NBC Reports Romney Bully Story Labeled 'Factually Incorrect' By Family of Alleged Victim

At the end of a full report on Friday's NBC Today, based on a Washington Post hit piece that accused Mitt Romney of bullying of a gay high school classmate, correspondent Peter Alexander admitted the story may be false: "NBC News isn't naming the student who was allegedly bullied....Late last night, his sister told NBC News that his portrayal in the Washington Post story is 'factually incorrect'..."

Despite that important detail, the network morning show still decided to promote the accusations. At the top of the show, co-host Ann Curry teased: "Prep school bully? Mitt Romney responds to a report that as a teenager he led a bullying incident of a classmate who later came out as gay....Could an incident that happened nearly 50 years ago impact the presidential race?"

Alexander touted the story as the "latest example" of how "nothing is off limits in politics" (Certainly not a standard the press have applied to President Obama). He went on to hype it as a stumbling block for the Romney campaign: "While Mitt Romney tries to focus on the fall of 2012, he's been forced to respond to claims of bullying dating back to the spring of '65, nearly 50 years ago."

Alexander selected the most sensational quotes from the Post story:

...the Washington Post cites five of Romney's prep school classmates, one describing what happened as an "assault"....what one of them described as a "vicious" incident where Romney allegedly led a group of friends to confront another student, who the Post reports was believed to be gay....Romney and his friends, one of them the school's wrestling champion, "tackled" the boy "and pinned him to the ground." And then as the boy began to cry, screaming for help, "Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors."

Alexander made sure to note: "One of Romney's classmates, Phillip Maxwell, confirmed the story to NBC News, noting the boys grew into 'a distinguished group of men' and 'we look back at it now and it's a black mark on our own character.'"

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Asking if "a presidential candidate's behavior in high school [is] relevant today?," Alexander cited reaction from the left and the right:

...it depends who you ask. One Democratic operative tweeted, "Mitt Romney was intolerant in 1965, assaulting a presumed homosexual with scissors, and he's intolerant today, opposing civil unions and same-sex marriage." But a prominent conservative commentator dismissed its significance, tweeting, "In light of the Post's story, I just don't think I can bring myself to vote for the 17-year-old Mitt Romney for president."

Only after painting Romney as a mean-spirited bully did Alexander bother to mention the comments from the alleged victim's sister. He further explained that she "said the family is upset...that he's being used, in her words, 'to further a political agenda.'"

That prompted co-host Ann Curry to further question the legitimacy of the Post story: "Peter, on that point, can you shed any light about the timing of this? I mean, having this allegation against Mitt Romney come so soon after the President made his announcement about gay marriage."

Alexander confessed: "Yeah, a lot of people view the timing as either questionable or suspicious. Of course, the reporting came out just one day after the President said he supported same-sex marriage....a lot of people are asking questions about the exact timing of this. The Post insists this is reporting they've been working on for a while."

If Curry and Alexander were so skeptical of the story, why do a full report on it? And even then, why not lead with the doubts of the account's veracity?

They failed to mention another problem with story that the paper was forced to correct. One of Romney's classmates quoted in the original article never witnessed the incident in question and had never even heard about it until the Post contacted him about the story.

Thursday's NBC Nightly News also covered the story, but in a more measured fashion. While chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd highlighted many of the same quotes as Alexander, he provided several sound bites of Romney and others pushing back on the allegations. Alexander's piece only featured a single clip of Romney responding.

In addition, Todd balanced the Romney story with Barack Obama's troubled youth: "In 2007, then-candidate Obama faced some criticism for his admission of youthful indiscretions in his book, 'Dreams From My Father.'" In the audio book sound bite that followed, Obama admitted: "I kept playing basketball, attended classes sparingly, drank beer heavily, and tried drugs enthusiastically."

Todd wrapped up the report by pointing out: "...the Romney campaign's been in damage control mode, and late this afternoon, they've been sending out statements from other high school friends of Mitt Romney, sort of serving as character witnesses, saying he was not a mean guy, this is not Mitt Romney's character."


Here is a full transcript of Alexander's May 11 report on Today:

7:00AM ET TEASE:

ANN CURRY: Prep school bully? Mitt Romney responds to a report that as a teenager he led a bullying incident of a classmate who later came out as gay. He says he doesn't recall it. But is sorry if anyone was hurt. Could an incident that happened nearly 50 years ago impact the presidential race?

7:08AM ET SEGMENT:

CURRY: Now to presidential politics, and an alleged bullying incident from Mitt Romney's high school days that is making headlines now, nearly 50 years later. He addressed the issue on Thursday. We've got NBC's Peter Alexander in Washington with more on this story. Peter, good morning.

PETER ALEXANDER: Ann, good morning to you. If it wasn't already sufficiently clear that nothing is off limits in politics, here's your latest example. This alleged bullying incident first reported by the Washington Post cites five of Romney's prep school classmates, one describing what happened as an "assault." Last night the Romney campaign pushed back, putting out statements from some of Romney's high school friends, calling the characterization of him as a bully absurd, saying Romney, "never had a malicious bone in his body."

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Prep School & The Presidency; Romney Responds to Story of Bullying in High School]

MITT ROMNEY: Give me your vote on Tuesday, give me your vote in November, we're taking back the White House!

ALEXANDER: While Mitt Romney tries to focus on the fall of 2012, he's been forced to respond to claims of bullying dating back to the spring of '65, nearly 50 years ago. When he was a high school senior here at the exclusive Cranbrook school near Detroit.

Several of Romney's former classmates told the Washington Post about what one of them described as a "vicious" incident where Romney allegedly led a group of friends to confront another student, who the Post reports was believed to be gay. And didn't fit in with his bleach-blond hair covering one eye. The article says Romney and his friends, one of them the school's wrestling champion, "tackled" the boy "and pinned him to the ground." And then as the boy began to cry, screaming for help, "Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors."

One of Romney's classmates, Phillip Maxwell, confirmed the story to NBC News, noting the boys grew into "a distinguished group of men" and "we look back at it now and it's a black mark on our own character."

On Thursday, Romney quickly addressed the claims on Fox News. And denied bullying anyone for being gay.

ROMNEY: I had no idea what that individual's sexual orientation might be, going back to the 1960s, that wasn't something that we all discussed or considered. So that's – that's simply just not accurate. I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports, and not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school. And obviously, if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.

ALEXANDER: This controversy has raised another question: Is a presidential candidate's behavior in high school relevant today? Like most everything else in politics, it depends who you ask. One Democratic operative tweeted, "Mitt Romney was intolerant in 1965, assaulting a presumed homosexual with scissors, and he's intolerant today, opposing civil unions and same-sex marriage." But a prominent conservative commentator dismissed its significance, tweeting, "In light of the Post's story, I just don't think I can bring myself to vote for the 17-year-old Mitt Romney for president."

And NBC News isn't naming the student who was allegedly bullied, but, in fact, he died several years ago. Late last night, his sister told NBC News that his portrayal in the Washington Post story is "factually incorrect" and said the family is upset, Ann, that he's being used, in her words, "to further a political agenda."

CURRY: Peter, on that point, can you shed any light about the timing of this? I mean, having this allegation against Mitt Romney come so soon after the President made his announcement about gay marriage.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, a lot of people view the timing as either questionable or suspicious. Of course, the reporting came out just one day after the President said he supported same-sex marriage. Mitt Romney has said he opposes same-sex marriage, referring to it as a "tender and sensitive topic." Nonetheless, a lot of people are asking questions about the exact timing of this. The Post insists this is reporting they've been working on for a while.

CURRY: Alright. Peter Alexander, thanks so much for your reporting this morning.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC