Yesterday, I wrote about journalist Jessica Luther's callout of the Dallas Morning News' poorly researched "biography" of Texas democratic candidate for Governor Sen. Wendy Davis. The article in question was written by the paper's senior political reporter, Wayne Slater. Luther politely refers to Slater's piece as having "inaccuracies" -- while I prefer to call it an obvious sexist smear job.
It seems that a whole hell of a lot of you promptly sent rabid emails to the newspaper, because managing editor George Rodrigue soon posted the following to the Opinion/Ask the Editor page of the Dallas Morning News’ website, admitting that Slater’s story about Davis' life could, well, use some work:
"We’ve received a number of letters recently alleging that Wayne Slater’s January 18 story on Wendy Davis’ biography contained serious errors. There is one point on which I believe the story was factually correct, but could have been clearer and more complete.
The most thorough set of questions came to us from Jessica Luther of Austin, whose signature says she’s a “writer, journalist, activist.” Her comprehensive note serves as a useful template for addressing the concerns raised by others.”
First of all, LOL at his “quotes” around Luther’s actual job. As if she is these things simply via self-proclamation. (Luther has a point-by-point breakdown of Rodrigue's response here.) But I digress. Here’s the point Rodrigue is conceding:
Slater claimed:"Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody.”
As Luther corrected for the paper:“Jay Root at The Texas Tribune writes, "According to divorce records, she and her husband were granted 'joint conservatorship' of her child, Dru, who was a teenager at the time.”
Rodrigue now admits that Slater did indeed gloss over the actual facts of the situation:
“The key phrase in Wayne’s report was ‘parental custody.’ It is common in divorce cases for parents to share joint legal custody, or 'joint conservatorship'. In the case of Sen. Davis’ divorce, she and her husband were ‘joint managing conservators.’ Both were empowered to make decisions for the child’s welfare.
‘Parental custody’ does not appear in my legal dictionary; Wayne used it as a way of telling ordinary readers which parent was given primary responsibility for housing and caring for the child.
Our story was accurate, as far as it went, but in this area it could have been clearer and more complete. We did not explain exactly what we meant by 'parental custody,' nor did we specify the extent of Ms. Davis’ continued involvement with her daughter under the decree. When we wrote and edited the story, we thought readers would take that for granted, because these arrangements are typical in divorces. That left some readers perhaps too free to misinterpret the situation.
We will print a clarification in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
Let me get this straight: Slater assumed that his readers would make the leap to understanding what he was trying to say, even though he was using completely incorrect terminology? This is high school journalism all over again: you’ve got to make sure the folks in the cheap seats can follow your logic, all the while not boring your more savvy readers. It’s an art for a reason. Slater’s article failed on this account.
This is, of course, all a game of spin. Rodrigue can’t come right out and admit that Slater’s reporting was indeed substandard -- or can he? As Rodrigue himself muses:
“Wayne’s story offered readers what a good newspaper should provide: An excellent first draft of history. It tried to be fair -- indeed, it noted that the broad outlines of her campaign biography were correct -- and it aimed to be as complete as space permitted.”
Are the words “first draft” and “tried” really being used to describe the work of the senior political writer of a major metropolitan newspaper? As if the Dallas Morning News is meant to get a participation trophy just for showing up?
It's pretty rich that a story titled "As Wendy Davis touts life story in race for governor, key facts blurred" turns out to have done some blurring of its own. Slater tried to make a mountain out of a molehill -- and failed.
Rodrigue and I definitely agree on one thing: Wendy Davis is being railroaded by sexist attacks on her life story and worth as both a woman and mother. As he states in his Opinion/Ask the Editor post:
"Sen. Davis’ detractors have selectively used or mis-used parts of our report to make some charges against her that are never made in the story itself. That’s par for the course in politics these days, but we hope readers will judge our stories (and the candidates’ records) on what we publish, and not on how zealous advocates spin what we publish."
The paper is also not done dealing with the fallout from Slater's original story. Rodrigue promises more to come, stating in his email to readers who contacted him today:
"Also, please note that I'm explicitly criticizing some of Sen. Davis' detractors for going far beyond anything we printed or implied in their criticisms of her. I think it's important to separate our story from the resulting political spin. We'll have more on what Sen. Davis' daughters had to say in this weekend's paper."
Like any good story, this one is far from over. Stay tuned.
UPDATE 8:30 a.m. PST: Here's the text of the 'clarification' from today's print edition of the Dallas Morning News:
If you have a spare moment, please send a big thank you to Jessica Luther, who has been tirelessly banging this drum since the story broke: @scATX.
I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison.