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News / Nation & World

The Washington Post said it had the Alito flag story 3 years ago and chose not to publish

By DAVID BAUDER, AP Media Writer
Published: May 29, 2024, 8:22am

NEW YORK (AP) — Nine days after The New York Times reported about the political symbolism of an upside-down American flag that flew at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s home, the Washington Post acknowledged it had the same story more than three years ago and decided not to publish it.

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 Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

That day, some of the demonstrators who marched in support of former President Donald 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 Joe Biden’s inauguration.

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. Judges traditionally avoid partisan symbols to maintain the appearance of neutrality in political disputes that may come before them.

For journalists, it raises a question: Should a public official’s family be held to the same standards as that official themselves?

‘A SURPRISING ADMISSION’ FROM THE POST

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.

In one sense, the Post story’s appearance on Saturday could be seen as an acknowledgment that the Post should have handled it differently in 2021; the newspaper’s current executive editor, Sally Buzbee, wasn’t at the paper when the original decision was made. Or was the story simply an explanation of what happened, without passing judgment? Would it have appeared if the Post’s competitors in New York hadn’t reported on the incident first?

“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.

A FORMER SENIOR EDITOR SAYS IT WAS HIS CALL

The publication Semafor reported that Cameron Barr, the Post’s senior managing editor during the fraught presidential transition, 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.

Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said the original decision was a bad call. And, she added, if she were at the Post now she would have argued for the paper to be more forthcoming.

While Martha-Ann Alito has the right to her own opinions, a flag like that shouldn’t be on display outside the home of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Culver said. “It’s a flag that flies in the face of the neutrality that the Supreme Court is supposed to be observing,” she said.

When a since-retired Post reporter visited the Alito home in January 2021, after the flag had been taken down, Martha-Ann Alito pointed out that an upside-down flag has long been interpreted as a symbol of distress, the newspaper said.

SHOULD AN OFFICIAL HAVE TO ANSWER FOR HIS FAMILY?

Holland, who covered the Supreme Court for The Associated Press, said he could understand a decision being made that the action of a government official’s wife is not news.

“One of the things we try not to do is convict a person for their spouse’s action,” he said. “And if this was the action of Sam Alito’s wife, should we hold him accountable for something that his wife did?”

A longtime court reporter may have concluded that writing it was not worth alienating someone so important on the beat, he said. Yet Martha-Ann Alito has now attracted attention for opinions related to the 2020 election in much the same way as Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginny Thomas. Both men are in the position of helping to decide cases that involve the election’s aftermath.

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Martha-Ann Alito has to be cognizant of the fact that she shares a home with a Supreme Court justice, Culver said. The flag display, even if she was responsible, is still a story.

The Post’s decision reflects a long-held view by some media organizations that the Supreme Court should be covered through the decisions that it makes, and not as a political institution, she said.

The Post’s initial decision came before the unprecedented leak of a draft decision that struck down a woman’s right to an abortion, she said. ProPublica also won a Pulitzer Prize for public service earlier this month for its reporting that showed how billionaires gave expensive gifts to Supreme Court justices and paid for their travel.

“It is long past time,” she said, “for journalists to set aside deference to the court.”

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