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Posts Tagged ‘Rob Schaaf’

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.

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Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf

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.”

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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.

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