By: Joe Strupp
A photographer for The Washington Post, who shot photos during a cross-country trip for a pro-Wal-Mart web site, broke the paper’s policy about freelancing and has been ordered to remove the photos, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said Wednesday.
Jim Thresher, a 25-year Post photographer who took the trip during a vacation, also must pay back the travel expenses covered by Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group that advocates for the chain and used the photos on its Web site. “Any type of professional act performed by one of our journalists has to be considered freelance and it must follow our guidelines,” Downie told E&P. “Which include not working for a competitor or an interest group.”
Downie, who heard about the photos Tuesday, said the Wal-Mart support group is considered an interest group because it is supporting the retail chain during its recent dispute over wages and employee treatment. “There are two sides of the argument going on about Wal-Mart procedures,” Downie said. “I would do the same if it was a group opposed to Wal-Mart.”
Thresher could not be reached for comment. At issue is a recent trip he took with his girlfriend, Laura, from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV supplied by the pro-Wal-Mart group. During the travel, the couple parked at Wal-Mart parking lots, which the store promotes as welcoming locations for such overnight guests.
On the trip, which ended just a few days ago, Thresher took photos that later appeared on the www.walmartingacrossamerica.com. Although he was not paid a salary, Downie said the cost of the RV and other travel expenses were covered by Working Families for Wal-Mart, which was formed last year by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, according to Business Week.
“I did not know about this until yesterday,” said Downie. “I told [Thresher] it was against policy and he would have to take the pictures off the blog and that he would have to pay his share of the expenses.” Downie said he did not know how much the expenses had been, but would make sure the amount paid covered them. A check of the Web site indicated no photos by Thresher remained, with just a one-page final blog entry from his girlfriend.
Thresher, whom Downie described as “a fine photographer” had discussed the pending trip with Joe Elbert, the paper’s assistant managing editor/photo, before it occurred, Downie added. But he said there was a “miscommunication” between the two and it was not clear to Elbert exactly what the trip would include.
“I approved it,” Elbert said. “It reminds me how cautious we have to be.” Elbert said he did not know that Thresher would have the costs covered by the advocacy group, saying, “There is no way we would have approved that.”
Downie did not believe Thresher had sought to mislead the photo chief. “The photo editor did not fully understand what Jim was going to do, but gave permission,” Downie said. “He did not understand what was being asked.”
Downie said Thresher remained on the job, but when asked if he would receive any further discipline, the executive editor said, “I never discuss personnel matters.” He added that the paper planned to tighten its procedures for such outside work, “making certain that all freelance possibilities are fully described to the photo editor and permission is clear.”