My Response To The Response From The Editor Of The Dallas Morning News

dmn

Here it is, folks:

We’ve received a number of letters recently alleging that Wayne Slater’s January18 story on Wendy Davis’ biography contained serious errors. Having looked again at the available facts, I believe that the story was fair and accurate.There is one point on which I believe the story was factually correct, but could have been clearer and more complete.

The most thorough set of questions came to us from Jessica Luther of Austin, whose signature says she’s a “writer, journalist, activist.”

As my friend Douglas wrote, “The air quotes around “writer, journalist, and activist” ….as if those three descriptions of you can’t be verified by, well, just about anyone, really. But then they’d have to do actual reporting to find that out, wouldn’t they?”

Her comprehensive note serves as a useful template for addressing the concerns raised by others. Taking Ms. Luther’s questions one by one:

1) “The daughters, then 8 and 2, remained with Jeff Davis in Fort Worth while Wendy Davis was at Harvard.”

Tonight at a fundraising event in Austin, Davis said, “When I went to Harvard Law School, my daughters came to Boston with me. But we decided as a family after the first semester that it was much better for them to be in Texas, in their home, with their friends, in their schools, and with the daily help of someone that I call “Mom.” So during the rest of law school, I split my time between Texas and Boston, traveling back and forth as much as I could, including 2 weeks of every 4 at home with my daughters my last year in school.”

Her daughters published open letters today and both corroborate this. (http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/politics/Davis-Daughters-Share-Open-Letters-Refute-Claims-242445451.html)

 Answer:   We have no reason to doubt that the girls spent part of a semester in Boston.

Part of a semester? You can’t just say “a semester”?

That does not alter the factuality of the statement that their residence, during her time at Harvard, was with their father, Jeff Davis, in Fort Worth. The story did not address the reasons why the girls stayed at home.  Their perspective on that is a valuable addition to the narrative of Ms. Davis’ life. We’ve already mentioned the additional context they gave the story on our Trailblazer blog and once in print, and we will offer print readers more this weekend.

The Trailblazer blog piece was also written by Slater and it begins thusly: “In an effort to stem the damage from questions about Wendy Davis’ personal history…” Also, the original article doesn’t link to this blog post at the appropriate point in order to point readers to this more complicated and complete version of that point in Davis’ life.

But any single story can contain only so much information. The purpose of Wayne’s original piece was to fill in some gaps in Sen. Davis’ campaign biography.  Her campaign Web site may have left the impression that as a single mother she had unilaterally managed to finish both college and law school. It made no mention of her husband’s caring for their children. In that context, the fact that he cared for them while she was in law school is relevant and sufficient, and Wayne reported it accurately.

“may have left”? Did it? And couldn’t that gap have been filled in with explaining that she was married at the time? Did we need to know the specifics of how their family worked out that situation? Why not mention then that Davis traveled back and forth frequently and her mother helped out extensively?

The point is that Slater and his editor made pointed decisions about how much to include in this story.

To paraphrase Mr. Rodrigue, Mr. Slater’s article left the impression that Davis left her children behind for 3 years while living in Boston. In that context, the fact that they actually lived with Davis for a semester and that she traveled home extensively while she was in law school is relevant and sufficient, and Wayne did not report it accurately.

2) “Jeff Davis was awarded parental custody.”

Tonight, Wendy Davis said, ”I never gave up custody of my children. I never lost custody of my children. And to say otherwise is an absolute lie.”

Jay Root at The Texas Tribune writes, “According to divorce records, she and her husband were granted “joint conservatorship” of her child, Dru, who was a teenager at the time. She continued to live with her father, Jeff Davis, in the house the couple had shared. “ (http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/28/davis-says-critics-picked-wrong-texas-gal/)

Answer: The key phrase in Wayne’s report was “parental custody.”  It is common in divorce cases for parents to share joint legal custody, or joint conservatorship. In the case of Sen. Davis’ divorce, she and her husband were “joint managing conservators.” Both were empowered to make decisions for the child’s welfare. That is the legal status that was referenced in the Texas Tribune article. “Parental custody” does not appear in my legal dictionary; Wayne used it as a way of telling ordinary readers which parent was given primary responsibility for housing and caring for the child. In that sense, it accurately describes the divorce decree. On page eight, for instance, Jeff Davis was given “the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child within Tarrant County, Texas.”  Wendy Davis was given visitation rights for certain days – Thursdays, alternate weekends and some holidays, and certain periods during the summer. On Page 17, Jeff Davis was given the right of possession to the child at any time not specifically designated for Wendy Davis. On page 19, Wendy Davis was ordered to pay child support of $1,200 per month.

Our story was accurate, as far as it went, but in this area it could have been clearer and more complete. We did not explain exactly what we meant by “parental custody,” nor did we specify the extent of Ms. Davis’ continued involvement with her daughter under the decree. When we wrote and edited the story, we thought readers would take that for granted, because these arrangements are typical in divorces. That left some readers perhaps too free to misinterpret the situation. We will print a clarification in tomorrow’s newspaper.

I have already said this multiple times but even explaining the intricacies of the Davises’ divorce is so completely irrelevant to her run for governor OR to what she has chosen to focus on in her life story that she thinks is fitting for her run for governor. Accurate? Not really. Necessary and newsworthy? No.

Ms. Luther’s question omits an important portion of Wayne’s story, which appeared just below the facts about the divorce decree. It was a quotation from Sen. Davis’ former husband, saying, ““She did the right thing… She said, ‘I think you’re right; you’ll make a good, nurturing father. While I’ve been a good mother, it’s not a good time for me right now.’” That passage, I think, indicates that Wayne was trying to be fair in a complex and nuanced situation.  It portrays Sen. Davis not as a woman who abandoned her children, but as a mother who cared about them enough not to disturb their ongoing relationship with their father.

Presenting a quote without context is not “being fair” or presenting a “complex and nuanced situation.” What does Davis mean when she says “it’s not a good time for me right now”? What even did Jeff Davis think she meant by that? This quote, as Slater presented it, allows for a whole lot of interpretation, which obviously most people took to mean she was being a selfish woman and a bad mother (that no one assumed at DMN that this would be the interpretation says a lot about the fact that probably a bunch of men made these decisions).

3) “When she was accepted to Harvard Law School, Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) account and eventually took out a loan to pay for her final year there.”

This is not quite accurate since written this way, it leaves no space for any reason that Davis  would cash out his 401(k) except to pay for her tuition at Harvard. Following the publication of this piece, Davis gave a statement to CNN complicating what Mr. Slater wrote: “Jeff Davis  told CNN he took out the 401(k) for other reasons, as well.  The market was down at the time and he had some investments go south, so he received some financial advice to take out a  401(k) loan.” (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/22/ex-husband-wendy-davis-would-be-a-very-capable-governor/)

Answer: Again, Ms Luther’s question omits an important bit of context: The story’s next sentence, in which Wayne quoted Mr. Davis saying, “I was making really good money then, well over six figures…But when you’ve got someone at Harvard, you’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got two small kids. The economy itself was marginal. You do what you have to do, no big deal.” That quotation makes exactly the point that Mr. Davis later made, again, on CNN. Moreover, that additional bit of context does not alter the facts that that Mr. Davis cashed in this 401(k) and eventually took out a loan to pay for Ms. Davis’ final year at Harvard Law School.  Ms. Davis’ Web site biography said she attended TCU and Harvard Law School with help from scholarships and student loans. It omitted the facts that her husband had paid for her to finish TCU and had helped pay for Harvard.  We believe that in the context of the race for governor, those facts were relevant to a fuller understanding of her accomplishments.

Yeah, so, I’m just not down with this whole, “readers should get the gist of things based on de-contextualized quotes.” I mean, DMN is a newspaper, right?

Wayne’s story offered readers what a good newspaper should provide: An excellent first draft of history.

I have taught history at the university level. “Excellent” isn’t the adjective I would have written on this paper had I been grading it. But I agree that this seems like a “first draft.”

It tried to be fair – indeed, it noted that the broad outlines of her campaign biography were correct – and it aimed to be as complete as space permitted. Since then, Sen. Davis’ detractors have selectively used or mis-used parts of our report to make some charges against her that are never made in the story itself.  That’s par for the course in politics these days, but we hope readers will judge our stories (and the candidates’ records) on what we publish, and not on how zealous advocates spin what we publish.

I wrote an entire piece for The Guardian judging Slater’s piece on what he published and I found it to be sexist. I also wrote two posts (one about her being a gold digger/her student loan debt and one about her custody agreement) and I found his piece to be incorrect and a much-too-simplified version of the reality of marriage and divorce. But perhaps Mr. Rodrigue would put me in the “zealous advocate” category so that he doesn’t actually have to respond to the criticisms.

Many of the criticisms I’ve seen directed at our story concern characterizations made by her opponents, not by us.

Again, my work has responded DIRECTLY to what Slater wrote.

Partly in reaction to the political attacks on their mother, both of the Davis’ daughters this week released statements adding valuable context to their biographies.  We believe their points of view are worthy of our readers’ attention and will share them in greater detail in a story this weekend.

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6 Responses

  1. Jana says:

    Well, the quality of your work and what you consider quality work is reflected in the fact your work has appeared in The Guardian and Slater writes for the Dallas Morning News. I mean, the Dallas Morning News isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on.

  2. I am most offended by the DMN implying here that having financial help with her tuition makes her degrees less of an accomplishment. I somehow doubt they would say the same thing about a man whose wife put them through school.

  3. MT says:

    And…if she were Walter Davis and Jeff were Jenny Davis, would there be ANY scrutiny? the plain truth is that Slater is a sexist and his entire piece is predicated on the fact that a woman went to law school 2000 miles from home and shared custody with her estranged husband who helped pay for her education. None of which is relevant to whether or not she is going to be a good governor.

  4. madmilker says:

    There is a big difference in being bred in the Lone Star State than being born and bred in Texas.

    Enough said….

  5. Courtney says:

    There is a BIG difference between “cashing out” your 401k and taking out a 401k loan. As long as you remain employed with the company where you have the 401k, it is a loan that you pay back to the 401k, but the 401k is still in place. The interest (which was 5% the last time I had a 401k loan) goes into the 401k. Done properly, you get a low-interest loan that you can pay back via payroll deduction and where you are paying the interest to yourself.

    “Cashing out” your 401k implies withdrawing the funds prior to retirement. This carries a heavy tax burden in most circumstances and should be avoided if possible.

  6. Pingback: Whose Discourse? Our Discourse? Setting the Wendy Davis Discourse