February 06, 2008

Does the O'Fallon Journal have a credibility problem?

Prior to posting this story I provided an initial draft to the editor of the O'Fallon Journal, Erin Schultz, and the writer whose reporting I have criticized, Elizabeth Perry. I asked them to let me know if any facts were incorrect, although I was confident in the accuracy of my Post. I received a reply from Ms. Schultz with her comments. She asked if I would post them in full which I have in the comments section. I also am posting her comments in a separate post with my response.

I have covered the Koch Road scandal extensively on this site and, in particular, have focused on the illegal destruction of the road by the developer, Hyland Green, and the builder, McBride & Sons. I have also reported that O'Fallon issued building permits to McBride to build on Koch Road although this was a clear violation of the law (and common sense.) I have referenced the law and records which support the facts I have reported. I have provided this information to the Suburban Journals and Post-Dispatch (both owned by Lee Enterprises) and both papers have covered certain elements of the story without mentioning the two most important aspects of the case, (1) McBride illegally destroyed a public road and (2) O'Fallon issued McBride permits to build homes on a public road.

Why hasn't this information been reported? Back on December 16, 2007 I had a post, Lee Enterprises; Where your advertising dollars buy you more than just ads, in which I pointed out numerous mistakes in the Journal's reporting. Of course, the title of my December 16 post implies the papers are not covering this story because the guilty parties spend a lot of money on advertising. This post will update the actions of the Journal since my initial post and provides further evidence that money spent on advertising in the Journal may also buy protection from negative publicity.

Koch Road was a public road (which means it was not vacated) in 2006 when it was torn out by Hyland Green and McBride to use the land to build homes. The fact that Koch Road was not vacated in 2006 is not disputed by anyone. However, back on November 20, 2007 the Journal reported the following;

  • The original Koch Road was vacated in 2006 after developer Hyland Green, LLC, asked the St. Charles County Council to approve vacating the road, declaring it "useless."

Again, reporting that Koch Road was vacated in 2006 is wrong and by misreporting this fact it avoids having to report that when McBride tore out the road in 2006, it did not own the property. Misstating this fact also avoids reporting that O'Fallon violated the law when it issued building permits to McBride, another fact not in dispute. If Koch Road was vacated in 2006 then the actions of McBride and O'Fallon may have been legal (I say may because I haven't looked into other aspects of the road demolition) and none of us would be writing about this aspect. Therefore, this "error" was not a minor detail.

After the November 20 article ran, I spoke with Ms. Perry over the phone and explained to her the mistakes in her article and in particular, the misstatement that Koch road was vacated in 2006. (I also posted on here about the mistake.) I followed that conversation up with an email to Ms. Perry in which I stated:

  • Below is a link to the story I posted on the blog. This offers a detailed timeline explaining the Koch Road mess. It is very clear that Koch was not ever legally vacated and certainly not vacated when the city issued building permits. I have updated this 1st story and will continue to do so. I hope you will consider running a correction. Thank you.

The Journal never corrected its "mistake" but instead continued to report false information. On December 15, 2007 Ms. Perry did another story on Koch Road. In regard to when Koch Road was vacated. Ms. Perry wrote:

  • The original Koch Road was vacated in 2006 after developer Hyland Green, LLC, asked the St. Charles County Council to approve vacating the road, declaring it "useless."

This is the exact same sentence from her November 20, 2007 story, however, this time she had been informed of her "mistake" over the phone, by email and through my blog. Again, this "mistake" avoided reporting the illegal actions of McBride and O'Fallon and no one is claiming Koch Road was vacated in 2006 as Ms. Perry reported twice.

After the December 15, 2007 story I posted in detail the mistakes in Ms. Perry's article. After that post, Ms. Perry contacted me by phone and we spoke several times that day on the phone and by email. While Ms. Perry was initially angered by my post she later admitted she had made "mistakes" in her reporting and that corrections would be made and she would be doing a follow up story. I also exchanged emails with the new editor of the Journal, Erin Schultz, who wrote to me, "We're committed to getting things right and correcting facts on which we've missed the mark." In another email Ms. Schultz wrote:

  • Thanks, Rick. We'll check out the issues you've raised with Ms. Perry's story. In the future, contact me immediately if you find an accuracy issue with any of our stories so that we can check it out and correct/clarify as necessary.

Ms. Perry emailed me on December 19, 2007 to inform me the Journal had run a correction on one of the issues I raised (they ran a second correction later) and asked me to explain again when Koch Road was vacated. Although no one was claiming the road was vacated in 2006 as Ms. Perry incorrectly reported twice, I emailed her on three occasions explaining when Koch Road was vacated and I linked her to the information on my blog which would direct her to the documentary evidence. I then spoke with Ms. Perry on the phone (12/20/2007) in which she tried to debate me on when the road was vacated. I explained to her that this was not a disputed fact and that we might as well debate whether the sun comes up in the morning (I say it does.) Following that conversation I emailed Perry and told her I was wasting my time debating her on a fact not in dispute and questioning why she was unwilling to report that McBride and O'Fallon had acted illegally. Ms. Perry did not respond.

Remember that Perry told me she would be doing a follow up story, therefore, I contacted Schultz, as she requested, to report that Ms. Perry still wanted to report false information. Ms. Schultz did not respond to that email and the Journal then ran a follow up story on the Koch Road. However, rather than correct the mistakes from the previous articles, the Journal simply ignored the issue this time.

I contacted Perry and Schultz on January 17, 2008 and asked why they had not corrected the mistake that Koch Road was vacated in 2006. After several emails which failed to answer those questions I sent an email to Schultz which asked the following questions:

  • Why wasn't the mistake I noted corrected? Please tell me the Journal's reasoning for not printing that Koch Rd was illegally destroyed by McBride & Sons and Hyland Green? Is it your decision on whether or not to report this story? If not, whose decision is it? Did you or anyone else instruct Ms. Perry not to print this story? Was this information edited out of a story? Do you believe it is "news" if a public road is illegally destroyed by a builder?

Schultz responded:

  • The assertion that the road was illegally destroyed is something I'll continue to look into. It is unwise for any publication to take and reiterate such allegations without investigation, as I'm sure you understand as a publisher yourself. We corrected two factual errors in the story you mentioned. I regret that those errors happened. The other allegations you've made will continue to be looked at. I can't guarantee that you will be happy with our coverage. What I can tell you is that we will continue to look harder at the issues you've raised.

Continue to look into? The facts are undisputed that McBride and Hyland Green tore out a public road in May of 2006. The facts are undisputed that O'Fallon issued building permits in violation of the law. The only question which needs to be looked into is why the Journal won't report the facts? In order to understand why, we need to quit buying into the fairy tale that the paper is guided by a code of ethics for journalists and realize that the paper is, first and foremost, part of a business (Lee Enterprises) which happens to own newspapers.

As a business, the Journal is reliant on advertising dollars to succeed and when the housing boom hit St. Charles in the 90's, newspapers raked in the money from the builders. The builders and developers did not only spend their money on advertisers but the money was also spent to get the "right" people into office. In some cases this influence was used to pass builder friendly laws although in most cases the builders were allowed to simply ignore/break the laws. This corruption became so rampant it was easy to find documents evidencing the wide spread corruption. However, while the corruption was an open secret to those who followed St. Charles politics it went unreported by the two largest newspapers, the Journal and the Post.

The Journal and Post were not content with simply ignoring major stories about missappropriation of money but instead they used their resources to attack those people who dared to speak out about the problem. As special counsel for O'Fallon, I went public with my allegations of corruption (I estimated it in the millions and still counting) and offered to share the documents which supported my allegations. That was over two years ago and no one from the Post or Journal has ever taken me up on my offer. However, the Post and Journal each printed material in an attempt to discredit me.

The Journal and the Post cannot admit that the business side of their papers control the content because when you are selling "news" you must have some credibility with your customers/readers. In the past, the mainstream media had a monopoly on the news that made it to the masses. However, those days are ending as the Internet allows blogs and web sites to compare the facts with what was reported and to provide news that was ignored. Each time a reader comes to my blog and reads what the Journal "mistakenly" reported or failed to report about Koch Road, another customer of the paper begins to question everything they read in the Journal. This trend is not going to reverse itself unless the papers offer their readers a reason to stay, the Journal may want to start with its credibility.


Rick Fischer said...

The following comment was sent to me by the editor of the Journal, Erin Schultz.

The Journals have reported on the court's decision that Koch Road was vacated illegally and will continue to report on future decisions about the road. Mr. Fischer has made numerous claims that the Journals are ignoring parts of the story. When asked to elaborate on what he thinks the paper should cover with regard to the road, Mr. Fischer has responded not with answers but with a barrage of false allegations that the newsroom is acting to protect Journal advertisers. These allegations are untrue. The Journals will continue to report independently on the Koch Road issue. We respect Mr. Fischer and his work as a community watchdog, and we welcome his criticism. While we may not always agree with his work, we will not spread false allegations about his character or ethics. We hope he will extend the Journals the same courtesy.

Anonymous said...

Print Journalism is dead.

In attempting to chase add dollars they miss the point...

I know that my retirement will make no difference in its cardinal principles, that it will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."

-- statement by Joseph Pulitzer, April 10, 1907

Anonymous said...

How in the world can the post and journal say advertising has no impact on news stories? Every weekend I have to wade through ads and suppliments for home builers and developers, it is no coinscidence they get faverable press considering the amount of money they pour into these papers. Lee Enterprises must take its readers as fools.