An extraordinary correction popped up in Wednesday’s Kansas City Star.
Usually, when you see a correction, a single fact is corrected. Occasionally, you see a double-barreled correction. But not often does it occur that a correction addresses three or four facts in a story.
That’s what happened Wednesday — a grand slam correction; four in one.
It all stemmed from a July 10 story by Jason Noble, The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent. The story, which led the front page, was a “gotcha” on state Sen. Rob Schaaf, who, in the last legislative session, apparently steered a bill he didn’t like to a committee where he is vice chairman.
There, the bill — which would have more strictly regulated Missouri’s medical-malpractice insurance industry — died.
And why was Schaaf dead-set against the bill? In his story, Noble reported that Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph, is “co-owner of the Missouri Doctors Mutual Insurance Co., known as MoDocs.” The bill that died in Schaaf’s committee, Noble wrote, “would have required his company to substantially increase its cash surplus and rewrite its policies for charging customers.”
One of the pivotal, substantiating points that Noble made to help demonstrate Schaaf’s keen interest in getting the bill assigned to his committee was this:
“When Senate Bill 302 was read into the record on Feb. 21, lawmakers recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer, who is responsible for assigning bills to committee.” (Note that Noble said “lawmakers,” plural.)
As you can see, this is a story that made Schaaf look very bad. The senator did his best to defend himself in the story, saying the bill was “a bad idea,” but at the same time asserting that “I doubt I had much influence on the trajectory of the bill.”
It was after the story appeared, however, that Schaaf apparently mounted his strongest counter attack.
From the looks of this seven-column-inch correction, I would guess that Schaaf might have had the help of a lawyer. Schaaf obviously lit into Noble and his editors very aggressively.
This is the type of situation a reporter absolutely hates to get into, especially when you’ve screwed up key parts of a story. You go from being on the offensive to completely on the defensive.
Working through Schaaf’s counter allegations and Noble’s self-defense must have taken several hours over several days inside the newsroom. The fact that the correction appeared 10 days after the story was published tells you it was a very sticky situation.
The deputy managing editor for Metro, Anne Spenner, was undoubtedly involved, and I’m sure Managing Editor Steve Shirk was involved, too. Editor Mike Fannin was probably alerted.
So, here are the points that needed to be corrected:
– It was just one lawmaker, not two or more, who told Noble that Schaaf “rushed to the office” of the senate leader…When you’re doing a “hit” story, you have to be very careful and precise, and in this case Noble overreached, sliding from the singular to the plural. That goes beyond soppy; it’s intellectually dishonest.
– Noble said Schaaf is “co-owner” of MoDocs. He’s not. He is co-founder, secretary, treasurer and chairman of the board. A nonprofit, MoDocs is owned by the members it insures…That mistake was the result of sloppiness, laziness and being in a hurry to close in for the kill.
– Noble’s story indicated that all previous medical-malpractice insurance reform bills had been referred to another committee, never Schaaf’s. It turns out, though, that at least one other such bill had been assigned to Schaaf’s committee…More laziness.
– Finally, in an accompanying, or “sidebar,” story, Noble screwed something up regarding a holding company that Schaaf co-owns. Because of the way the correction is worded, however, it’s impossible to tell exactly what the problem was.
Another interesting part of this correction is that it exposed the weakness and inherent silliness of The Star’s longstanding policy of not repeating, in corrections, the erroneous parts of original stories.
Usually, all you get is head-scratching corrections that give you new information but don’t put it in the context of what was wrong in the first place.
In this case, however, the policy came back to bite The Star right in the ass.
In the first three parts of the correction, The Star had to repeat the erroneous items in order for the correction to make any sense at all. I mean, can you imagine the correction simply saying, “The story should have said a lawmaker recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer.” It would have left the readers completely befuddled.
But, then, in the fourth and final part of the correction, The Star stupidly reverted to its policy of not repeating the original error, and the reader was left to try to figure this out:
“An accompanying story…should have said that a holding company co-owned by Schaaf that provided management services to the insurance firm collected a maximum 10-percent surcharge on the firm’s employee payroll expenses.”
What the hell does that mean? What’s the context? Unfortunately, the sidebar is no longer available online, so the reader can’t possibly tell where it was wrong or lacked clarity.
Oh, and one more thing: As of late Wednesday night, the online version of the story had not been altered, and no correction was appended.
There are two lessons here:
Jason Noble needs to be watched very closely. (He probably faces some disciplinary action, perhaps a suspension.)
The Star needs to get out of the Dark Ages with its corrections policy and acknowledge, each and every time, exactly how it screwed up. That’s what The New York Times does, and there’s no shame in following the lead of the nation’s best paper.