Jason Horowitz and ‘The Washington Post’ won, and the rest is political noise

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Today's 'Washington Post.' ()
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There were lots of moments in Jason Horowitz's piece in The Washington Post yesterday morning about presidential candidate Mitt Romney's high-school days at the elite Cranbrook Schools in Michigan.

But as a confessed media nerd, this was the moment that made my heart stop:

The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be identified. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.

The incident in question, of course, is the incident that led the story, in which Romney leads a group of fellow students to hold down John Lauber, "a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney" who "was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality." Romney forcibly cuts his hair, which Lauber had bleached blond, with a forelock over the eye, as Lauber teared up and screamed for help.

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A friend of Romney's from his school days recalled to Horowitz that Romney had said, before the incident, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” 

A lot is said about the news cycle, the "media" (always a monolith, always with "its" own goals and agendas) and the political cycle and how they interact. Interminable discussions are also devoted to how the digital universe has shaped those relationships, which few are willing to admit are too complex for them to grasp, mostly because they've asked the wrong questions.

Horowitz, a hugely talented political reporter whom I used to work with at the New York Observer, asked the right ones.

"I had done a story about [Romney's] years at Brigham Young University, and I had kind of looked at other periods," he told me this afternoon. "But the period that kind of seemed that we knew least about was kind of the early formative years, and I kind of wanted to do a story about that, and Cranbrook seemed like an interesting place, an interesting institution.

"The kind of existing narrative at that time was that he was a prankster in high school, and the campaign and even his wife would comment about that as suggestive of the looser, more human Romney that a lot of people claimed they weren't seeing on the campaign trail."

The right question for voters may not be whether Romney's high-school behavior matters to them; that's up to them. But for Horowitz, the job it is to write a narrative of the life of a man who wants to be our president. Other reporters are assigned to other people who want to be president. Horowitz is assigned to tell the story of this person, and he simply did a better job on this particular chapter than anyone else.

"I just went out there and the idea was to get a feel for the place, and where he grew up, to do what you would usually do, talk to people," he said. "If that's the real guy then let's take a look at the real guy and what he was like back then."

It's not hard to imagine that some classmate of Romney's from 1965 at Cranbrook, someone who never liked him, could have written a long, anonymous letter to a blog to tell them about the Affair of the Haircut. Then it would have just been reproduced, for all the snipers and carpers to fight over without ever having any real facts to support their reactions to it.

It's not hard to imagine that person writing a letter to Horowitz, resulting in a decision to explore Romney's high-school days because it seemed like Ann Romney's hail-fellow narrative wouldn't hold up under investigation.

Or that a gossip blog, or Horowitz, would have gotten the information from an opposition researcher who'd made two weeks of phone calls, up and down Romney's high-school yearbook, in the hopes of finding a story to shop.

But none of those things happened.

Not a single one of the people Horowitz interviewed contacted him before he began working on the story. Not a piece of information was given. All of it was found out through reporting.

And that paragraph at the top of the story is what makes that self-evident. And it's the reason, as much as the predictable sources are saying the story is "cracking" under pressure from "investigations" being conducted and "fact-checking" missions by right-wing blogs and self-professed Internet truth-monkeys, why this story will be in every credible biography of Mitt Romney that's ever written.

"They're all dispersed around the country," said Horowitz, of the Romney classmates he interviewed. "I found all the kids who were in his grade or class and the years around it. Basically it was a ton of phone calls. I was interested in everyone's own experiences at the school. That's where the richness of the story seemed to be, in people describing what it was like for them at Cranbrook.

"That's how I found out about the dining rooms, that they had cloth napkins. Everyone kind of remembered different things vividly. So I went to Cranbrook myself cause I wanted to see it. It's beautiful by the way."

While he was reporting, he let the reporting set the agenda instead of the reverse.

Horowitz said some people he talked to were more attuned to the election-cycle news than others.

"Some people had no idea what the [Romney] campaign was saying [about Romney's high-school days]. Other people were more kind of tuned into what the campaign was saying. And some were in full agreement. They said, yeah, that's the real Mitt. He was a total ham, and great to be around. This jocular fun guy, but there was also a real edge to him.

"So some people were aware of the campaign's portrayal of him, and it didn't wash with their memory of him. Other people were also aware and they said it did wash, and others just had no idea what the campaign was up to."

Horowitz was "pretty deep" into his two-to-three weeks of reporting, he said, when he first heard the story of the haircut.

"I had already had, I would say, more than a dozen conversations with people and I called just another guy on the list, and he told me about it," he told me.

"And so after that, not to be too much about sausage-making and stuff, everybody I talked to, I wanted to know just as much about the place as I did before, but I also tried to get a sense of who else knew about this incident."

"I had a sense that this might be a talked about a lot, not because it was sensational but because I think it says something," Horowitz said. "And also, we led with that detail."

"Because of the nature of the incident, I needed for myself to be obviously 100 percent sure. And I guess you could have gone with a couple of guys on the record, but I just wanted to know, I wanted to make sure for myself that we had independent sources that this thing happened the way people said it happened and I wanted to make sure that it was right, and I also wanted to—it was the sort of thing that I needed people to put their name to.

"It was important for me to have that many people on the record talking about this, because the bar is often lowered to a point where stuff probably gets into papers that shouldn't," he said.

That's what made my heart leap: What we had in front of us was something self-evidently real and reported. I wanted to know whether this story, which is so rare in its meticulousness even among reporters at the top newspapers in the world writing about the most important people in the world, could possibly suffer the same fate as so many half-reported pieces full of "personal truth," and whether it, too, could be milled down to meaninglessness by the screamers.

And over the last 48 hours I have to say, when you adjust the equalizer so that "crazy" is way, way down, and "typical" is about at the middle, the story has survived, and will survive. The next debate is about how much it will matter to the campaign, and to Romney's prospects. The Romney campaign could have considered this question more closely earlier.

"We gave the Romney campaign ample time to respond to the story before we published it, and to the details of the story, before publishing," Horowitz said.

And what they got was that one statement: Romney doesn't remember it.

Every theory imaginable has been brought out in an attempt to show that the story is orchestrated to make Romney look bad. Nobody smart says the story wasn't done right, or that it's not fair. The Post is colluding with the White House; the Post is the stooge of operatives; the Post has an agenda about gay rights.

There is of course the one thing, the question of whether Stu White was there. ABC News, in an article with multiple bylines and largely anonymous sources, interviewed him for a piece about how the Romney campaign was looking for people to help provide a counter narrative of his time at Cranbrook. White was one of the people they called.

The Post has changed a paragraph in which White claims to have "long been bothered" by the incident, but he told ABC News that he wasn't there for it, and the way ABC News presents it, didn't even know about the incident.

The discrepancy between the ABC report and the Post's is confused by the fact that the Post changed its language slightly since criticism emerged pointing out the discrepancy. It's not clear that ABC News has been asked to explain its end of the discrepancy.

Horowitz would only say to me: "The way we have it in the story is the way it is."

But given the choice between a hastily arranged us-too column on the ABC News site and a piece reported with multiple, named, on-the-record sources over three weeks, I think I know who I believe until Stu White explains himself to us directly.

Horowitz told me he doesn't really care what people make of the story and, knowing him as I do, I believe it.

"He might be the president of the United States," Horowitz said. "For people who don't find it relevant, that's a fine position to have. I don't have the luxury of deciding for people what is or isn't relevant about a candidate's biography. My job is to look everywhere."

The reporter's job is done, and well done. What everyone else does with it, in their blogs or websites or in their political campaigns or in their stump speeches or in the voting booth, is on their own consciences. And that's the way it's supposed to be.