Here's how Shani George, a 20-year-old intern at The Dallas Morning News, got the biggest scoop in the country last week. Here's why her interview and subsequent front-page exclusive story caused other journalists to wag their fingers at the News. And here's why, in the end, it ain't no big deal.
First, the background, for those who have a life and don't follow this stuff obsessively like we media whores do. Carlton Dotson is in jail in Chestertown, Maryland, charged with murdering his friend and former Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy. The Morning News and other Texas papers have been aggressively covering the case, so the News was hell-bent on getting access to Dotson for an interview before anyone else could.
Robert Dodge, an experienced reporter in the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau, had been trying to set up an interview, with no luck. The decision was made to send George to the jail to see if she could fare better.
Freeze frame: When dissecting this scoop, this is the first decision the News made that has invited carping from media hounds. Go through Jim Romenesko's influential media blog (which you can find at www.poynter.org) and you'll see several comments like this:
"I cannot fathom why any editor would willfully send an UNSUPERVISED cub reporter into a jailhouse to try to score an exclusive interview with the suspect in one of the biggest murder cases of the summer," one outraged observer wrote. "That decision shows an utter lack of common sense. There is simply no good excuse for it. And it raises legitimate questions about whether the editors, knowing that the staff reporter assigned to the story had been rebuffed by the suspect, actually were trying to get a story by clandestine means. I just wish someone had taken notes at the 'considerable conversation' that deputy ME Lennox Samuels told CNN the editors had before making the assignment, because I want to know what kind of flawed logic led to that judgment."
After talking to several reporters and editors on background and off the record, as well as with Vice President and Managing Editor Stuart Wilk, I can tell you why George was sent--and the reason was obvious right away to me and anyone who paid attention. They sent George because she was young, smart and black. Dotson is young and black. They hoped he would feel more comfortable talking to someone who was more like him than a middle-aged white reporter who was having no luck. (George is, in fact, the only African-American writer in the Washington bureau.) As an editor, I would have done the same thing if she had previously done good work and shown poise and maturity, which everyone I talked to says she has.
After getting the assignment, a stickier problem occurred, because George has been accused by Dotson's attorney and father of misrepresenting herself to get the story. (George politely but firmly declined to be interviewed for this story; after an initial barrage of press, the paper circled the wagons and asked Wilk to take all queries.)
Let's assume for a minute that misrepresenting yourself is a bad thing and it shouldn't be done. At the very least, let's assume (because it's true) that the holier-than-thou News would never condone such a thing. The question is, did George lie to get her interview?
Only a few people know for sure, but my guess is no, not at all. Here's what I think happened, according to Wilk and News reporters and editors who spoke on condition their names not be used. (I've also visited jails dozens of times to talk to inmates, and I'm factoring in how off-the-wall stupid all prison personnel are, and how I have been allowed and then not allowed to take notes on subsequent visits because of the whims of these knuckle-draggers.)
George showed up and gave her name to a jail employee. She also gave a note that had her name and that she worked at the Morning News written on it. Also, a press pass was given with that note. Word was passed to Dotson, who said he would see her. The note and pass were given back to George, presumably unread.
Now, here's the tricky part. George knew that she was about to have a scoop. She didn't know if they knew she was a reporter, but who gives a rat's ass what the jail personnel know? Also, she saw a sign that read "no recording devices." This is where the holier-than-thou set says she made a mistake, in retrospect: Not wanting to queer the deal, she decided that she would not ask if she could take notes. She said she identified herself to Dotson, which I believe. She decided on the spot that she would do the interview, recall as best she could what he said, then run out and call her editors. Which is what she did.
Do I believe that? Sure. Before I became a broken-down cynical shell of a human being, I was a young aggressive reporter. At 22, I was given a cover story assignment for D magazine, to go to spring training and write about new Texas Ranger Jose Canseco. I had scheduled an interview, but when I arrived, Canseco said he had no interest in talking to me. Thankfully, that day's practice was rained out. As I sat in the clubhouse, Canseco sidled up to me and began talking. It was great stuff. But we were just talking. What do I do? Grab my notepad and scare him off? Listen and reconstruct it later? If that happened now, I would have grabbed my pad, because so what if I chased him away? I come back and the story is dead, no big deal. But then, I thought that would have shown I didn't have the right stuff to make it in this business. Luckily, Canseco looked at me and said, "Hey, aren't you gonna take this down?"
Now that doesn't mean the News is blameless in this. Should her editor in Dallas have made it clear that she didn't take notes in the story? I think so. Should he have allowed her to quote only a few memorable words (for example, when Dotson said, "If someone points a gun at you and shoots and it doesn't go off, what would you do?") and paraphrase the rest? Yes. But no one is disputing the meat of the story, except Dotson's father, who admits he didn't even know that an interview with his son had been conducted because he doesn't watch the news.
"Would we all have felt better had notes been taken?" Wilk asks rhetorically. "Sure. I can also understand her instincts in doing it the way she did it. The important thing here is that Shani got one heck of an interview, and the veracity of it has not been challenged...She's an exceptionally poised young woman, and she did good work."
So I give her a pass on this. To be sure, I called my former journalism professor from college, who happens to be Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze. He told me a story about how, many years ago, he talked for two hours with the guy whose brother mixed the Jonestown Kool-Aid, then reconstructed quotes in his car because he knew he would have lost the interview had he taken out a notebook. "Our job is to get people to talk to us, and sometimes that's not always easy to do," he said. At least, I think that's what he said. I didn't take notes.
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