Why Is the Dallas Morning News Refusing to Admit That Their Story about Wendy Davis Was Based On Straight-Up Lies?

I'm an idiot writing to you from my bed with a laptop, and even I know that a bitter ex-husband does not a good source make.
Publish date:
January 30, 2014
politics, Texas, Wendy Davis, bad journalism

Twelve days ago, Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater published a laughable "expose" about Texas Democratic Senator Wendy Davis, who is running for governor on the heels of her famous July filibuster in support of abortion rights. In his story, Slater states:

“The basic elements of the narrative are true, but the full story of Wendy Davis’ life is more complicated, as often happens when public figures aim to define themselves. In the shorthand version that has developed, some facts have been blurred.”

Among Slater’s accusations:

  • Davis claimed to be divorced at age 19, when she was only separated from her first husband at 19. (Her divorce was actually final at age 21.)
  • Davis, who had her first child at age 19, has often spoken of living in a trailer with her infant daughter. Slater haughtily reports that Davis in fact “only lived a few months in the family mobile home” before moving on to an apartment.
  • Slater goes on to state that Davis left her 2 daughters with her second husband, Jeff Davis, while attending Harvard. Slater also claims that Jeff Davis was awarded “physical custody” in their divorce, insinuating Davis is a "bad mom."
  • Slater’s parting shot at Davis? An accusation that Jeff Davis cashed in his 401k and took out a loan to pay for Davis’ school -- and that Davis left him soon after he’d paid her tuition. From Slater’s story:

Jeff Davis said that was right around the time the final payment on their Harvard Law School loan was due. “It was ironic,” he said. “I made the last payment, and it was the next day she left.”

In short, Slater takes great care to paint Davis as a classic "female gold-digger."

Nobody disputes that Slater’s story was political sexism at its finest. But the real story here is that Slater’s accusations against Wendy Davis are actually completely false -- and more so, are based on outright lies.

Slater’s problems start with his decision to use only one source for his article -- Davis’ ex-husband, Jeff Davis. I’m more than a few years on from writing for my high school newspaper, but even I remember my journalism advisor’s hallowed words: “A biased source is a bad source.”

I'm an idiot writing to you from my bed with a laptop, and even I know that a bitter ex-husband does not a good source make.

Not so luckily for the Dallas Morning News, Texas writer and activist Jessica W. Luther has done what a major metropolitan daily newspaper failed to do -- basic fact checking of easily verified details that Slater would have found if he'd chosen to look. Luther's corrections to Slater's story make one thing very clear: his original piece was nothing more than an attempt at smearing Wendy Davis simply for being a woman. Among Luther's corrections that she submitted to the paper:

Slater claimed: “The daughters, then 8 and 2, remained with Jeff Davis in Fort Worth while Wendy Davis was at Harvard.”

Luther corrects: At a fundraising event in Austin, Davis stated: “When I went to Harvard Law School, my daughters came to Boston with me. But we decided as a family after the first semester that it was much better for them to be in Texas, in their home, with their friends, in their schools, and with the daily help of someone that I call 'Mom'. So during the rest of law school, I split my time between Texas and Boston, traveling back and forth as much as I could, including 2 weeks of every 4 at home with my daughters my last year in school. ”

Davis' daughters published open letters today to corroborate this.

Slater claimed: “Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody.”

Luther corrects: On Tuesday night, Wendy Davis said, “I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children. And to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”

Jay Root at The Texas Tribune writes, “According to divorce records, Davis and her husband were granted 'joint conservatorship' of her child, Dru, who was a teenager at the time. She continued to live with her father, Jeff Davis, in the house the couple had shared. “

Slater claimed: “When Davis was accepted to Harvard Law School, Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) account and eventually took out a loan to pay for her final year there.”

Luther corrects: This is not quite accurate, since it leaves no space for any reason that Jeff Davis would cash out his 401(k) except to pay for her tuition at Harvard. Following the publication of Slater's piece, Davis gave a statement to CNN complicating what Mr. Slater wrote: “Jeff Davis told CNN he took out the 401(k) for other reasons, as well. The market was down at the time and he had some investments go south, so he received some financial advice to take out a 401(k) loan.”

I reached out to Luther to find out if she'd heard anything back from the Dallas Morning News regarding their very obvious factual errors. Here's her response:

I emailed George Rodrigue, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, 1/29. At 7:46 a.m. he wrote me this: "Thank you. We will take a fresh look at the original story in light of your note and get back to you.”

As of 9:41 p.m. 1/29, there has been no correction to the article and no other correspondence from Rodrigue.

Slater himself so much as admits that his original custody accusations against Davis were false, as evidenced by his contradicting himself in his reporting on Davis' appearance at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser Tuesday night.

Luther, who doesn't miss a beat, caught this discrepancy as well and points out:

Slater states: Court records show Wendy and Jeff Davis were granted “joint conservatorship” as is usually the case in divorces, but under the final ruling, Jeff Davis was given physical custody of younger daughter Dru and Wendy Davis was ordered to pay child support. Amber, who was 21 and in college, subsequently moved back into the home with her sister and stepfather.

This is different than what Slater wrote in the original piece, which I specifically drew attention to in my email to Rodrigue this morning. As Slater originally wrote:

"Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody."

So...it's now completely different from what he originally stated? Making his original statement a lie? How shocking.

I reached out to both Slater and Rodrigue, informing them that I was working on this piece and asking for a statement regarding Luther's corrections. I have received no response.

The bottom line is that the Dallas Morning News has been busted perpetrating outright lies about Wendy Davis -- lies they think they can get away with just because she's a woman. They need to immediately admit that Slater's original story was based on complete factual inaccuracies and blatant falsehoods.

Be sure to send a brief note to both Wayne Slater and the paper's managing editor, George Rodrigue, letting them know that now you know their story is embarrassingly erroneous -- and urging them to print a retraction or clarification.

Wayne Slater: wslater@dallasnews.comGeorge Rodrigue: grodrigue@dallasnews.com

And here's a little something the Dallas Morning News should make sure to remember:

I'll be updating this story if anything changes.

UPDATE 5 p.m. PST: I have received word that the Dallas Morning News will be printing a clarification in tomorrow's paper. In an email, managing editor George Rodrigue states:

"I've reviewed our coverage and the available documents, and concluded that the story was fundamentally correct but that we needed to make one clarification, which you'll see in tomorrow's paper.

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."

UPDATE 1/31/ 8 a.m. PST: The Dallas Morning news has admitted that their reporting could have been better.

I'm on Twitter: @IveyAlison