then Wemple revealed there was every reason to have concluded that the upside-down flag was, in fact, political, or at least to have investigated beyond the Alitos’ claims:

Consider what Martha-Ann Alito told Barnes in their driveway encounter: “It’s an international signal of distress!” Just what sort of distress were the Alitos experiencing on a Fairfax County cul-de-sac? The quote was a clear indication that something newsworthy was happening in the Alitos’ residential life. As for The Post’s claim that it wasn’t clear in January 2021 “that the argument was rooted in politics,” well, that seems a bit naive. What argument involving a Supreme Court justice in January 2021 was not rooted in politics? If not politics, what was dividing these neighbors — Fairfax County’s protocols for the collection of bulk trash items?

Wemple points his finger at the real reason for keeping the flag story dark: deference to power:

The Alitos received deference to which they were not entitled. Though Justice Alito’s claim that the upside-down flag was flown “in response” to yard signs might be genuine, it’s a stretch. For one, [neighbor Emily] Baden told me in an interview that she never even saw this alleged “response.” Plus — inverting the flag commonly expresses concerns more global than some handmade, glitter-sprayed, cursive sign down the street. “My involvement begins and ends with putting a sign in my yard that says, ‘F— Trump’ that they used as a scapegoat” for their display. “I just want to say that’s absolutely ridiculous and everybody knows it,” said Baden.

No one from The Post contacted Baden, she says, until after the Times’s May 16 story was published. All signs point to a failure of The Post to publish something about this fracas, whatever its focus or takeaway.

Wemple suggests that this failure may not have been Barnes’ fault or at least not entirely. Although Supreme Court reporters are known to cozy up to the people they cover, Wemple cites some accountability stories from Barnes. “When I asked Barnes whether he had any regrets, he responded, ‘I’m not going to get into it,’” is the last sentence of the column.

This week, there’s been an uproar at The Post after management installed a triad of Murdoch’s right-wing editors at the helm. So extra kudos to Wemple for his column. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that management gets the message. Also, that he’s able keep doing it.

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