Maryln Schwartz is ticked. The 20-year lifestyle columnist at The Dallas Morning News, who was granted "permanent medical leave" from the paper after acknowledging multiple mistakes in her columns, is upset at an item in last week's Dallas Observer that suggests she made up names and sources in her columns.
"They never said, ever, that I made anything up at all," she says. "I did mess up some things, and I said so. I was taking medication. I had severe problems, and I did mess up some names so badly that I admitted I made some errors. But all I said was that I made some mistakes in the names."
Schwartz herself acknowledges that she often would make innocuous goofs that her editors caught before publication. She points to a column she wrote about a beauty-care product as an example.
"I wrote about this new mascara called 'orgasm' mascara," she says, laughing. "One of the editors double-checked it and said, 'No, Maryln, it's a blush.' So luckily I never said that people were walking around Dallas with 'orgasm' on their eyes."
It's a clarification that Schwartz, a likable presence on the DMN pages during her tenure as a columnist and as a reporter there for 16 years prior to that, should be allowed to make. An editor should rightly point out that no one who spells her name in such an unusual manner should transpose or misspell names herself, but whatever. As an editor at several papers, I can tell you that some of the best reporters and writers are incredibly sloppy when it comes to checking simple facts. It's unfortunate, but it happens. It's a source of frustration for editors, yes, but it's rarely in and of itself an offense that gets you removed from the page.
It's also true, technically, that no one at the paper said that she was making up sources. At least, no one made that claim to her.
Here's what shook out. An editor ran a routine name-check of a column Schwartz wrote in late January. The paper will occasionally run names that appear in the paper through a database that scans for that name in Texas drivers license records and Texas phone books. A name in her column didn't match up. So they asked her to confirm the name. She couldn't. They then checked 35 past columns in the same manner and came up with multiple people mentioned who could not be found in the database.
Schwartz says these mistakes were genuine, and perhaps she would use, for example, someone's nickname ("Ellie") for someone who would be listed under his given name ("Gabrielle"). Schwartz and Morning News Editor Bob Mong emphasize that she will not be writing again for the paper because her medical condition--she's battling cancer, diabetes and a thyroid condition--contributed to her mistakes and no one could guarantee the mistakes wouldn't arise again. Actually, Mong made clear that this was the official line, not one he was going to put his name to on record. In fact, when asked if her medical condition and treatment caused her mistakes, Mong said simply, "That's her story."
Which doesn't mean that Mong doesn't believe her, but if he had his doubts about the existence of some of the sources, he would not be alone in the newsroom. Conversations with lifestyle editors and co-workers past and present suggest that, at the very least, Schwartz has always been seen as sloppy with the facts. "Some people have always said she made stuff up," says one longtime co-worker. "I don't know about that, but I do know that once they tried to audit her stories, it became like quicksand. The deeper they got, the more questions were raised. There was never a smoking gun. But there were enough questions that Bob [Mong] knew something had to be done."
In any case, it's apparent that Mong did the right thing in negotiating a parting that saved face for the paper--given that her doctor supported her contention, there was little else he could do. It's another indication of Mong's no-nonsense persona that has begun to infect the newsroom. It further suggests that, despite a few big missteps, Mong is re-energizing a long-moribund beast.
Again, though, it's only fair that Schwartz gets the last word here.
"They never accused me of making stuff up, and we parted ways amicably," she says. "I've gotten over 400 e-mails wishing me well, and I want everyone to know that I did write opinions, but I never made things up. That's the truth."
Most of you probably don't know Dan Michalski. That's a shame. The longtime Dallas freelance journalist (who has written stories for the Dallas Observer, as well as D Magazine, Texas Monthly, Penthouse and other like-minded publications) is worth knowing for several reasons, including:
··· He will all but hand you his wallet while playing poker.
··· He is far more entertaining than most highly educated people, doing things like growing a beard during the early stages of the U.S. battle in Afghanistan so he could "sneak into the country and see what's going on over there."
··· In his current bid as the Libertarian candidate running for the vacant District 5 congressional seat, Michalski, hoping to catch a ride on the populist train that brought former writer Laura Miller the title of mayor, has constructed one of the most compelling campaign Web sites to be found anywhere (www.votedan.org). Space precludes listing all the things found therein that crack up yours truly, but here's a sampling:
A link about himself titled, "Candidate briefly believes Afghan earthquake was government cover-up of underground nuclear warfare." It is subtitled, "Fifteen minutes of Internet research convinces him otherwise."
Click on the "Pornography" link at the bottom of the page and you're redirected to the Web site for the Democratic National Committee (www.dnc.org).
His take on the issue of prisons: "Don't even get me started."
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About our current congressional leaders, Michalski says, "I respect their wisdom but question their hipness."
This news brief, found on the site and written by "Dan the Man" himself, is too good to explain or edit. Just remember, it's all true, and part of being a good journalist (and, in turn, a good American) is knowing when to laugh at yourself.
"The Libertarians' District Convention was held in a booth at Back Country Bar-b-cue on Greenville Avenue. Dan, who was in Washington, D.C., at the time, met with delegates via mobile phone. The conference call posed several questions to the declared candidate, and after hearing his answers the forum voted. Dan kicked the ass of his sole opponent, NOTA (None of the Above), winning the nomination with a convincingly unanimous 3-0 vote.
"Shortly after hearing the news of his victory, his phone battery died, thus ending the convention."