Everything I know about being a news reporter, I learned from two guys: Bob Richardson, the owner, general manager and unquestioned president for life of KEYJ Radio in Jamestown ND, where I started out in radio in 1979, and Jim Smorada, the editor of the Jamestown Sun and the guy who taught my Journalism 101 class during my freshman year of college.
Both taught me how to operate within the restrictions of both media, including restrictions of space (for print news) and time (for radio).
Both also taught me that the most important things were to:
While I was never enough of a reporter to make a career of it (I freelanced at maybe half a dozen newspapers and did news at three different radio stations), no editor ever threw a story back at me for telling an incomplete, inaccurate, unclear story.
Last Saturday, when Ed and I interviewed Rochelle Olson of the Strib about her October 7 piece on Alan Fine's 1995 arrest for domestic abuse, I asked Ms. Olson - why did one of the most key facts about the case, the fact that Fine was never indicted for or convicted of any crime, go unreported in the front page story on Fine, and only appear after Scott Johnson, and Fine himself, reported on the facts (and then only on Page B7)?
Olson's responses - I'll paraphrase closely, or you can check out the audio on Townhall.com to see for yourself - were:
According to Rochelle Olson, she and her editors wrangled for a good long time about exactly which of the story's various facts to include in the finished product.
When I was a reporter, I used to outline the key facts of a story, to make sure they all got covered. Here are the key facts of the Fine story:
(In addition, it might help the reader make up their mind about the story to note that Fine's son now lives with Fine, despite the fact that father very rarely get custody from Hennepin County courts - a fact that tends to undercut claims of abuse).
So why would the editors and Ms. Olson leave two of those key facts completely out? What is the journalistic justification for leaving those two absolutely key facts out of the story?
The story took up 35 column inches; in other words, if you laid the columns out in one long row, it'd be an inch shy of a yard. Not small, not huge.
Newspapers budget their space as strictly as radio stations budget their time.
So the question is - given that a couple of key facts got left out of the article, could we take something out of the original article that would get the basic facts across and fit into the original 35 inches of copy?
The original article ran 1214 words. 1214 divided by 35 inches means about 35 word per inch.
I'll keep it short, sweet and clear: "Fine was never indicted or convicted as a result of this arrest. In 2003, Hennepin county courts awarded Fine custody of his and Wexler's child, currently 12 years old, after Ms. Wexler was charged with domestic abuse in an incident involving Fine's nephew". Short, fairly clear, and it gets the facts across. A real reporter could no doubt do better, but it's a decent first take.
44 words. An inch and a quarter, and it plugs the factual gap in the original story.
Can we fit in in there?
The Edit Job
I'm going to select some candidates for things that might have been clipped to make room for the two key facts that were left out. I'll indicate them
with a strikeout. Let's see if we can excise a column inch, somehow or another. My comments will be in blue.
I've managed to clip 281 or so words - a bit over eight column inches - to make way for about 1.25 inches needed to get the two key facts of the story, the kind of thing journalists and editors are supposed to want to get into the story...into the story! I mean, take out any 45 or so of those words, keep the other 240-odd words, and put the two simple facts into the article...the whole story, or at least a more complete condensation of it, is told!
Minneapolis congressional candidate Alan Fine was charged with domestic violence in 1995 and nine years later had his record expunged, in a case in which he and his first ex-wife give different versions of the events that led to him ending up in the Hennepin County jail.
His wife at the time, Rebecca Wexler, dropped the abuse charge, and Fine succeeded in having the case removed from Hennepin County court and police records, according to documents recently obtained by the Star Tribune.
Fine, who is the Fifth District Republican candidate, said in a recent interview that he never struck Wexler.
He said he sought to have his records expunged because he was innocent.
Wexler said Thursday that she agreed to drop the charges two to three weeks after the arrest
only because Fine pressured her and because he promised to work out their problems in marriage counseling[Fair game? Maybe - but it's also the uncorroborated word of a principal to the story who, the Strib didn't bother to tell us, lost custody of her son due to a bit of an anger management problem, so she just might not be the most reliable source on this subject. 17 words cut!]. The couple divorced the following year.
The Star Tribune learned of the arrest in a routine records check after Fine won the Republican endorsement in May. The newspaper obtained the expunged record detailing the arrest two weeks ago.
In the interview and in court documents, Fine accused his ex-wife and her father, Hennepin County Judge Thomas Wexler, of conspiring in 1995 to stage a domestic incident and get him arrested for assault in order to make him "look bad" before he filed for divorce. "They wanted to have leverage in the divorce," Fine said. "I'm speculating here. I don't have proof."
Fine stated in an affidavit connected with the divorce proceedings that his then-wife "admitted to me, in the presence of another person, that she had made a mistake in having me arrested and that her allegations were untrue." Fine was asked repeatedly by reporters to identify who that other person was. He said he could not remember.
Thomas Wexler, who has been on the court bench for 16 years, said he and his daughter did not try to stage the incident.
"As a matter of fact, Rebecca had been reporting to me that Alan had been hitting her prior" to the incident, Thomas Wexler said. He said that his wife had advised their daughter to call the police if another incident took place and that his daughter heeded the advice.
Fine was arrested by Minneapolis police and booked into the county jail for fifth-degree assault on June 2, 1995, according to the sealed police report obtained by the Star Tribune. Fine was shown the report and did not dispute its authenticity.
The report states that officers arrested Fine in his home at 3907 Zenith Av. S. after his then-wife told them that Fine had assaulted her. Police noted in the report that Fine had scratches on his face and chest. He was released from jail after several hours.
Fine, 44, who teaches at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, is running for the seat held for 28 years by Democrat Rep. Martin Sabo, who is retiring.
Fine said in an interview Wednesday that he sought to expunge his criminal record because he committed no crime. "I've never struck a woman in my life," he said.
Rebecca Wexler said in an interview that Fine and his brother Bob Fine, an attorney, spoke to her about the charges after the arrest.
"Bob Fine got on the phone with me and basically told me what to do in order to get Alan out of the mess he was in," she said. "I was also receiving calls from the prosecutor trying to get me to testify against Alan. And at the same time, I was trying to save my marriage. Within days after I told the prosecutor that I was not going to cooperate in pressing charges against Alan, Alan filed for divorce." [He said, she said. Everyone has reasons and excuses. Is it news? More importantly, is it more important than one of the dispositive facts that were omitted from the story? Oh, yeah - I just clipped 105 worlds - three column inches!]
Bob Fine, a Minneapolis Park Board member, said he couldn't remember details and even if he could, he wouldn't be able to discuss them. "If I disclose anything, I'm violating attorney-client privilege, and I'm on bad enough terms with him anyway," Bob Fine said, referring to his brother.[So what? More important than the fact that Fine was never convicted? I think not! 35 more words - enough to fit in the crucial omitted facts all by itself!]
According to Rebecca Wexler's divorce affidavit, the alleged assaults started in late 1993 when she was two months pregnant. "In the middle of an argument, [Fine] suddenly slapped me across the face with sufficient force to knock me to the ground," she stated in her affidavit.
The matter came to a head on June 2, 1995. Wexler said in an interview that she was changing her son's diaper and that Fine slapped her across the face after she asked for help.
She said in the affidavit that he "took a few steps away, then turned around and said, 'Wait, let me get the other side,' and slapped me on the side of my face." When he returned to the house that evening, she said she ordered him to leave. When he slapped her again, she said, she called police and Fine was arrested.
In his interview, Fine at first said he couldn't remember details of what happened. Then later, he said Rebecca Wexler broke into a "rage" and scratched and hit him. "I came back from work and Rebecca called the police and I ended up in jail," he said.
Thomas Wexler said Fine had admitted to him that he hit his daughter, according to a 1995 affidavit he signed in connection with the couple's divorce.
But Alan Fine said Wednesday, "I never admitted anything to him," referring to the judge. "I never would. I never did anything like that. He's just lying. He's trying to protect his daughter."[60 words, based on an unsupported, uncorroborated statement by someone with a vested interest in one of the sides - although I'm less likely to omit this bit, since both parties' ongoing record tends to undercut Wexler's story. Or at least give the reader the information they need to figure it out for themselves.]
Asked why he waited until 2004 to have the record expunged, Fine said, "I don't know. I just got around to it and did it," he said.
A person's criminal record may only be expunged after a judge has reviewed a person's statement outlining why the record should be removed from the public eye.
In Hennepin Court, expungement hearings are part of the routine calendar. Judges consider the level of crime committed and the length of time that has passed since the crime when making their decision.
Minneapolis police records show there have been five 911 calls labeled as "domestic" dating from 1995 to April 2005 involving Alan Fine's address.
Information about a September 1995 call is no longer available. In 1996, Fine called police to have them stand by while he picked up his son, the log shows. In 2001, Fine called 911 during an argument with an ex-girlfriend outside his home.[44 words gone. Although the next bit here is interesting...] In 2003, Fine called from his home, saying his son was abused at his ex-wife's suburban home and was advised by Minneapolis authorities to call local police where she resided. [ This bit here kinda begs to be supported by that pesky fact that Ms. Wexler has had domestic abuse problems of her own] In 2005, Rebecca Wexler called, stating that she was not being allowed to see her son at Fine's residence.
During the interview, Fine did not dispute the accuracy of the 911 calls and said he couldn't remember details about the call made in 1995.
Fine said it would be "irresponsible" for the newspaper to publish an article about the arrest because it would hurt his child. "I've done nothing wrong," Fine said.
After state Rep. Keith Ellison won the DFL nomination, Fine launched a persistent attack on his character, focusing on his past ties to the Nation of Islam. Fine has repeatedly said "character matters."[Surely you jest. This "irony" (undercut by the facts of Fine's story, to say nothing of the Ellison story the Strib refuses to cover) serves only to "spike the ball" - and gives it the appearance of a hit piece. Lose it - all 34 words of it.]
So if a moron like me can take ten minutes to rewrite the article to include the two other facts important for the reader - especially the CD5 voter - to really know the whole story, then why couldn't the Strib editors?
More importantly why didn't they?
That, indeed, is the real question - why did the Strib choose to leave those 30-40 words worth of key facts out of the story, to mention them days later (in a story on page B7), after Scott Johnson came out with the facts?
And by what "journalistic" criteria did a group of journalists and editors - "gatekeepers" - decide those facts just didn't stack up?Posted by Mitch at October 18, 2006 05:51 AM | TrackBack