As it should, The Star is pushing hard to keep the Karen Pletz story alive and moving forward.
In its zeal to stay ahead of the game, however, I think The Star made a big mistake in its latest story, published Sunday, by granting anonymity to three sources who didn’t deserve it.
The story essentially reported the contents of four letters, written three to five years ago, and sent to Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences board members about Pletz’ $1.2 million salary and her questionable expenditure of university funds.
Only one of the letter writers, physician Maureen Dudgeon, who led the university’s bioethics program, was willing to go on the record. She wrote an anonymous letter to several board members in April 2007 and resigned after the board took no action on her complaints.
Reporter Alan Bavley, The Star’s medical writer, built his story around Dudgeon precisely because she was willing to go on the record. From there, however, the story loses momentum because it devolves into anonymous sources.
The first letter to board members, for example, was written by a university employee in 2005. Bavley does not say whether the employee signed his name to the letter, although I think we can assume that he did. The letter was sent to two board members, the IRS and the Missouri attorney general’s office.
Bavley wrote: “The writer asked to remain anonymous because of continuing ties to the medical community.”
To that, I say balderdash. If you think about it, it means that the writer of the letter would rather have the medical community regard him as discreet about outrageous conduct rather than someone courageous enough to expose reprehensible conduct. Furthermore, I’m sure that just about everyone who is intimately familiar with the Pletz situation is well aware of the letter writer’s identity. So what’s to hide?
To me, Bavley and his editors should have pushed the letter writer hard to go on the record…or the story should have run without the information.
Same for the third and fourth letters, one of which was sent by a student to board members and the other by a whistle-blower to the university’s auditing firm.
Now, the whistle blower has got to be widely known, otherwise she wouldn’t be a whistle blower. And yet, Bavley granted her anonymity “because of continuing relationships in the Kansas City health care community.”
Cop-out, that’s all you can say — by the whistle blower, Bavley and the editors. Everybody washes their hands and walks away.
As for the student — now a medical resident — she asked that her name not be used “because she feared reprisals.” That’s the oldest, tiredest excuse in the book.
Feared reprisals? From whom? People who would make life difficult for her because she had stood up for what was right? Because she saw obvious problems at her school and wanted to see them corrected?
Yet, I’ve been in Bavley’s shoes, and I know how difficult it is for a reporter to withhold anonymity. When you’ve got a source talking and the information is flowing — and you’ve already granted anonymity — the last thing you want to do is shut off the spigot.
Nevertheless, Bavley and his editors should have pulled in the reins on their eagerness to get the big, six-column story that they wanted. From the outset, they should have talked about the conditions under which they would grant anonymity, and that issue should have been re-evaluated every step of the way, depending on what the sources were saying and why they wanted to be off the record. Anonymity is not carte blanche; you can seek to change the terms along the way.
If Bavley could have gotten just one of the three anonymous sources to agree to be on the record, along with Dudgeon, the story would have been much stronger and less gossipy.
Often, a reporter has to become a salesperson — first selling a story idea to an editor, then selling the idea to sources so they will want to participate and, finally, selling sources on the importance of putting their names behind what they believe in.
In my book, Bavley gets a B-minus for the story and an “F” for salesmanship. Likewise, his editors get an “F” for failing to shepherd the story responsibly.