Just when you think the #Dispatchfail meme is played out, the reporting and editorial choices on a big story are just so blatant and obvious we are compelled to comment.
Quick recap: Last May, Greg revealed that Interim Superintendent of Schools Stan Heffner had a serious conflict of interest when he gave testimony in favor of teacher restesting provisions that would financially benefit the company at which he’d just been hired. Thursday, the Inpsector General found that Heffner committed wrongdoing for the testimony, and also for improperly using state resources and staff for purposes related to his new private sector job.
The story provides some great insight into the Ohio media landscape.
Here is a quick collection of the initial headlines:
Dayton Daily News: Ohio’s school leader ‘wrong,’ according to investigation
Dayton Daily News: Report: Ohio’s top education official violated ethics rules
Cincinnati Enquirer: Watchdog: Ohio superintendent improperly lobbied
Cincinnati City Beat: State Superintendent Abused Position
Cochocton Tribune: Report: Superintendent improperly lobbied
Canton Repsoitory: Watchdog: State’s schools super improperly lobbied
Bucyrus Telegraph Forum: Watchdog: Ohio’s top school official improperly lobbied
Lancaster Eagle Gazette: Watchdog says Ohio schools superintendent improperly lobbied
Marietta Times: Watchdog: Ohio superintendent improperly lobbied
Wheeling Intelligencer: School Chief Under Review
Springfiled Daily News: Report: Ohio’s top education official violated ethics rules
Middletown Journal: Report: Ohio’s top education official violated ethics rules
(Bonus link: San Francisco Chronicle (!) Watchdog: Ohio superintendent improperly lobbied)
Now what about the Columbus Dispatch?
Initially, they ran a headline: State schools chief admits ethics missteps, apologizes. This article remains the top result Saturday morning when we searched for “Heffner” on the Dispatch web site
Notice the difference?
Most newspapers in Ohio used terms like, “improperly advocated,” “violated ethcis rules,” “Abused position” and “improperly lobbied.” The Dispatch softens things more than a bit, referring to the wrongdoing as a “misstep.”
A “misstep” is forgetting to pay the electric bill and sending in the check a few days late. A misstep is leaving the milk out of the refrigerator so it goes bad. The Dispatch even makes this easy for us: the travel editor described THIS as a “misstep” in a column last june: “ I wore navy blue. Into the woods. At dusk. In May. Without the benefit of bug spray to repel the bloodsuckers.”
With all due respect, Heffner’s actions were not a “misstep.” This was, at a minimum, serious wrongdoing, an abuse of power, and potentially criminal activity. The other newspapers properly characterized the report and actions. The Dispatch did not.
Fascinatingly, the Dispatch has changed its tune. On Friday, essentially the same article was published with a headline, Probe Slams Schools Chief. This headline also appeared in the print edition of the paper.
Then, on Saturday, we get another aggressive article with the headline, More Heat on Schools Chief. This article attempts to move the story forward by suggesting that the IG report was being reviewed by the Franklin County Prosecutor for possible criminal charges. The big tell that the Dispatch is relying on administration sources: the Dispatch article suggests that the matter was referred to the prosecutor by the IG, even though this is not mentioned in the actual report. (In other reports where criminal charges are possible, the IG is explicit about the referral of the matter to the prosecutor).
Greg suggested a couple of days before the Dispatch changed its approach that Heffner should resign and possibly face criminal prosecution under Ohio Ethics laws. Our quick legal analysis published yesterday suggests that criminal charges should be seriously considered.
What does this all mean? Is the Dispatch merely following Plunderbund? We would like to think so, but it doesn’t seem likely. We have previously noted how the Dispatch appears willing to twist the truth to benefit the Kasich Administration just last month. We also previously noted that the Dispatch softens headlines when wrongdoing missteps by Kasich cabinet members is alleged.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Our educated guess is that this change in reporting approach represents a change in the view of this matter by the Kasich Administration. Initially, they probably hoped to weather the storm. But now it appears that they will toss Heffner overboard, and that the Dispatch will be a willing accomplice. This, we predict, be accomplished as follows: (1) Kasich will continue to express support for his cabinet director; but (2) Heffner can resign citing pressure caused by the media.
#Dispatchfails is alive and well – you just have to keep a close eye on all the moving parts.