Jason Noble, The Kansas City Star’s Jefferson City correspondent the last several years, has resigned and is moving to Des Moines to take a reporting job with The Des Moines Register.
Noble, who has been with The Star about seven or eight years, ran into a buzz saw earlier this month, when inaccuracies undermined an attempted “expose” that Noble wrote about Republican State Sen. Rob Schaaf. After Schaaf wrote a three-page letter of complaint to The Star’s political editor, the paper published a four-part correction.
In a brief telephone interview from his Jefferson City office Thursday, Noble confirmed a report I picked up on Wednesday that he was parting ways with The Star.
“I am leaving The Star and going to The Des Moines Register, and it’s entirely my own volition,” Noble said.
He declined to elaborate or to discuss the correction, but it is obvious that the move to The Register was in the works well before July 10, when the Schaaf story was published.
The application, interviewing and screening process involved in selecting a reporter for a salaried position at a major metropolitan daily customarily takes at least two to three months.
A man who answered the phone on The Register’s Metro desk yesterday said that Noble’s first day of work would be Aug. 9.
In one way, Noble was very fortunate: He landed a new job before, or about the same time as, the Schaaf story came crashing down around his head. In another way, he was unlucky: The snakebit story will overshadow his years and his good stories at The Star.
After Metro columnist Steve Penn was fired for plagiarism a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry under the headline “A horrible way to pack up your pencils.”
Same applies for Noble. A cloud accompanies him to his new job; he’ll be watched like a hawk.
The damning story led the Sunday, July 10, edition of The Star. Ten days later, The Star published a seven-column-inch piece on Page A2 correcting three key facts in the main story and one in a sidebar.
Any reporter will tell you that while one factual error in a story is regrettable, having to correct several errors in one piece of work is ignominious.
The story was an attempted “gotcha” of Schaaf, a first-year senator from St. Joseph.
Noble sought to establish in the story that, during the last legislative session, Schaaf had 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.
The story implied that Schaaf, a 54-year-old physician, was dead-set against the bill because he has a significant financial interest in a company called MoDocs that which insures physicians. 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.”
On its face, the story gave the clear impression of a legislator acting out of, and motivated by, self-interest.
Ah, but a really nasty devil was lurking in the details.
In several interviews with Noble before the story was published, Schaaf did his best to defend himself — saying he did not recall talking to Senate leader Rob Mayer about the bill and correcting Noble several times after Noble referred to him in conversation as “co-owner” of MoDocs.
After the story appeared, Schaaf said, he talked with Noble and disputed several things that Noble had written. Getting no satisfaction from Noble, he said, he and his 22-year-old son, Robert, a recent Harvard University graduate, laid out Noble’s grievances in a three-page letter, which they sent to Bill Dalton, The Star’s political editor.
Schaaf, who previously served eight years in the Missouri House, said he got Dalton’s name and title from a Senate staff member.
The letter, which Schaaf posted on his state website, is measured and direct.
After laying out his objections, Schaaf said: “In conclusion, I again ask that the Star print a public apology and retraction. Mr. Noble reported very dishonestly…”
Schaaf said he later spoke with Dalton, who has been a KC Star editor for many years, and that Dalton told him the paper was planning to run a four-part correction. Other than that, Schaaf said, Dalton essentially told him, “We stand behind the story.”
That’s exactly what I would expect an editor to say under such circumstances. Similarly, when I asked Noble yesterday why he didn’t want to talk about the correction, he replied, “The correction speaks for itself.” Nothing he says about it now will make any difference or lessen the gravity of the errors.
The correction appeared on Wednesday, July 20. Among other things, it said that Schaaf was not “co-owner” of the insurance company but “co-founder, secretary, treasurer and chairman of the board.”
Where his co-ownership comes into play is with a holding company that has a contract to supervise MoDocs’ day-to-day operations.
The correction also acknowledged that Noble’s story had incorrectly stated the manner in which Schaaf receives compensation for his MoDocs-related work.
In addition, very damningly, Noble had reported that after the bill had been introduced “lawmakers recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer, who is responsible for assigning bills to committee.”
Turns out, though, it was just one lawmaker — not two, three or several — who, under the cloak of anonymity, told Noble he had seen Schaaf hurry off to Mayer’s office.
Along with the sloppy errors pertaining to Schaaf’s corporate ownership and compensation (and a third one about a previous medical-malpractice reform bill that had been assigned to Schaaf’s committee) the facile and incorrect conversion of the singular “lawmaker” to the plural “lawmakers” gave the distinct impression that Noble was out to skewer Schaaf.
You can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that!
When a reporter sets out to expose someone’s perceived wrongdoing, he or she had better have all the facts down pat — double verified — and then keep the story free of anything that looks like he or she has it in for the subject. Errors of the magnitude that Noble made tend to indicate he was in such a hurry to stick the knife in Schaaf that he plundered through the reporting like he was knocking over bowling pins.
The result: Schaaf wins, and The Star looks like crap.
“The article about me was so over the top that it just feels like they were out to get me,” Schaaf told me yesterday. “…The whole thing is just a hatchet job.”