Better Late Than Never p.14

By: DOROTHY GIOBBE OWNING UP TO mistakes can be a particularly humbling experience. For mishaps on a colossal scale, it's often easier to underplay, dodge or explain away their significance.
In an extraordinary acknowledgment of an ethical lapse, the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville, has publicly apologized to a local politician for irresponsible journalism which likely cost him an election ? and left an ugly stain on his reputation.
The newspaper was under no legal compulsion to extend the apology, and in fact, it came years after the newspaper was cleared by the state Supreme Court in a libel lawsuit brought by the politician.
Rather, the mea culpa was prompted by an editor who was deeply troubled by what he characterized as the newspaper's abdication of its journalistic responsibilities.
The story began in late October 1992, days before a local election in Fayetteville. Mayoral candidate Dan Coody, a Texas native, was a city councilman running against four other contenders.
Although the Times professed objectivity, court records filed in connection with the libel suit suggest that the newspaper's treatment of Coody may have been based less on fact than on unsubstantiated rumors about his past.
In news articles and a pre-election day editorial signed by then-publisher David Stokes, the Times ? at the time owned by Thomson Newspapers ? repeated innuendos about Coody that had been raised by the other mayoral candidates, and questioned whether he had the mental stability to function as mayor.
In a letter to a Thomson Publishing executive a few days before the election, Stokes alleged that Coody had been arrested and served time for armed robbery in connection with drugs.
And, according to the affidavits, Stokes suggested to Times staffers that Coody had "something to hide" and may have even been in the federal witness protection program.
There was no factual basis for any of the accusations, as Coody possesses no criminal record. In fact, a private investigator hired by the Times to dig into Coody's past found no dirt on the candidate.
In the editorial, titled, "It's Time For Coody's Facade To Come Off," the newspaper attacked Coody at length and said that he had attempted to mislead the public about "who he is."
And on election day, the Times published an article in which Stokes said the newspaper hired the private investigator because Coody had failed to sufficiently answer questions about his past. Stokes said the investigator's report ? which found no evidence of improper behavior by Coody ? created more questions than it answered.
Coody lost the election by about 550 votes. The impact on his personal life was decidedly more severe.
"This whole thing put my father in an early grave," Coody said recently, his voice breaking. "That's the toughest thing to get over. It literally killed him. He was weakened with Parkinson's disease, and when he found out about all of this, my dad just started spiraling down from the stress, which was just unbearable."
The May 5 apology was penned by executive editor Mike Masterson, who arrived at the Times after the Coody affair.
Masterson is a recipient of Columbia University's Tobenkin Award, a two-time winner of the Newspaper Guild's Heywood Brown Award, and a former director of the Kiplinger Program at Ohio State University. His apology on behalf of the newspaper was endorsed by current publisher Randy Cope.
Masterson wrote:
"After reviewing stacks of court documents and records in this case, I can say that I have never seen a more flagrant example of wildly galloping over an innocent man's reputation with false rumors, leaving deep and lingering scars in the process."
Masterson continued, "I hope Dan Coody and his family and this community will accept this apology and forgive the Times for this travesty against truth, fairness and just good, factual journalism.
"After all it was this newspaper ? as it existed in 1992 ? that unfairly helped taint a sizable portion of a decent man's reputation with rumors and innuendo. So it is rightfully this newspaper that should help erase that stain."
Masterson told E&P that after meeting with Coody a few months ago, "I was appalled by what I had heard about our role in defaming him and damaging his reputation."
Determined to discover the truth about the newspaper's conduct, Masterson, a former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and head of investigative reporting at the Arizona Republic, poured through stacks of court papers.
After investigating and reviewing reams of documents, Masterson concluded that "this newspaper owed him an apology. I don't care if we won the libel suit or not; it was a matter of truth and of doing what was right."
Stokes had been fired by Thomson Newspapers about two weeks after the election. The Times has since been sold to American Publishing Co., a unit of Hollinger Inc.
When contacted by E&P, Stokes, currently working as a stockbroker in Arkansas, said Thomson told him he was let go because of administrative problems. He said, however, "I know it was over that story."
Stokes added that the apology was "very strange" and "a grave error on their [the newspaper's] part." He said that he is having it "looked at," although he declined to say by whom.
Stokes also claimed that there were numerous inaccuracies in the apology, although when pressed, he referred E&P to attorney Alan Wooten, who represented Stokes and the Times in the libel suit.
Wooten said there were some items of "questionable accuracy" in the apology, but he declined to comment further, saying that he was not the appropriate person to speak with. He did, however, say, "It's over. They [the newspaper] can do whatever they want."
Coody is still bitter about the Times episode, but said "the apology is going to go a long way towards helping my healing and the healing for the entire community."
"A little justice goes a long way," Coody added. "For a long time, all I felt like doing was crawling under a rock."
Newspaper apologizes to politician for
unfair treatment during 1992 campaign
"A little justice goes a long way. For a long time, all I felt like
doing was crawling under a rock."
?(The Northwest Arkansas Times' full-page apology to Dan Coody was written by executive editor Mike Masterson, who was not with the newspaper when the situation took place.) [Photo & Caption]
?("A little justice goies a long way. For a long time, all I felt like doing was crawling under a rock.") [Caption]
?(-Dan Coody) [Photo]
?("After reviewing stacks of court documents and records in this case, I can say that I have never seen a more flagrant example of wildly galloping over an innocent man's reputation with false rumors, leaving deep and lingering scars int he process.") [Caption]
?(-Mike Masterson, executive editor, Northwest Arkansas Times) [Photo & Caption]


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