Published April 16, 2008
As the Marc Dann story churns and churns, one of our challenges at The Vindicator has been to monitor the spin. We’re also watching the facts, and trying to filter facts from fiction (or at least what now is fiction that in time may become fact).
Right from the first story last week, we were challenged with what is fair to report vs. what is unfair.
What was fact immediately was that two female co-workers alleged sexual harassment against Anthony Gutierrez, Dann’s director of general services and also his Liberty neighbor.
What wasn't initially verified as fact were the claims by the women – from pizza parties to unbuttoned pants to staffers in pajamas.
Plenty of legal leeway is given to media in reporting such allegations when it is against a public official, as opposed to a private citizen. This is generally referred to as “fair comment.” But a newsroom also needs to be wary of the court of public opinion. In that realm, there is not as much leeway. So while newspapers have the right to do many things, we try to do what is right for the readers.
We offered an extensive account of the initial Gutierrez allegations because he was the target of an official investigation.
Our first story, while it reported the allegation that Dann's personal scheduler was at the condo after work hours, we sidestepped that she was there allegedly in pajamas. Why? It seemed too salacious. We didn’t like it. That was our guess; our hunch; our gut instinct.
Not reporting this tidbit was picked up by people in the newsroom as well as in the community. Talk radio seemed overly deliberate about pajamas reported in one paper and not ours. When other media stayed with “pajamas,” we stayed true to our first decision.
Our instincts were rewarded because in the days since, it was reported that a initial investigator erroneously placed Dann’s aide "pajamas." The accuser did not. (For the record: They are now officially “sweatpants.”)
As you read the multiple newspaper accounts, you will probably notice that different newspapers included or excluded details found in other publications. This is not unique to this event.
It will be interesting to watch how the text messages get reported over the coming days. The Plain Dealer went first with this last night: "Girl. . .im in a weird situation. .iem w marc dan. . . .drunnnnk."
It’s a text message from one of the Gutierrez accusers written to a friend during the infamous condo pizza party.
In addition to watching fairness, we watch spin. And that’s been plentiful, too.
Actually, we first learned of the Dann story early on a Sunday morning when Dann Communications Director Leo Jennings emailed me at 9:30 on a Sunday morning:
Todd: The Columbus Dispatch today published a story regarding a sexual harassment complaint filed by two employees of the AG's office against our General Services Director. It is important for you to know that this story contains substantive errors, including errors that may be legally actionable. If you consider running this story in the Vindicator I would appreciate having the opportunity to speak to a reporter so I can correct those errors.
Damage control was kicking in, and it continued with Jennings later last week. After my Wednesday blog, Leo chided the Ohio media, saying that national media holds Dann as a groundbreaking attorney general and is more aware of the important things going on in the AG’s office than the state media. Contrary to his reputation, Leo was actually unusually polite in telling me the newspapers were off on this.
But now he too is out of his job, at least temporarily. We are eager to learn why the specific allegations against Gutierrez were made public nearly immediately but the alleged wrongdoings of Jennings have thus far been hushed up.
One last item to note on the Dann saga: Recently, eight of Ohio’s largest newspapers launched a partnership designed to strengthen our organizations. Newspapers are besieged with financial challenges. Our newsrooms are shrinking at a time when people are consuming more information than ever before. But newspapers pre-date Ben Franklin, and have survived in business employing the same skills used to ferret out news like the Dann fiasco.
As a result of the partnership, you may have noticed stories from Akron, Columbus, Cleveland and others in our pages recently. The new collaboration has been tremendously useful in reporting this Dann case.
After Jennings’ first Sunday email, it wasn’t long afterward that I was in contact with the Dispatch. Within a day, the Plain Dealer and Dayton joined in, as have others.
The value of a newspaper’s work shows in many ways. But it stands out in news controversies like the Marc Dann case.