Thursday, March 6, 2008

Further Tales of The Las Vegas Sun Disaster


Like many of you, I've wanted to know more about what happened to create the disastrous story by Las Vegas Sun reporter Joe Schoenmann that led to a 535-word correction in Tuesday's newspaper. Since I blogged about it the other day, the correction has risen to No. 9 on the most-read list on the Sun's website and has garnered the attention of several news outlets including Editor & Publisher, the industry trade, which wrote this.

There's more.

I just got off the line with Tom Warden, the spokesman for Summerlin, who opened up about what happened, how his company reacted and how that shocking correction came to exist.

The original Feb. 26 story depicting Summerlin residents as racists ran in the wake of a shooting that killed a white teenage boy. Warden's first reaction was to call Schoenmann that day to complain about what he saw as factual errors and reporter bias. As the correction notes, Schoenmann had quoted anonymous racist postings from the Review-Journal site by people who claimed to be Summerlin residents, although there's no way of knowing and sources within the Review-Journal have told me that the posters' IP addresses showed that they probably were not. (Also, more than one posting came from the same IP address, I'm told.)

Schoenmann didn't budge about this or any other clear-cut mistake. "He thought it was a good story," Warden said. "I would not call it a productive conversation. I told him there were factual errors in the story. He didn’t think there were."

Oh, but there were. And as Warden prepared to contact Schoenmann's boss, Managing Editor Mike Kelley, he opened the Feb. 27 issue of the newspaper to find a Mike Smith cartoon and a letter to the editor from a Susan M. Gaffney of North Las Vegas that asked Summerlinites: "Do you honestly believe that hte location or size of your home, what you drive, how you look or where your children attend school protects you from reality?"

Here is the cartoon:

Warden said Summerlin folks felt kicked in the gut a second time. He and Summerlin executive Kevin Orrock went to Kelley's office for a half-hour conversation two days later, on Feb. 29. Schoenmann was not present; Warden would not say who, besides he, Kelley and Orrock, was.

Warden stressed repeatedly that the conversation was cordial and Kelley promised to look into the list of complaints he brought. There was no threat of advertising or access withdrawal and Warden said his side stressed from the beginning that they have great respect for the Greenspun family of companies. (That family includes the branch that developed Green Valley, the other major master-planned community in the region.)

Sun sources tell me Kelley himself wrote the March 4 correction. I've reached out to both Schoenmann and Kelley, but I have not heard back. (In fairness, I only reached out to Kelley within the past hour because I wanted to hear from Warden first. I contacted Joe yesterday and received no reply.)

The Summerlin brass are sated. "I had never seen a correction of that length," Warden said. "They took into account every single one of the issues I brought up. We’re gratified that the leadership stepped in and acknowledged the shortcomings."

That said, I have a minor correction to make myself. In my March 1 blog entry, I credited Joe with having quoted a Summerlin executive. Sadly, this, too, is not true. Schoenmann did NOT contact anyone in any official capacity for his piece; the person I thought was a Summerlin executive in a very quick reading was actually a consultant who has not done work for the developer for a while. It is shocking anew that a journalist did not give the developer a chance to respond to such a characterization of their community but then would refuse to even acknowledge shortcomings of the story when called on it.

Warden isn't quite sure how this story happened and said he was not given an explanation by Kelley. His theory: "I would say that there may be a bit of a blind spot out there amongst some of the younger journalists that anonymous blogs are not valid news sources. I was surprised that they would use an anonymous news site as a source for statements unattributed. Blogs can be excellent pubic forums for discussion, but there’s a different standard that you would use for a news piece."

That's charitable, but Schoenmann is in his 30s and has been in this business for more than a decade.

Should Schoenmann face some disciplinary action? "That’s not for us to say," Warden said. "That’s for the Sun’s leadership to determine. I will say we certainly wouldn’t mind if the reporter called to apologize."



Anonymous said...

So I take it that Joe will not be coming over for Thanksgiving dinner then?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's conclusive that Joe had a responsibility to call the developer. Regardless of how successful it was, it seems like the idea of the story was to write about Summerlin as a neighborhood - a place that exists where real people live/have opinions/commit crimes/talk to their neighbors/organize/blog etc. It wasn't a business story. I believe in most cities on a story like this you might, say, call a city council member or other community leaders/activists. The idea that a developer would be the go-to source instead - and the story's most glaring absence - is almost a little disturbing. No?

mike_ch said...

I sort of agree with the second Anonymous there. The sooner we treat these developments like districts in our city instead of like little cities of their own is the day these kinds of divisions go away.

Master-planned "communities" are a danger to Las Vegas' ability to harmonize as a city. Some people don't event realize that Summerlin is part of Las Vegas, they think it's a town of it's own. The sprawl of single family homes all over the valley has left us at a disadvantage over normal cities of 2 million and more, which have much a much higher population density, and less problems with utilities, roads, and public transport catching up than we do.

The sooner we stop deluding ourselves into thinking Summerlin (or Aliante, or whatever) is special, the sooner the kind of divisiveness exemplified in this article will disappear.

Anonymous said...

While baby-faced enough to appear in his 30s, I'm nearly 95 percent certain Joe's 45. A brilliant writer but often lazy reporter who arrogantly likes to promote his own viewpoint. Sadly, he might have taken those two anonymous quotes and taken that as a jumping off point for a really good, indepth piece looking at the stereotypes behind master-planned communities in general. Such an analytical examination would require actual experts though, and certainly doesn't feed the copy beast.

Danny G said...

I don't think Steve meant to say it is the MOST glaring mistake Joe had made in this debacle, only that it was yet another one. The fact is, had Joe called the Summerlin folks, he might have had some of his facts corrected and at least the people of Summerlin would have had an advocate in a bashing story about them.

Anonymous said...

regarding the last comment, neighborhood advocates should be people who live in the neighborhood and represent a certain point of view, or are elected by popular vote to represent the neighborhood. A person representing the business interests of the developer would perhaps be good to interview and would bring a viewpoint you might decide you want in the story, but they're not necessarily going to have the same agenda as residents.

Bay in TN said...

I'm just leaving a comment because I dislike all those anonymous comments. Yes, I know anonymity is the friend of many posters, but it *always* makes me question the validity of the responses if they're posted without ID.

That said, I do wonder if there's an opening at your Thanksgiving fete, and if so, I would love to fill it. I once had an article factually contested by a manufacturer on whose product I had reported was not the coolest in the world. I cried. I sent my original notes to the editor in chief and the publisher. I apologized profusely. And in the end, no correction was published in the magazine, because my editor found that I had gone above and beyond the call of duty to get the manufacturer to cooperate with our product tests.

Basically, though, I would have been much happier if I had been a writer for a magazine about fairies or space travel or time warping. Because, seriously, fiction is way more fun than non-fiction.

Do you think Joe is crying or losing sleep over all this? Do you think anyone in the Summerlin Chamber of Commerce cried? I'm just curious. They have a spokesman. I mean, obviously, the family and friends of the murdered boy have an emotional tie to this whole sordid tale. Who else is emotionally involved?

mike_ch said...

"regarding the last comment, neighborhood advocates should be people who live in the neighborhood and represent a certain point of view, or are elected by popular vote to represent the neighborhood."

You mean like a city councilor? I hope so. If you mean some HOA board member or something, then you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Anonymous said...

There's no crying in journalism! No crying!

Greg Thomas said...

You posters do realize that, while you seem to believe that contacting the developer is somewhat unnecessary, it was the DEVELOPER that had the clout to get this correction done. I doubt the paper would have listened to the bitching of the head of some HOA.

Bravo to Steve for continuing to follow this.

Bradley said...

Uh, "Blogs can be excellent pubic forums for discussion. . ."?


Anonymous said...

I wanted to clarify whom I was addressing in my letter to the Sun Editor regarding the orginal article and that was only the individuals who were quoted in the article represnting themselves as Summerlin residents who were clearly prejudice. But I was not addressing all residents of Summerlin. I'm not going to apologize because I cannot accept prejudice in any aspect, it's irrevelant to me where you live. I was responding to what I believed was accurate reporting on the Sun's part, I guess I won't make that mistake again.

mike_ch said...

Greg, what if it was an area that didn't have an active developer? What if this article was written about an older neighbourhood on the east side of Las Vegas? An area that had been developed long ago, that didn't have any shiny brochures from a large company advertising quality of life? What if the Sun slammed that community as being out of touch? Who would speak for them?

I applaud Steve for taking on the Sun's credibility in this matter, however I think coming to the defense of a developer and suggesting he should talk to "Summerlin spokesmen" is a bit much.

If a paper in New York did a story on crime in the Bronx, or the SF Chronicle did a story on crime in the Tenderloin, there wouldn't be any cries to contact a developer. However, if reported statistics were turned out to be trumped up, an area councilman might take issue with the press for it. So I have to wonder, where is Councilman Brown?

mike_ch said...

BTW Steve, if you really want to see more action taken on this (and possibly get a good Weekly story out of it,) go get in touch with Mr. Brown.

You might not be able to get a word from the Sun, but I'm pretty sure he can.

KayDee said...

Here's what I found interesting when I read the piece: The first 18 paragraphs are all content clearly gotten from sitting in front of a computer terminal -- anonymous comments from a web site, background information and census data. Eighteen grafs and no evidence other than the photo that anyone from the Sun had so much as driven through Summerlin recently! As a newspaper editor myself this wouldn't even pass my laugh test. My message to the reporter upon reading this draft: "A start. Now grab your notebook and pen, drive to Summerlin and come back when you've interviewed about 15 more people. The teacher, the nanny at the playground, the deli guy, the janitor, the soccer mom, the kid cutting class to sneak a smoke, anyone and everyone..."