May 27, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Washington Post sat on Alito upside-down flag interview for years

Pair of photos of flags outside Alito homes in Virginia and N.J., obtained by The New York Times

Inverted U.S. flag at the Alitos' home in Fairfax County, Va., in 2021, and the "Appeal to Heaven" flag outside their New Jersey vacation home last summer. Photos: Obtained by The New York Times

The most interesting story in Sunday's Washington Post was on Page A3 — and 1,221 days late.

  • It turns out that The Post's former Supreme Court reporter, Bob Barnes, did a front-yard interview with Justice Samuel Alito on Jan. 20, 2021 — President Biden's inauguration day — about the upside-down American flag that had flown outside the justice's home in Fairfax County, Va.
  • The Post decided it wasn't a story, until The New York Times broke the news on May 16 — 3 years, 4 months later.

Why it matters: The flag — which Alito attributed to his wife, Martha-Ann Alito — raised ethics questions that were heightened after The Times reported last week on a second provocative flag flown at an Alito property.

What they're saying: Cameron Barr, the Post's former senior managing editor, told Semafor's Ben Smith that he takes responsibility for the decision.

  • "I agreed with Bob Barnes and others that we should not do a single-slice story about the flag, because it seemed like the story was about Martha-Ann Alito and not her husband," Barr said.
  • "In retrospect, I should have pushed harder for that story."
Headline on Post's Alito story
Sunday's Washington Post

Now it can be told: The Post's weekend story revealed an epic scene back in 2021. Barnes — who covered the court for 17 years, and retired in 2023 — went to the Alitos' home to check a tip, and "encountered the couple coming out of the house":

"Martha-Ann Alito was visibly upset by his presence, demanding that he 'get off my property.' As [Barnes] described the information he was seeking, she yelled, 'It's an international signal of distress!'
"Alito intervened and directed his wife into a car parked in their driveway, where they had been headed on their way out of the neighborhood. The justice denied the flag was hung upside down as a political protest, saying it stemmed from a neighborhood dispute and indicating that his wife had raised it."

"Martha-Ann Alito then got out of the car," The Post continues, "and shouted in apparent reference to the neighbors: 'Ask them what they did!'"

  • "She said yard signs about the couple had been placed in the neighborhood. After getting back in the car, she exited again and then brought out from their residence a novelty flag, the type that would typically decorate a garden. She hoisted it up the flagpole. 'There! Is that better?' she yelled."

Asked for comment by Axios, The Post noted that the weekend story addresses why the account wasn't published at the time:

"The Post decided not to report on the episode at the time because the flag-raising appeared to be the work of Martha-Ann Alito, rather than the justice, and connected to a dispute with her neighbors, a Post spokeswoman said. It was not clear then that the argument was rooted in politics, the spokeswoman said."

Read the Post story.

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