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Flags, Justice Alito, and the New York Times

Reporter Jodi Kantor’s beat, as described by the New York Times beneath her byline, has become both “the Supreme Court and the controversial flags outside Justice [Samuel] Alito’s homes.” She’s making the most of her assignment. The Times journalist followed up last week’s scoop, which alleged that Alito’s jurisprudence was tainted by the fact that he hung an innocuous Revolutionary War–era flag outside one of his homes, with another attack on the justice and his family. This time, Kantor sought to frame the Alitos as the aggressors in a neighborhood dispute that purportedly led Martha-Ann Alito to fly an inverted American flag. But Kantor relies on nonlinear storytelling to cast the Alitos’ neighbors as victims of the maniacal bullies around the way. Relating the sequence of events on which Kantor reports in chronological order conveys a different impression.

Kantor’s account might have begun at the beginning, in the baleful summer of 2020. Then, Emily Baden, an aspiring actress and restaurant server, moved with her then-boyfriend (now husband) to Alexandria, Va., to “provide company” for her retired mother. There, the two engaged in left-wing activism common in 2020 and unremarkable given Alexandria’s political culture. They participated in Black Lives Matter rallies. They placed Biden–Harris paraphernalia in their yards. No eyebrows were raised until the couple stuck a handmade sign in their yard, near a school bus stop, after Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection. The sign read “Bye Don” and “F*** Trump” on alternating sides.

Emily Baden’s mother, a former PBS executive, said she did not recall ever interacting with the Alitos save for the occasional “neighborly wave.” She feared the signs were “tacky,” but she did not object to her daughter’s conduct because her actions were taken, in her mind, with “good intent.” Around Christmastime, however, Martha-Ann Alito confronted Emily Baden, not to admonish her but to express her appreciation for Emily’s decision to take the offending sign down. But Emily had not taken the sign down — it had only blown down. Emily Baden told Kantor that she rejected Mrs. Alito’s gratitude. Instead, she promised to restore the graceless sign to its proper place (although Baden claims she does not remember if she acted on her pledge).

The January 6 riots intensified this conflict. Following the attack on the Capitol, the Baden couple replaced the original signs with some more explicit denunciations. “Trump Is a Fascist,” read one side of the new placard. “You Are Complicit,” the other charged. Emily Baden insists the allegation of complicity was not expressly directed at the Alitos. Rather, it was a blanket indictment of all the other Republicans who live and work in Alexandria. The Alitos could be forgiven for their misimpression, given their ongoing dispute over the Badens’ taste for off-color political sloganeering. Nevertheless, this time, Emily’s mother intervened and took the signs down, but only in fear of retribution from mobs of pro-Trump rioters.

On January 7, Mrs. Alito allegedly confronted the couple again. She is said to have pulled up in front of their house in her car while the Badens idled in theirs. She “lingered there, glaring, for a long moment.” If anything else came of this menacing stare-down, Kantor did not relate the details.

The inverted American flag flying over the Alitos’ Alexandria residence was photographed on January 17. Justice Samuel Alito maintains that the theatrical display was his wife’s idea, and the message was directed at the Badens. If that was the intention behind this exhibition, it misfired. The Badens insist they didn’t see it at the time. But that wasn’t the end of this affair.

“There was a part of me that’s like, let’s see what’s going on,” Emily Baden told Kantor ahead of her January 20 decision to drive past the Alitos’ residence. There, they found Martha-Ann Alito in her own yard, at which point she is described as having flown into a rage.

“Mrs. Alito ran toward their car and yelled something they did not understand,” Kantor’s report read. “The couple continued driving, they said, and as they passed the Alito home again to exit the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Alito appeared to spit toward the vehicle.” This hostile exchange, as characterized by the Badens, retraumatized the couple, who were “still shaken by the Capitol riot.” It “left them feeling uneasy and outmatched by the wife of someone so powerful.”

The simmering resentments between the two families came to a head on February 15. The Badens maintain that they were taking out the trash when the Alitos, “who seemed to be out for a stroll,” approached. Martha-Ann Alito reportedly confronted them and called them “fascists” while Justice Alito “remained silent.”

As the Alitos turned to remove themselves from the situation, Emily Baden “snapped.” Although she doesn’t remember the “precise words” she used, Kantor related the searing indictment Emily rattled off: “How dare you behave this way. You’ve been harassing us, over signs. You represent the highest court in the land. Shame on you.”

That is some high-flown, civically conscious language from someone who admits she also called Justice Alito’s wife a “c***” in the very same exchange. No one disputes that — neither Emily nor her neighbors who were within earshot of the squabble. The Badens were reportedly traumatized once more by the episode. They called the police on the Alitos, but the cops explained that no prosecutable infractions had been committed.

There were no further interactions between the Alitos and the Badens until late last year when Emily’s mother recalled her surprise at receiving one of the Alito family’s Christmas cards. But Kantor strongly implied that the seemingly amicable gesture was, in fact, an act of passive aggression. After all, as Emily Baden recalled, it included a “handwritten addition that read, ‘May you have PEACE.’”

This sequence of events conveys a far different impression than the erratic timeline in Kantor’s tale, which begins with the altercation on February 15 to establish in her readers’ minds an element of doubt about Justice Alito’s explanation for his wife’s behavior. As Kantor said of her own reporting, “that final incident, which Justice Alito said helped spur his wife to raise the upside-down flag, happened a month after the flag was up.” But when the timeline’s integrity is restored, we see that the February 15 altercation was the culmination of a variety of preceding incidents.

It seems more like Mrs. Alito was set off by a series of actions designed by their executor’s admission to be provocative. In a moment of pique, she allowed herself to display the American flag in a disrespectful manner — a misuse of the national banner that has, nevertheless, achieved a level of salience for protesters who seek to register their dissatisfaction with the political status quo. Kantor’s lurid tale does not undermine Justice Alito’s claim that his wife was inspired by their neighbors’ instigation to what could best be described as a lapse in judgment. Even if the Alitos and the Badens carried on their mutually dysfunctional relationship in unpleasant ways for weeks, any fair-minded reader must conclude that it was the Badens who went out of their way to antagonize their neighbors into an intemperate reaction.

Why does any of this merit the scrutiny of the New York Times? Because it is just another pincer in a disreputable campaign to impugn Samuel Alito’s jurisprudence. Kantor all but accuses Justice Alito of misleading the public with his original explanation for the hoisting of the inverted flag. She insinuates that he was so overcome with hostility for Joe Biden that he skipped his inauguration — an insinuation advanced by her failure to name the other justices who missed the mid-pandemic ceremony, including liberal justice Stephen Breyer. She deems the “Appeal to Heaven” flag commissioned by George Washington and adorned with language attributable to John Locke a “flag associated with the Jan. 6 riot as well as the Christian nationalist movement.” All this, Kantor maintains, led “ethics experts” and Democrats to impose “sharp scrutiny” on Alito — “scrutiny” conspicuously timed to coincide with the Supreme Court’s deliberations on cases “expected to influence” the 2024 election. Imagine that!

From the outset, Kantor concedes that her story is an otherwise unremarkable “neighborhood spat” that “has taken on far greater proportions.” The passive voice here should have been stricken from the text. These stories are not the result of the cosmic convergence of forces outside anyone’s control. They are a contrivance from beginning to end — all and only to serve the sordid purpose of advancing the Left’s preferred political outcomes by burying Alito beneath a mountain of spurious allegations. Even if each individual accusation lacks merit upon further analysis, they have cumulative weight. Hence, the tempo of updates from the Times. The trend, its architects hope, speaks for itself.

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