WaPo Sits on Eyewitness Account on Snowball Gun Incident
Washington Post editorial aide Stephen Lowman was at 14th and U on Saturday when the controversial snowball-fight-cum-police-indiscretion went down. He wasn't there on assignment–he was just taking it all in.
And take it all in he did. He eye-witnessed the snowball fest and the cop waving around a gun, not to mention all the hubbub that ensued.
So Lowman got on the phone to the Post, to give the newsroom a heads-up. He says he was placed in contact with staff writer Matt Zapotosky. Lowman told Zapotosky about the confrontation and the gun. It was just after 3 pm.
By this point, there was also video on the Web in which the officer admits he pulled his gun out in the midst of a snowball fight.
Two hours later, at 5:40 pm, the inexplicable takes place: The Washington Post files a post by Zapotosky and Martin Weilrefuting the photographic evidence already on the Web and taking the official position of the D.C. Police Department. Here are some key excerpts:
Assistant Chief Pete Newsham, who leads the department’s investigative services bureau, said it appears the patrol officer acted appropriately, and the worst the detective might have done is use inappropriate language in dealing with the snowball fighters.
At some point, Newsham said, the detective approached the group of snowball fighters and had “some kind of interaction” with them. He said the detective holstered a cellphone, and someone from the crowd called to report a man with a gun.
“He was armed but never pulls his weapon,” Newsham said of the detective. “I think what probably happens is somebody probably saw his gun and called the police.”
Lowman took a close look at this bullshit, which he pronounced "disappointing." "It was not what I saw—not at all," he says, noting that other outlets were "all over it and we still have this police officer saying that the weapon was never drawn."
It gets much worse before it gets any better. Later that evening, the paper filed two "updates" to the erroneous original post. Here you go:
UPDATE (10:57 p.m.) This YouTube video appears to show a confrontation with the detective. Warning: Contains strong language.
UPDATE (10.20 p.m.)The plainclothes D.C. police detective may have unholstered his pistol during the confrontation with participants in the huge snowball fight, based on video and photos posted on the Internet.
Dumbfounding. Let's recount what evidence the paper had at that point.
1) An eyewitness account called in by an editorial aide shortly after the incident occurred. The aide said that the cop actually did pull out a gun, not that he "may" have; and
2) Video and photos that clearly corroborate the eyewitness account of the Post newsroom employee.
Yet the Post still couldn't bring itself to say that an officer had actually taken out his gun at a snowball fight. Not, at least, until the print editions hit the streets over the next couple of days—which is among the great points made on this issue by blogger bsom.
How'd this happen? Not clear at this point. Zapotosky has failed to return numerous requests for comment, as has top local editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz.
Yet the reason why the Post screwed this up is that they all have linkophobia. If you link to an outlet—such as, God forbid, the Washington City Paper—you've lost. You got scooped and all your colleagues are going to look down on you. Linking is a huge sign of weakness—you just can't do it. Far better to, like, call a top police official, buy his version of events, and just place it in a post, regardless of the contradicting evidence that's already posted elsewhere.
Take a close look at that 10:20 update on the maybe-gun-pulling cop: "The plainclothes D.C. police detective may have unholstered his pistol during the confrontation with participants in the huge snowball fight, based on video and photos posted on the Internet."
Bold and italics are mine. They're mine because this is the most cowardly, selfish, arrogant news conduct out there today. What the fuck is "video and photos posted on the Internet"? How does that help readers? It's as if I can go to www.internet.com, and there, on the first screen, will be the video and photos of the snowball fight and the maybe-gun-wielding cop. "Posted on the Internet" would be acceptable if this were 1997.
The reporters used this hazy phrasing because they were too chicken-shit to do something that we all have learned to do over the past, say, decade or more. And that's to link to competitors and acknowledge their contributions to stories.
Oh, but wait! On Monday morning, the Post actually did link to Washington City Paper. A cause for celebration? Not really—the purpose of the link was merely to demean other outlets. Here's the passage in question, which comes from editor Marc Fisher:
Many readers will have already read sketchy summaries and eyewitness accounts of this incident at 14th and U streets NW on the blogs, or seen various versions of the stunning video on YouTube. But Zapotosky, in clear, unemotional prose, goes out and finds the puzzle pieces and puts them together, so we learn that the snowball fight wasn't quite as spontaneous as it had first appeared, but rather was another little triumph of social media organizing.
What's not important here is that Fisher got it all wrong, failing to realize this his organization had screwed up the story from the start and that these sketchy accounts got it right. Coming off nearly a decade of great column writing, we can forgive a tossed-off blog item.
What is important is that in one item, Fisher articulated a longstanding WaPo policy:
1) Link to other organizations only when belittling them;
2) Be sure to contrast the inadequacy of the linkees to the great Washington Post;
3) Make sure the link to Washington Post content spans many more words than the links to lesser organizations.
Not done yet. Fisher's item uses the term "on the blogs" in a disparaging fashion, as if this is a place where rumor and sleaze abound. You've heard this too: "Oh, he's getting crucified on the blogs." Or: "You just can't trust what you read on the blogs."
Sounds antiquated, just like "posted on the Internet." But however it sounds, you can never disparage "blogs" with a broad brush if you're a staffer at the Washington Post: The paper publishes at least 80 of them.