I got some interesting comments from a guy named Dan on one of my blog posts about the Isle Mayor.
He asked me if I had read Betty DeCoursey’s letter, which Betty posted on Vivian Clark’s blog.
I did read the letter. It was hand delivered to me from the mayor this morning. It’s possible that Betty makes some valid points. I can’t know for sure until I see a transcript of the trial. She’s also wrong about some things, like what the attorney said to Viv about thanking the jury. Viv knows what Richard Curott said to her. Betty doesn’t, unless she was sitting there when he made the call. And besides, newspapers paraphrase and cut things out all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s simply not possible to quote everything in its entirety. And sometimes reporters include everything and the editor cuts it, so it’s not always the reporter’s fault.
Some things Betty mentions, even if she’s right, don’t make much of a difference in the story. There’s some nitpicking going on, as I told Mike today. He said I’m too dumb to argue with and walked out my office. I tried to get him to come back because I wanted to show him why the Mille Lacs County Times story was more damaging to him than Viv’s story was, but he didn’t want to listen. I think Mike and Betty are seizing on minor details because there isn’t any significant evidence that our coverage is bad.
One example: Betty says the story didn’t start with beer. Well, that depends on your perspective. The story took place in the beer garden, after all, and a beer thrown in someone’s face set certain significant events in motion. On the other hand, Betty makes a good point about sexual harassment. Maybe the story could’ve emphasized that more strongly.
The bottom line is that Viv’s story doesn’t put the DeCourseys in a bad light. I’ve heard from plenty of people who sympathize with the DeCourseys who think we’re doing a fair job. People in the office who like Mike and think the cops were wrong read the story beforehand and thought it was fair. I publicly said I sympathized with Mike and hoped he got off, and I went over the story carefully to eliminate what I thought might be taken as a slant one way or the other. Since I wasn’t at the trial, I can’t say if it was perfect, but I trust Viv, and I know that two people can see a trial in very different ways.
I can’t see why Mike and Betty think we’re being so hard on them, so maybe I am too dumb to argue with.
I’m quite sure the cops and prosecutors would say we’ve slanted the coverage in favor of Mike. In fact, I’ve heard complaints because we let Mike make a statement when the first story broke on the charges. We don’t do that routinely with stories about felony charges. As usual in this business, when you get heat from both sides, you’re probably doing something right.
I also offered to publish Betty’s letter if she met our word limit. Her letter was 1,400 words, which is more than twice our limit, and twice as much as we ourselves are allowed in our opinion columns. I even offered her 100 extra words, and I offered to edit it down for her and let her okay it, but she declined. I also told her she could publish the entire letter on the Messenger’s website.
I told Mike when the story of the felony charges was published that we would give equal billing to the story of the verdict. He said we’d bury the story. I said they would both be front page stories. Mike was disappointed (to put it generously) to see that the verdict story was one column, while the story on the felony charges was two.
The original story was two columns because it fit nicely that way with the cover photo and other front page story that week.
Frankly, I didn’t look at the original story before laying out the verdict story. Both were front page stories. To me, that’s equal billing. Mike disagreed. That’s okay. He noticed the difference in point size of the headlines. That’s significant, but you have to look at the entire context of the page. I think “DeCoursey not guilty” stood out very strongly.
You could also look at column inches to determine which got more play. By that measure, the first story had about 15 column inches on the front page and the second story had 12 (I’m estimating from memory, since I’m at home). Most journalists would not see that as a significant difference in coverage. Again, I’d call that nitpicking.
Mike also took issue with the headline. In the first story, the headline said “Mayor charge with assault,” or something like that. In the second, it said “DeCoursey not guilty.” Mike saw some hidden meaning in that, but I’m not sure what it was because he didn’t hang around long enough to explain it. The reason I said “DeCoursey not guilty” was because “Mayor not guilty” wouldn’t have filled out the line as well. A typical editorial decision based on appearance. No conspiracy.
I see that I got a comment on my blog from Mike, so I’ll sign off and let the comments come in. I’m actually enjoying this open dialogue and hope it continues.