Beware of reporters bearing flowers
You have to give the guy credit for ingenuity--as well as a brazen willingness to dupe the bereaved.
In the June issue of American Journalism Review, Morning News police reporter Todd Bensman--in a story titled "How Do You Feel?"--explains how he gets in the door in the pursuit of quotes from grieving relatives of crime victims.
"I bring flowers," Bensman told writer Fawn Germer. "I've done that a couple of times. It's completely transparent, but usually, when you get to the door, if they see you've got flowers they can possibly mistake you for being a friend of the family. You can get in the door. Once you're in, you can take it from there."
Germer, who quotes Bensman insisting he really, really hates interviewing crime victims, recounts one particularly colorful anecdote in which the News scribe employed his FTD technique.
Bensman was chasing a story about a mother of three who had left her kids with their grandmother; the grandmother set the house on fire, killing herself and the three children.
"That night I had to interview the mother, who was in shock," Bensman told Germer. "I figured it would be a tough one, so I brought the flowers. I managed to get in the door with that, get a few comments before they figured out who I was. Then they kicked me out. At least I got something."
A $22.1 million misunderstanding?
On the surface, it looked like a candidate for Most Embarrassing Reporter's Error of 1995.
On Friday, June 16, a story on the top of the Morning News' front page reported the Dallas Mavericks' blunt rejection of the city's new offer of a $35 million subsidy for a sports arena.
"Mavericks say city offer on new arena falls short," read the two-column headline on the piece, written by City Hall reporter Sylvia Martinez and Denton bureau reporter Kim North. Reported the News, high in the story: "Norm Sonju, general manager of the NBA basketball team, said the proposal--triple the city's previous offer--was a complete surprise and a meager contribution that 'defied logic,' given the estimated $141 million price tag of a new arena.
"'How in the world do you take it seriously?'" he said. "'This can't be called negotiating, not even in the wildest stretch of the imagination. We're no closer to a site today than we were in May 1994.'"
Seemed pretty clear where Sonju--and the Mavericks--stood.
Or so we thought.
The next day's "corrections, clarifications" column contained this item: "On page 1A and 1B Friday, a quote attributed to Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju regarding the city of Dallas' $35 million sports arena offer actually referred to the city's previous proposal of $12.9 million. Mr. Sonju said the city's $12.9 million offer 'defied logic.' Mr. Sonju also said he did not characterize the city's offer as too low, as reported in the story. He said Mavericks owner Don Carter will make that determination."
Consistent with the News' stated--and sometimes followed--policy of correcting a major error prominently, a story appeared on the top of page 1 as well, in the exact same spot as the previous story. Written by North, it carried comparably sized headlines reading: "Mavericks say they haven't taken stand on arena offer; Team wants to see terms of $35 million deal."
The story elaborated at length on Sonju's statement that the News had gotten it all wrong.
It flat-out stated that the previous story was mistaken in quoting Sonju as saying the city's new offer "defied logic"; that quote, reported the News, "actually referred to the city's previous proposal of $12.9 million."
It had Sonju asserting more broadly that "he did not characterize the city's [new] offer as too low, as reported in the [previous] story"; that the team had taken "no position" on the $35 million offer; and that Sonju said "Mavericks owner Don Carter will make that decision."
Newspapers make mistakes all the time. Last month, an Observer cover story noted in passing that the mother of the profile subject was dead. She was not.
Even so, it was unclear how--as the correction and second front-page story suggested--the News staffer who interviewed Sonju (it was North, BeloWatch is told) could have had such a monumental misunderstanding. (Excuse me, is that a baseball stadium we were talking about?) You'd think a reporter who made that kind of mistake would get a quick transfer to the obit desk--or worse.
Read closely, Sonju's reaction to the initial June 16 News story--as reported that night by KDFW-Channel 4 as well as in North's story the next day--had the smell of someone who was seeking to cover his tracks after speaking out of turn. (In the second-day story, Sonju insisted that the views he had expressed were "his personal opinion," and that his boss, Carter, would decide the team's position.)
But that interpretation required a close, cynical reading between the lines. Taken at face value, the correction and second-day story hung the reporters out to dry, leaving the clear impression that the major-league errors were theirs.
BeloWatch could not glean any further enlightenment from the key players in this episode.
North, citing the News' shut-up-or-get-fired edict from publisher Burl Osborne (that's BeloWatch's characterization, not hers), declined to offer any comment. Martinez could not be reached. News managing editor Bob Mong did not return a BeloWatch phone call. And the Mavs' Sonju could not be reached for comment.
So who's responsible for the episode--the News or Sonju?
As best BeloWatch can determine, both--though the reporters appear to have been unfairly maligned.
Mavericks spokesman Kevin Sullivan says News staffers who spoke to the team after Sonju complained said the misunderstood "defied logic" quote--the only point on which the News flat-out acknowledged a screwup--resulted from an editing error.
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"As far as I understand, it was an editor," he said. "She [North] had a quote from him, and it got put someplace else. Norm called Kim, and she explained what had happened, and it went from there. My understanding of it was it was an editor's mistake. The editor did call Norm."
The other clarifications were all attributed to Sonju, leaving open the possibility that he had changed his tune after being advised that he had spoken out of turn.
Sullivan rejected that theory. Sonju "obviously can speak for the club. I don't think he was backtracking."
But "at that point, we still hadn't even gotten the [formal] offer," Sullivan noted. And "the official position would come from Mr.