WaPo Shows Where Editorial Priorities Lie

The Washington Post's treatment of two different cases of journalistic malpractice make clear how the paper's editors view slandering Republicans. It's not a fireable offense. But plagiarism is.

Here are the basics: Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Flock wrote a web post last year falsely accusing Mitt Romney of using a Ku Klux Klan slogan in his campaign speech. This was not a case of a mistake -- it was clear from the get-go that Romney did not use the KKK slogan, as the video of the speech incontrovertibly showed -- but Flock wrote a web article saying he did. It was a lie, intended to paint Romney as a racist. In doing so, she violated about half a dozen of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics.


The Washington Post's reaction? It posted a correction, apologized to Romney and fired Flock.

No, wait, that last part didn't happen.

Instead, the paper's editors allowed Elizabeth Flock, self-exposed liar and race-baiter, to continue to write for the Washington Post.

But no longer. Because Flock did something that, to the Washington Post, is worse than slandering a presidential candidate with a naked lie. She pilfered a few paragraphs from another writer at another news organization. She was caught, and suddenly she no longer works at the Post, which called her plagiarism "a significant ethical laps and not in keeping with our journalistic standards."

Plagiarism violates only one tenet of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, not half a dozen.

So now we know the rules of the game as far as journalistic standards and professional ethics at the Washington Post:

Slander a Republican presidential candidate with inflammatory, racialist lies, and you get to keep your job.

But steal from another news organization and you're gone. 

Dishonesty when it comes to slandering Republicans gets only a mild rebuke from the Washington Post's editors. But dishonesty involving theft of the work of other members of the mainstream media - colleagues - oh, no. The Washington Post can't tolerate that at all.

UpdateAn Agence France Presse report sheds a little different light on the two incidents involving former Washington Post writer Elizabeth Flock. The AFP story says:
A Washington Post writer whose blog posts triggered editor's notes for "serious factual errors" and what was described as a "significant ethical lapse" has resigned from the newspaper. Elizabeth Flock, 26, told AFP that she resigned on Friday before the Post published a second editor's note about her work and that she was not pressured to quit.  In December, an editor's note was posted above a blog post by Flock titled 'Mitt Romney is using a KKK (Ku Klux Klan) slogan in his speeches.'
 
"This posting contains multiple, serious factual errors that undermine its premise," the editor's note read. "Mitt Romney is not using 'Keep America American,' which was once a KKK slogan, as a catchphrase in stump speeches, as the posting and headline stated," it said. "Romney actually used a different phrase, 'Keep America America.'"
 
The most recent editor's note stated that a Flock blog post had made "inappropriate, extensive use of an original report by Discovery News and also failed to credit that news organization as the primary source for the blog post. "This was a significant ethical lapse and not in keeping with our journalistic standards," the editor's note said. "We apologize to Discovery News."
As the AFP report notes, the Post does not comment on personnel issues, so we are unable to determine the exact circumstances of Flock's departure. And while I used the word "plagiarism," it appears the Post doesn't view her actions as intentional plagiarism, but rather a matter of failing to properly attribute the material. Perhaps that failure was a simple mistake on Flock's part. 
 
It is also is quite possible that Flock, in her role as a blogger for the Post, did not intend to depict Romney as a racist in that incident, but rather made an error or failed to properly check the information before posting it. 
 
While the motive or reason for Flock's sloppy work in both cases is of central importance to the reporter, they are incidental to the wider issue of media bias at the Washington Post.
 
These incidents raise questions that the Post ought to answer.
 
Does the Washington Post view the improper usage of material from another source as a more serious offense than publishing false material that slanders a Republican presidential candidate? It certainly appears that way - after all, Ms. Flock was not fired after posting information slandering Mitt Romney, but she was not retained after using material from a rival news service without attribution, even though, on the scale of ethical lapses, slander is a more serious offense than failing to properly attribute the source of information. 
 
Also, did anti-Romney bias lead the Post to allow the slanderous-but-false story to make it onto their website? Presumably, Flock has an editor or supervisor, who allowed the false, slanderous information to make it onto the Post's website even though it was rather easily shown to be false with a few moments of simple research. This suggests the paper has rather lax controls when it comes to information that makes a Republican presidential candidate look bad, rather than treat it with the kind of careful journalistic scrutiny it deserves.
 
While Flock says she resigned and was not fired, it seems clear that the Post was not displeased by her departure -- it is all-too-happy to let Flock take the fall here. It is easier to do that for the Post to admit they are, at best, lax in the practice of fair and accurate journalism, or, at worst, so infected by anti-Romney bias that they eagerly rushed the slanderous-but-false story onto the web without insisting first that it be fact-checked and factual. On such an explosive issue as an allegation of racism against a presidential candidate, the Post owed its readers the strongest of efforts to ensure that the article was accurate and fair, and it owed its young blogger the highest level of professional oversight to make sure the report was fair and accurate.
 
Instead, whether due to innate anti-Romney bias or sheer lack of professionalism, they gave readers a slanderous report and then let Elizabeth Flock take all the blame. 
 
Readers, and Flock, deserved better.
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013