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May 31, 2011

4

Leavenworth goes after the Don

by Deena Winter

Do those guys over at Leavenworth Street have any idea who they’re messing with?

The Don — as in, Don Walton, the esteemed, 50-plus-year veteran political reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star.

The Republicans on Leavenworth Street are ticked at Don for writing a couple of weeks ago that the Nebraska Republican Party was listed as a client of Maptitude, a company that sells software that presumably helps make gerrymandering easier on the brain — the better to buttress Democrats’ contention that Republicans played politics with district boundaries. Well. The GOP was a client… in 2001. But not now.

Once the error was pointed out to Don, he Tweeted about the mistake and changed the item in his online column. That was not enough for Leavenworth, who spanked Don for merely enlightening the electronic readers, but not informing those poor people who still just read the actual newspaper.

So the ever-affable Don tried to appease Leavenworth yet again yesterday, with a column item (third one down) clarifying that his original column was unintentionally misleading, since the GOP is not actually a client of Maptitude anymore. Leavenworth is still not exactly happy.

I remember a few months after joining the Journal Star, I learned a story of mine had not one, but two mistakes in it. That was the day I learned of the Journal Star’s rather draconian correction policy: If you made five or more mistakes within a year, you were basically put on suspension. And then if you made another mistake within three months, you were hanged by your toenails, or fired. Or something along those lines. They didn’t mention that until I made two mistakes in one day. That was not a good day.

I had never worked for a paper with such a policy, and it was a frequent source of irritation to the reporters who did not cover Rainbows and Butterflies. Like political reporters who wrote stories with all kinds of numbers in them, stories that required the reporter to actually do math, or stories that attempted to explain something like Tax Increment Financing. In addition, those same reporters were often crankers: They wrote one or two stories per day, on average, as opposed to those on the more relaxed one-column-a-week schedule.

So on top of the fact that certain reporters write a much bigger volume of words per year — thereby increasing the chance they’d make a mistake — they were covering much more complicated subjects. But no matter: The rules were the rules and they applied to everyone, uniformly. Oh, and if you made a mistake and didn’t correct it, you could be fired. Didn’t matter whether it was an error that “substantially changed the meaning of the story” (the World-Herald standard at the time — although they so rarely printed corrections we doubted that was even the threshhold). And clarifying the mistake in a subsequent column was never acceptable when I worked for the LJS.

A reporter actually told me she avoided ever using numbers in stories to avoid making a mistake. Another young, brazen reporter told me she simply did not report her mistakes — that was a risk she was willing to take (she got by with it, by the way). That was the kind of hysteria the policy fostered.

But getting back to the Don-Leavenworth fight: I am surprised Don didn’t run a correction right away, in the paper, but then I’ve seen a lot of mistakes in recent months and no corrections. So either nobody noticed, nobody cared, or nobody enforces much of a correction policy at all anymore.

More interesting to me is the back story: I was out of state when I got the same tip Don apparently got: That the Republicans were clients of Maptitude. I knew I didn’t have time to call the GOP about it, so I didn’t mess with it. A political operative tipped me off, and I’d bet a subscription to Leavenworth Street that the same guy tipped off Don. Don just made the mistake of not calling the GOP for comment, where he would have undoubtedly learned they were no longer customers. Happens to the best of us.

But then Leavenworth gave Don one final blow, with this:

And we are also very cognizant that this sort of “mistake” would not have been made against Ben Nelson. It just wouldn’t have. And if it had, it would have been corrected and retracted until we were all sick of it.

And we all know that. But every once in a while, it needs to be said.

Being a political reporter is not always fun — you make a mistake, you’ll be hanged. If not by your boss, by the bloggers.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. deb
    May 31 2011

    I, personally think that it’s basically just where the wind blows. I am sick and tired of the “dumbing down” of readers, and that being said, the people who believe everything they read, whether internet or paper. Don’t care of it’s govt., newspapers (aka big corps.) businesses or your next door neighbor, you gotta do your research!

    No one is to blame, yet everyone is to blame…..sound bites are not a good thing!

    Reply
  2. paul mike grieger
    May 31 2011

    Hang-em High…
    there are more “reporters” graduating twice a year. !!!!

    Reply
  3. Dave Fall
    Jun 1 2011

    Why do Republicans worry about this? Must feel guilty. I have spent an entire life time in politics and have drawn many maps. For both sides. Is the point gerrymandering took place? Answer is , of course, next question please?

    Reply
  4. Fletch
    Jun 3 2011

    Didn’t you criticize one of your primary opponents for sending out a factually incorrect mailing and then apologizing about it on Twitter? The details are sketchy in my mind – but I swear this happened. You commented about the sheer differences in numbers of people who got the mailing vs. the very few who would see the apology/retraction. How is the first part of this story with Don any different.

    I’m sure the world of folks that know Don and work with Don he’s a fabulous guy, but from the viewpoint of a this LJS subscriber, his work is horrible. Factually correct or not, his columns are awful (and the most slanted stuff in the paper). To that end, it’s a shame you left the paper and he stayed. Your work was much more interesting and much more worth reading. I keep hoping he’ll retire soon.

    Reply

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