Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Correction of Breathtaking Proportions

(UPDATE 9:48 a.m. PT: I've reached out to Joe to get his reaction. Will post it if he is willing and permitted to respond. In the meantime, read a new development here.)
(UPDATE 6:23 pm PT: The correction is now appended to the top of the story on the Web.)


Read this. All of it. Click on it to make it big enough to see. Now. Then we'll talk.

Wow. I had to scan this in because the Las Vegas Sun didn't post it on their pretty new Web site. They also didn't append it to the Web version of the story that spawned it, as is standard for most newspapers. Perhaps that's because had they done so, they would have had to let everyone see just how much of a lie the closing statement is: "All these errors tended to give the story an anti-Summerlin tone, which was not intended... ." That's funny because, from the very first sentences of the piece, it was clear that the entire intention was to snark about the rich, white-bread, partly racist, insulated folks of Summerlin and how fitting it was that a white local high school student would be gunned down to shatter the myth and ignorance of Summerlinsers. And this sentence surely wasn't intended to be fair: "The picture painted by the numbers, then, shows that contrary to the rosy marketing and public relations image, Summerlin is far from immune to the ills found in any major community."

I must say I am clobbered by the shoddiness of the original piece mainly because its author, Joe Schoenmann, is generally a terrific reporter and a wonderful writer. I've known Joe since our days working together in the late 1990s at the Review-Journal, I've referred many editors to him when I either can't or didn't want to do certain freelance assignments and I've often said that I'm lucky he never decided to freelance or I might really have some competition in this town from someone else who, like me, has the versatility to handle just about anything.

But yikes-o-rama on this one. He used comments from anonymous crazies on the R-J Web site to attempt to reflect the views of some proportion of something as mammoth as one of the largest master-planned developments in America, with a 100,000+ population larger than most U.S. cities? He mocks the sales brochure of Summerlin which is, after all, a sales brochure and reads like any you'll ever see anywhere? What does anyone expect it to say, "It's kinda nice living up here, but just in case we give every family a Lo-Jack"?

Most disturbing about this piece is that its thesis was predetermined -- gangbanging invades pristine Summerlin! -- and filled in by some truly lazy reporting that led to some of the serious factual mistakes found in there. It's clear Joe didn't leave his desk for this one, which is OK in some cases; I am, after all, the guy who covered the Monte Carlo fire from New York City, though not because I wanted to. But Joe is writing specifically about a geographic region and the views of its residents and he didn't go to the school grounds or neighborhoods to talk to anyone? The sources quoted in the piece are, in total:

* A school board member
* A Summerlin executive
* Anonymous kooks writing on a Web site
* As a "woman on the street," (journalism parlance for an average person reflective of general sentiment), the wife of one of the most prominent public relations gurus in the state.

This correction also took a full week in coming. And I'd love to know what happened behind the scenes over there. I mean, it is a full-fledged grovel to Summerlin. In fact, some of it is unnecessary self-flagellation pointing up problems in the piece that actually aren't correction-worthy.

It can't be that they were threatened with legal action, as who would the plaintiffs be? Could it be that the Summerlin brass exploded and made a threat to withhold advertising? Cried foul that the Sun, owned by the Greenspun family, is an arch-rival as developers of Green Valley and would never write such a piece about their own territory where, presumably, the brochures also don't advertise the crime rate?

But wait, the Las Vegas Sun doesn't have advertising; it's folded into the R-J, which carries all the advertising water and shares it with them in some insignificant way that can't possibly cover the Sun's operating expenses. Oh, but Greenspun Media Group has lots of other publications (full disclosure: I write for two, Vegas Magazine and Las Vegas Weekly), so maybe that's where the threats came from?

Or, perhaps, the Sun's editors realized that they'd made an honest-to-goodness &%&W#-up and just wanted to come clean for the sake of integrity. If so, bravo. A nine-paragraph correction is above-and-beyond.

Anyway, I'm really disappointed by Joe on this one. Sometimes we get complacent, and I hope he's learned not to do that with this experience. If you want to see just how good he can be, check out this Las Vegas Life piece on brothel fugitive Joe Conforte. Brilliant.

41 comments:

DJG said...

And it's not like Summerlin has standing to sue!!

Anonymous said...

After reading the story and the correction, I am convinced that the Joe Conforte story was mostly, if not entirely, fabricated.


Schoenmann is not a "terrific reporter and a wonderful writer." He's a pitiful hack whose hackiness is just now being discovered.

A "terrific reporter and a wonderful writer" would not have produced sloppy work such as what you highlighted.

Anonymous said...

Did ya call Joe to ask what happened? Maybe the story was taken out of his hands and rewritten by some higher-up honcho. Perhaps his byline was slapped on something over which he had no control. But we just don't know. So, give him a call and get his side of it.

Anonymous said...

the correction is on the bottom of the story now.

enhager said...

Where were the editors - so many factual errors yet no city editor or copy editor caught the mistakes - he might as well have been writing for a blog.

Anonymous said...

I work with Joe at the Sun and while I think that Steve's critique is accurate and fair, I think some of the comments are out of line. he's not accused of fabricating anything. He just had a bad day. He got lazy. That's all. Don't go being mean. If you have a legitimate comment, make it. otherwise, try to remember that there are human beings behind every story, even the bad ones, that you read.

svenmint said...

I wasn't in the Sun's newsroom so I can't say what happened. But I have been in a newsroom where editors -- desperate to show that they're in touch with both readers and the web -- lean heavily on reporters to take comments like the ones in this story from web site and forums. It's stupid, irresponsible and just lousy journalism.

Anonymous said...

This guy's a reporter having a 'bad day'? No self-respecting reporter would do such a hack job. At my paper, he'd be out on the street, jobless, the following day. Actually, such a sloppy story, complete with the anonymous web quotes, wouldn't see the light of day at most papers.

Anonymous said...

He's hacktacular, and it's not the first time he's been called out. Just ask Damon Hodge at the Weekly. His July 12 article "My secret comments revealed" is all about J.S. - even though Hodge wouldn't come right out and say it, which is a pity in its own right.

I agree with that other commenter - that Joe Conforte story just sounds bogus.

Anyone reminded of that character in the Wire? Maybe it's time for a back-reading of all Joe's work.

Anonymous said...

"I'm lucky he never decided to freelance or I might really have some competition in this town from someone else who, like me, has the versatility to handle just about anything."

Really? Granted, this is one of the most self-congratulating blogs on the internet, but this one takes the cake...

J.S. is a terrible reporter. Did you see the story he did on Tom Urbanski? The Sun sent the guy to Denver and he brings back that tripe?

But S.F. thinks he's awesome, so I guess hacks watch each other's backs.

Exclaiber said...

I heartily endorse the suggestion that you get this reporter's side of the story because NOTHING you have written supports your assertion that he is some great reporter. Indeed, the correction suggests fireable offenses.

Anonymous said...

This is my first time reading your blog, so I don't know about your own journalism credentials. Have you thought about calling Joe and asking him what the heck happened? I also don't know much about the Sun. Is it a reputable paper? Do they edit their stories before publication? Because if they did, why the heck didn't Joe's editor or the copy desk pick up on how awesomely WRONG this story was? This is a paper that covers Las Vegas and the surrounding area. You'd assume they know the basic demographics and geographics. I could see an intern from a newspaper in another state making this mistake, but a veteran reporter *in his hometown*? You'd be doing us all a favor to get the real story about how and why this happened.

Anonymous said...

It's the clear the whole paper failed. From the reporter to the editors, they're all on the hook for this shoddy piece of journalism. How this story made it into the paper raises series questions about the checks and balances of those working at the Las Vegas Sun. This was journalism 101 and they couldn't get it right? And this reporter wasn't just lazy or having a bad day as someone put it. He was careless, and he was reckless. Another point: Why should Steve call Joe for comment? Joe undoubtedly has read this blog. He's perfectly capable of defending himself. And I doubt Joe's editors would let him respond. As for Steve's credentials? He's the best journalist in Las Vegas -- hands down. Read his work in the NYT and other publications. See for yourself. But this debate isn't about Steve; it's about the Las Vegas Sun and a reporter who should be doing some real soul searching after authoring that indefensible, steaming turd.

Danny G said...

I like the part where the anonymous poster is attacking other people for bad journalism but then says "I don't know about your own journalism credentials." Dude, they're right there to your right: "Steve Friess is a podcaster and Vegas-based freelance journalist who writes regularly for USA Today, The New York Times, Newsweek and many others." With links and EVERYTHING!

Also, Steve Friess is far and away the most significant freelance writer in Vegas. He's not being self-congratulatory here. He really is virtually the only writer in the city who does what he does. And he was trying to be nice about Joe because they've been friends.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the folks who suggest trying to get the reporter's side.

Although the story has obvious, indefensible errors, and it definitely comes to a conclusion not well-supported in the story, the correction isn't exactly dispassionate or even-handed as well.

For one thing, the crime rate v. the correction seems to be overreacting a bit. The two should not be conflated, but let's not pretend that incident reports (albeit not, ahem, traffic accidents) aren't indicative somewhat of an area's general safety. That being said, of course calls for service or incident reports shouldn't be held up as more than they are.

I don't live in Vegas, but the correction leads me to believe something more than a reporter's sloppiness was behind the tone of the correction.

I agree with the previous commenter's assertion that the reporter should be doing some serious soul-searching after this story. And I would imagine he's beating himself up over it.

I don't know any reporter -- or a serious practitioner of any trade -- who wouldn't after screwing up. Most people want to do well at their jobs, especially when they can be held up to public ridicule. And no, I'm not a Pollyanna.

Frank Kelley in Austin, Texas said...

I like the part where Anonymous Crazies on this blog are attacking the reporter for taking the Anonymous Crazies on another site seriously in their piece. Hey, if you have something nasty to say, at least identify yourself.

mike_ch said...

Some of this is indefensible, the rest of it, not so much.

Most heinous is just the anonymous comment box copypasta. I'm really growing tired of the trend in news sites to add a comments box, a Digg counter, and usually some MySpace/Facebook links to every story. I've altered my web browser to not display the comments that show up with YouTube videos. Y'know why? They're all terrible. The comments attached to news stories are usually even worse, so let's let blogs be blogs and news stories be news stories and not make an attempt to confuse the two.

Sadly, I'm in the clear minority in this one. This comments box mania is spreading to more and more legitimate news sources. I wouldn't be shocked if CNN adopted them, soon.

The crime statistics deal, I understand more. The guy used Metro's CrimeView site for his statistics. This is what people who are moving into town use to get an idea of how dangerous their neighbourhoods are. This is what a lot of TV News like Ch3 tells viewers to go use to see what's going on around them. It is, by almost all Sun readers' standards, a respectable gauge. To get any more detailed picture would require calling up Metro and playing the "I'm a reporter, please talk to me" game.

Finally, as someone who lives in the area, I have to say this is just old animosity coming home to roost. Summerlites are only getting what was coming to them after they pitched an epic fit over the McCarran flight path redirections. I just tell everyone I'm from the northwest now thanks to all that madness and the ill will it generated, and avoid saying anything about Summerlin. Eat crow, ya big babies.

Ryan said...

Traffic is going to go through the roof now... this thread has been listed on FARK.... (not by me).

Anonymous said...

So anonymous comments on a blog stink, right?

But anonymous comments on Page One of the NYTimes and every other paper are just fine?

Oh, that's right. the Times, etc., can be trusted. They use gatekeepers to protect the purity of the process. Silly me.

Anonymous said...

Summerlin is lame.

Obbop said...

Remove the Black and Chicano crimes from governmental statistics and the USA is among the safest industrialized countries in the world.

Toss those statistics back in and the USA is among the most dangerous industrialized countries.

Reality trumps political correctness, folks.

Sam B. said...

Wow, I'm surprised it took this long to get a racist with an agenda trying to derail the comment thread. Well done.
As for the story, it looks like a clear case of editorializing in the guise of legitimate journalism. If Steve says the guy's ok, I trust him. My guess is the editors were leaning on him to crank out some anti-Summerlin scare piece and he knuckled under the pressure. That happens a lot more than I wish it did, sadly.

Anonymous said...

This is too far beyond lazy to be forgivable. No 7th grader would have received a passing grade on his article. How many people will spend the rest of their lives with preconceived notions about this town, never knowing most of what they "knew" was flat out wrong.

Anonymous said...

@ Obbop: So, what happens when you take these all white statistics and compare them to the all white statistics of other countries? You are aware most countries have as many minorities and foreigners as we do, correct?

Anonymous said...

How much work did you do to get the story on the story, beyond telling the wind you'd "love to know what happened behind the scenes over there"? Instead of posing your own set of theoretical questions in response to the easily criticised "thesis," why not do the job and get the answers from verifiable sources. In other words, did the paper decline to comment at every level? Did you bother to seek a response?

Anonymous said...

I bet the paper was pressured into posting that over-the-top correction. I mean seriously, it seems like the paper was bending over backwards to mollify some Summerlin biz type. But unless Joe has the courage to talk (probably not), I suppose we'll never know.

Obbop said...

"You are aware most countries have as many minorities and foreigners as we do, correct?"

No, you are NOT correct.

Anonymous said...

I noticed no diminution of breath after reading the correction. Can you be ticketed for misuse of adjectives in the blogosphere?

Floyd said...

Sounds like the original story was pulled out of someone's butt and lazily written without any attempt to depict actual reality or to verify the rumors which they chose to include. Who the heck wrote the story? The New York Times?

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