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Hoax suspected in Obama-Malcolm X photo mix-up

By Andy Alexander

The Post took a beating in the blogosphere last week for running an online photo of Malcolm X over a caption for President Obama. Predictably, it prompted a flurry of Can’t-Tell-the-Leader-of-the-Free-World ridicule. But after an internal investigation, Post editors have concluded the case of mistaken identity was most likely a hoax.

“We are inclined to believe that it was not something that happened here,” Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said.

The Post was alerted to the mix-up April 27 by New York magazine’s “Daily Intel” blog, which had received a reader’s snapshot of The Post’s homepage. It showed a Reuters news service photo of Malcolm X over a headline and caption that erroneously identified him as President Obama speaking in Iowa about the virtues of wind energy. Malcolm X, the African American Muslim leader assassinated in 1965, was in the news last week because a man who admitted involvement in his killing was freed on parole.

Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees The Post’s Web site, originally said it appeared human error was to blame. He told New York magazine that photos of both Obama and Malcolm X has been on the homepage’s slideshow of news photos and a producer had incorrectly pasted the Obama headline and caption beneath the image of Malcolm X.

“Our initial response was to think that we had made a mistake and that we had corrected it,” Brauchli told me. “But our staff continued to review it because no one could recall being the one to correct it.”

Unable to explain what had happened, Brauchli ordered a deeper inquiry. “We’ve reviewed all of our technical records and done an audit of our code, and we can’t find any evidence that it was changed, and then changed back, by us,” he said.

“I can’t say 100 percent for sure” that it was a fabrication, he said. “We have a lot of data that’s cached in servers around the country. It’s very remotely possible that something was cached badly and it appeared in that way [on the Web site]. But we think that’s unlikely.”

Other than being alerted by New York magazine, Brauchli said, the newsroom did not hear from any readers who actually saw the mismatched photo and caption on The Post’s Web site. The ombudsman’s office received a flurry of complaints from readers, but they were all reacting to mentions of the reported snafu on Web sites or blogs. was the first to report on the photos late on the afternoon of April 27. It’s headline read: “The Washington Post Cannot Tell Obama from Malcolm X.” The brief story joked: “Violent black radical Barack Hussein Obama X is learning about wind energy in Iowa, The Washington Post reports in a most unfortunate photo caption error.”

New York’s “Daily Intel” blog soon followed, writing that “one of our many sharp-eyed readers caught what we’re going to go ahead and call the very greatest news-website screen grab ever.” Noting that it was “almost certainly a freak coincidence,” it said the “glitch was fixed soon after, with each photo back with the headlines for which they were intended.”

The Huffington Post called it “just ridiculous. It's the President. You may have seen him before. You know who he's not? Malcolm X.”

Brauchli said The Post does not plan further inquiry.

By Andy Alexander  | May 5, 2010; 4:10 PM ET
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It was a hoax. I read both stories and the pictures were correct.

Posted by: rlj1 | May 6, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

It's ≠ Its

Posted by: emma8 | May 6, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, the Post has been so reluctant to correct even obvious error (George Will leaps to mind) that I have some doubt here, though your explanation seems credible.

Posted by: kstack | May 7, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure I follow this discussion. But that happens at times. As for Mr. Will, someone ought to prove what he wrote was false before they say it. I found no error.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 7, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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