City Desk

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.

Not long thereafter, Washington City Paper posted photos of the officer, later identified as Det. Mike Baylor, trudging around in the snow with a gun in his hand.

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.

And this:

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, 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.

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  • D

    He was obviously concerned that stones, glass or any other items were embedded in the snow ball. I’ve seen it done before and they can be serious weapons.

  • J

    Good post - the WaPo is awful and tries to take all the credit. Have you looked at the Sunday version recently? More obituaries, comics, and wedding nonsense than any sort of edit.

  • Dave

    Methinks Stephen Lowman is not long for the world of The Washington Post. An editorial aide slamming his bosses in the blog of a competitor is a capital offense over there. Too bad, Lowman. It took a serious pair of stones to give that bite to Wemple, not to mention a serious career death wish.

  • Tom

    Since this occurred I've heard people inventing all sorts of rationalizations for pulling out an automatic pistol and waving it at kids throwing snowballs. The idea that snowballs might have had stones in them, or, as on another blog, that the kids were throwing chunks of ice, is nonsense. Or perhaps more kindly, a rationalization. It's inventing excuses after that fact.
    I was raised by the son of a police chief and raised on a TV diet of shows like Dragnet and Adam-12, with plenty of good-cop propagandizing. But in the last couple of decades I've realized that police forces attract and then encourage bullies. The militarization of police forces, furnishing them with armored cars, submachine guns and black face masks, makes this worse. This bullying by cops is aided and abetted by people who whine that "You don't know how hard it is to be a cop!" Yes, it is hard, but the people we're concerned with aren't the ones taking down some lunatic. They are the ones using flimsy excuses to bully, beat or arrest citizens for trivial reasons. They loudly oppose civilian review baords while demanding to be the unquestioned review board over all of us.
    My congratulations to the City Paper for this work. You have shown that the Washington Post is just another conformist voice of the inside-the-Beltway mentality. They proved that by falling all over themselves in the Monica Lewinsky farce (we are going to have to explain to our grandchildren why we thought that was a matter serious enough to impeach a president) and then by enthusiastically agreeing that yes, Iraq does have atomic weapons, nerve gas, germ-warfare missiles and anything else the vice-president told them to believe.
    Good to know there is some real reporting being done.

  • sigmund freud

    "D" above, is that as in DOUCHe BAG.

  • jeff

    "What the fuck is "video and photos posted on the Internet"? How does that help readers? It's as if I can go to, 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."

    Love Wemple, Love WCP.


    If this group were an all black group, the same people out there on Sunday would have called the police and the Third District would have shown up to dispurse the crowd of blacks or arrested them. This is sad, but very true. When young college educated whites conduct in this type of behavior, it's seen as having fun. If the crowd were all young college on non college educated blacks, they would have been treated differently by MPD and others living in that community in Ward 1.

  • Ben

    WARD4DC - thank you for throwing out the same straw man that has been used over and over again in this whole debacle.

    We are not arguing over what would have happened had it been a group of black snowballers. While you may very well be right about what would have happened in that case, proving that point does not then somehow prove that the officer was justified in pulling out his weapon. "If it were blacks then the officer's reaction would have been ignored" != "It was right for the officer to pull out his weapon." Let's argue the reasons why it may or may not have been correct for Baylor to act the way he did, and not use hypotheticals about different situations to prove a point about this one.


    Ben, the MPD police officer was wrong for pulling his weapon and he should be dicipline by Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

  • Ben

    Ok. But yes, I do agree that it probably have been a different reaction if it were a different group of people.

  • jeff gerhard

    It's kind of disappointing that is such a boring, barely legit website.

  • Ret Ward4

    If any of you looked closely you would have seen the officer had an automatic weapon and he he had a waistband holster. The weapon he was carrying has no safety, you don't carry a non safety weapon in you waistband while driving! Its obvious he got out of the car to secure his weapon only, he didn't draw it he secured it, he had it in his lef hand pointed at the ground while out by his truck and he secured it in the holster BEFORE he stepped to the crowd and told them he was a Police officer and to move back up out of the street and onto the curb.

    You idiot wannabees can't see you hand in front of your face. If the man wanted to spray you when you were unloading F-bombs he could have kicked your fanny right then & there he showed restraint pure ans simple. He should be commended for his actions and he radioed the call in for backup & waited for them to be in plain view before he went into the crowd. to get the perpetrator who assaulted him. That I saw with my own 2 eyes on
    This looked like a staged event, you'd better be glad this didn't happen 10 years ago. All of you would be wearing bracelets and bubba would be taking turns whacking you in th corner. Most of you crybabies are still living at home & irresponsible. If any of you had a real job or real responsibility you'd have too much to do then to be hanging out on street corners like losers.

  • Tom

    Now now, RetWard4, I left home back in Nixon's first term and I have a job and responsibilities.
    Somehow I don't feel better hearing your assertion that this guy's weapon was unsecured, and that he had to jump out of a car to "secure" it. Also, a firearm without a safety? Even some military weapons have a safety. Commedned for his actions? He could driven another block, stopped, asessed the situation, called some other cops and said "What's going on?" Instead, he totally lost personal control.
    Back in the 60s a bumper sticker read "Don't like cops? Next time you're in trouble call a hippie!" By God, I'm starting to think that would be a good idea! A hippie would have walked out there and said "Hey guys, cool it on snowballing dude's cars, OK?"

  • peter

    He jumped out of his hummer & looked at the crowd and was talking on his police radio. You could see the antenna. Then he got hit by people throwing snowballs, then he went back to his truck and got his service revolver. He has a responsibility to secure that service revolver whenever he exits his truck. I agree with RetWard4 as a MP you are taught to secure your weapon at all times. It is know that the Browning HiPower, FN 9P, FN57 and Glock don't have safety's The have a duble trigger action & if he has extended rounds you don' drive with those things in your waisthoslter unless you want to missing a nut..LOL

  • Tim Cavanaugh

    The cure for linkophobia is to accept that so few people read the content in the print edition that being wrong in print matters less than being late online.

  • Ward One Resident

    Wemple, your piece misses the bigger point...sure, the Post has link-o-phobia, but what they have more is a strong disdain (most reporters and many editors) for their News Aides, Editorial Aides and Copy Aides...It's an amazing resume builder but a completely thankless job and I'm sure that the reporter was less than thrilled that an EA was the one with the report.

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  • Eydie

    As a former newspaper journalist, I can say that it's not uncommon for crime/police reporters to become close to their sources, first out of necessity (you want to cultivate informants who will give you good scoops), then out of the feeling of camaraderie that grows when people consistently observe crime or disaster scenes together.
    Years ago I used to attend live music shows in a small Florida community, as a local music reporter; I repeatedly saw firsthand the harassment police inflicted on a certain bar for no reason (shutting down performances that weren't that loud, threatening owners/staff, etc.). I told one of the cop reporters about all the things I'd witnessed. The resulting news coverage: Nothing!
    To be sure, it's human nature to trust a source (i.e. cop buddy or department spokesperson) who's treated you right in the past. But news journalists are supposed to be skeptical about everyone and everything, especially in light of evidence like images, videos, audio, or an eyewitness who's reliable since she/he is your coworker.
    Many editors I've known like to switch reporters around different beats every couple of years, so that coziness doesn't supplant objectivity. Maybe it's time for to play musical beats at the WaPo...

  • Truth Hurts

    Great post, Wemple. WAPO has been in a free fall for a couple of years. Pretty sad, really. CP delivers the goods and laps WAPO regularly; that's the good news.

  • Mike Toreno

    I think it was just an illusion that led people to believe the officer pulled out his gun. The Post doesn't say he did. Something similar happened when the Titanic sank - the survivors in the lifeboats said the ship appeared to break in two. That notion was dispelled, though, when authoritative experts explained that it was impossible for the ship to have broken in two.

  • michael

    It wasn't a revolver. Take a close look; there is no way that handgun is a "service revolver".

    Also, the weapon was in his hands mere moments after both his feet hit the street upon stepping out of the vehicle. The radio came out later. The gun was out immediately, and it stayed out until uniformed officers arrived.

    These are facts, documented in photographs and videos.

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  • Judas Peckerwood

    I'm disappointed that there's so much speculation going on here about the Post's motives. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation: WaPo sucks ass and has for years. When this dead-tree abortion finally breathes its last the world will be a better place.

  • sherifffruitfly

    cop = state-sponsored domestic terrorist.

    journalist = terrorist propaganda spreader.

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  • Santah W Klause

    Why do all snowmen have white snowballs?

  • Moses

    I think it was just an illusion that led people to believe the officer pulled out his gun. The Post doesn't say he did. Something similar happened when the Titanic sank - the survivors in the lifeboats said the ship appeared to break in two. That notion was dispelled, though, when authoritative experts explained that it was impossible for the ship to have broken in two.

    Well done.

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  • CC

    The Huffington Post has video where he tells the crown that he pulled his gun because he was hit by snowballs.

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  • Dan

    >A cause for celebration? Not really---the purpose of the link was merely to demean other outlets.

    Given the glee with which City Paper gives over so much of its print to attacking the Post, this is an extremely ironic statement.

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  • Ian Curtis

    Marc Fisher was an incompetent error-prone reporter when stationed in Germany, he moved over to writing a worthless metro column, and now he's an editor on the doofus beat at WaPo. The Post has been hollowed out for years. Now all they've got is Fred Hiatt watching John Wayne reruns and publishing Sarah Palin's psychotic ravings on the op-ed page.

  • Dave Krueger

    Excellent observation on the coverage of the mainstream media as well as their phobia of citizen journalists and bloggers. I knew from other sources the cop had drawn his gun before I saw the first coverage on CNN which swallowed the cop's story that he never had his gun out.

    The cops, of course, being in one of those few professions where lying is actually taught and cultivated as a tool of the trade, think nothing of fabricating a complete fiction to explain what happened. They then simply wait to see if it sticks, which nowadays simply means there is no video to contradict them. For the cops, there is no down side to that strategy. If they are caught in the lie, there are no repercussions because anyone with the power to actually hold them accountable is on the same team as the cops.

    This cop is obviously a hothead with a gun in a profession where intimidation, threats, and violence are encouraged as a first response to any behavior that makes them angry.

  • sdlkjf

    this is good to remember next time you hear some REAL journalist talking about how much blogs and the rest suck.

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  • asdfg

    This is coming from the paper that won the 2009 Correction of the Year:

  • Five to Go

    Plain and simple, the snowballers were wrong to throw snowballs at any passing car. The law says that it is wrong, the innocent driver knows it is wrong, and the so-called educated "kids" (adults with nothing to do), also know it's wrong. Let's say that these so-called "kids" (adults) had been hit with snowballs from real kids (children), and they did not like it, and they called the police. I doubt that I nor anyone else would be discussing the outcome. Let this sorry excuse for behavior by old-ass grown adults get buried for good. Let's talk about adult issues like the war, Fenty, Rhee, Nickels,etc.

  • Dave Krueger

    Yeah, those snowballers were being bad. How dare they. They deserved to be threatened with a gun. Hell, the cop probably should have shot a few as an example to the others.

  • KCinDC

    Five, if they had called the cops on real kids throwing snowballs, and the cops had pulled guns, you can bet people would be discussing it, especially if it was on video.

  • liberal

    #31: "The law says that it is wrong, the innocent driver knows it is wrong, and the so-called educated 'kids' (adults with nothing to do), also know it's wrong."

    Sure. But last I checked, in most places drawing a gun in response to no display of lethal force was criminal assault.

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  • Jay

    Why hasn't newspaper, site, blogger, or tv station explored why 200 supposed adults had to have a snowball fight in the middle of a major intersection? Are there no parks or school yards within a half mile of this intersection?

  • Josh

    Ok, anyone saying that he was "drawing his gun to safety it"

    Is a gigantic moron.

    A glocks safety is the trigger itself. Why then, would you walk around, with your finger perilously close to the trigger? Why not just holster your weapon? Why risk slipping and grabbing the trigger?

    Or are you trying to tell me the officer doesn't have a holster for his weapon? That he just waist bands it?

    Yah, sounds like a professional to me.

    Besides, we all remember the video of the officer who shot himself in the foot in front of a class of kids, with a glock, because he wasn't paying attention to where his finger was. You think a guy slipping and sliding in the snow is going to do any better?

    No, hes not. Any officer who has his trigger safety weapon drawn, and not only drawn, but waving it around, is a moron. There are numerous times where it is not pointed directly at the ground. In fact, its pointed at angles that a bullet could easily ricochet into someone else.

    Anyone who has taken basic firearms safety would know this.

    If you want to see the proper way to handle a weapon. Look at the uniformed officer. He keeps his gun aimed directly down, in a holster like position, the entire time he is walking. Professional and smart.

    Det. Baylor waves his around like hes showing off to buddies at the range. Unprofessional, and begging for an accident.

    Now that I've clearly established reasons NOT to have his weapon drawn. We must conclude, he drew it for a reason other than safety.

    Whether to threaten the crowd.
    Show off or maybe scare them off.
    Or because he was afraid.

    Whatever the reason. It was entirely and completely inappropriate. This is not a valid response to having your car hit by snowballs.

    And yes, i saw that he was hit with a snowball on his person, drawing a gun is still not a valid response.

    Was he in danger? No.

    Did he put dozens of innocent people on the street in danger when he drew his gun? Yes.

    Even to apprehend the person who hit him with a snowball, he should have never drawn his gun. He would be risking dozens of people just walking along, or driving down the road. Something no trained officer would do.

    In fact, as a detective, you think he would be smart enough to know that he can track the person down later. You can clearly see the person who hit him with a snowball in one video. An identification could easily be made. You could trace and track that man down, and arrest him later for his crime.

    Which yes, i think the man who threw a snowball at the detective should be arrested and fined or charged. Throwing a snowball at a vehicle is one thing. But hitting a person with a snowball, when they were not part of the festivities is another matter. And frankly, its not something i would want to happen to me.

    And while not as bad as some incidents involving police officers we see in the news. The man still obviously needs new training. On everything from dealing with the public, to firearms safety.

    Until then, he is a danger and a menace. And i am glad his off the streets.

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