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Why Tom Petters read Twin Cities Business' story on him before you did

Tom Petters
Photo by Bill KelleyTom Petters

“Can I see the story before it runs?”

Almost every print journalist has had a source ask them this, and the answer — for those not in the puffery end journalism — is a reflexive “no.” Publications might check facts and confirm quotes, but sharing headlines, other sources’ quotes and analysis typically isn’t done.

So why did Twin Cities Business allow a convicted Ponzi schemer to have “pre-publication review”?

TCB editor Dale Kurschner scored the first jailhouse interview with epic scamster Tom Petters, a “get” that garnered enough attention for a Star Tribune cap-tip and at least two interviews on WCCO Radio.

On WCCO, host John Hines asked Kurschner if Petters got to read the 14-page story before it ran. Kurschner replied: “I did send him a copy for factual purposes ahead of time, but we had an agreement in writing before we even did anything that he would not have final say over what the story says. He could tell us if there was an inaccuracy, but it was totally our call on how that story ran.”

That quote prompted Fox9 investigative reporter Tom Lyden to tweet: “TCB Editor of Petters article says they sent copy to Petters before publication. Wha??? That's not a fact check.”

Lyden added: “Even had contract with Petters. Was it disclosed in article? Snds fishy.”

Getting a sensitive source to cooperate is often a matter of flattery, diplomacy and pressure; the challenge is not to sell out in pursuit of the story. Although Kurschner wrote a full-page editor’s note detailing the six-month saga of securing Petters’ cooperation, he did not disclose to readers the unusual provision that might have been the deal-clincher.

'Unusual step'

As Kurschner explained to me, “An extra and unusual step in the fact-checking process ­— necessitated by the extraordinary complexities of this story and difficulties communicating into prison — did not in any way affect how the story was written and presented to our readers.”

He adds, “Normally, we don’t do” pre-publication review, "but part of the issue was logistics. It’s impossible to call and talk about a 14-page story” over a jailhouse phone. "He’s charged so much for calls and has no money. He can’t just get on the phone and email people.”

The other issue, Kurschner says, was Petters’ plans to appeal his conviction, for which he is serving 50 years with no chance of parole. Petters’ “hypersensitive” lawyers advised him not to do the story; pre-review was necessary to clinch the deal.

“With this particular situation, letting him take a look ahead of time, given the complexity and sensitivity of the appeal, was a warranted exception,” Kurschner says. “Part of it is going into situations where people aren’t willing to talk to you and earn their trust. Having him take a look at the story was part of earning that trust.”

Of course, keeping trust with readers is one reason editor’s notes should disclose unusual arrangements even if the editor doesn’t believe he was compromised. Though Kurschner retained the final say, by showing such deference to Petters’ legal needs, TCB risked turning itself into an agent of the appeal, even if the editor trusts his own backbone in presenting the story headlined “Plausible Deniability?”

Kurschner — who says he spent “dozens” of hours researching the case, including reading the trial transcripts twice and listening to all the evidentiary recordings of Petters — did interview prosecutors and included their blunt appraisals of Petters’ guilt. The editor says the story didn’t change much after Petters saw it: “A few things, little factual things.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine the Petters’ side being too displeased with Twin Cities Business’ coverage, which resurrects a question most think closed, recounting the ex-CEO’s lengthy, detailed argument that underlings orchestrated the scam and duped him. 

Reading the piece — which includes suggestions Petters didn’t get a fair shake in the media — I felt compelled to ask Kurschner if he believed the ex-CEO was guilty. “I think he’s guilty,” the editor replied. “I don’t know personally for sure 100 percent whether he started a Ponzi scheme or not, but he’s guilty of participating, knowing and being CEO of all of this when it happened.”

No review

Meanwhile, other local publications say they can’t dangle the “pre-publication” carrot. At the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal, editor Dirk DeYoung says company policy forbids it. “Questions of accuracy can be addressed via good reporting, reading quotes back to sources, clarifying facts with sources and double-checking facts with other sources,” he says.

DeYoung offered these bullet points:

  • Precedence: Allow it for one source, everyone will want it.
  • Independence: Reporters and editors need to be able to write a fair, balanced and complete story that’s in the best interest of the readers without having angles, conclusions, leads, headlines and statements from other sources second-guessed or nit-picked.
  • Speed: Such a process would slow down getting news out to readers as quickly as possible.
  • Other sources: If a source reading a yet-to-be-published story doesn’t like what other sources say, that could get messy in countless ways prior to publication, including having the secondary sources pressured to recant, etc.
  • Advertisers: What if the source in question is an advertiser? That could go wrong in multiple ways, and also is not in the best interest of the reader.

Jeff Johnson, who edited Minnesota Monthly magazine for eight years, says he “never” sent the article to the source. “Aside from the fact that it’s not done, it’s journalistic tradition and practice to separate the writing of the story from the source of the story. Frankly, if you have a beef with that after the fact, you have recourse,” such as letters to the editor and op-eds.

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Comments (8)

Not cool

How can a journalist know that any fact "corrections" are corrections? Real investigative journalism relies on the journalist to go out and get independent facts. Yes, they should interview the accused, but they should NEVER be a fact checker. Egad. If you can't get the interview, get the information somewhere else. I'm sure that the "hypersensitive" lawyers would rather Petters talk than something even more unflattering come out from another source. Sounds like those dozens of hours (that's all?) were really the easy way to write a really long story.

Excuse me

but Fox 9 called out someone for this? The same Fox 9 that's a part of the Murdoch empire that lets the Republican party dictate stories to them verbatim? [Media Matters has dozens of examples of Fox running GOP press releases as news stories.]

Whatever

This doesn't surprise me coming from "business" media. At any rate, who cares what this jerk has to say anyways? Did anyone read this thing?

Another perspective

I probably fall in the minority on this one, but I'm not necessarily opposed to the black & white rules most journalists apply to this.

I haven't read the Petters piece, but I'd like to think a professional journalist -- who we trust to get the facts right and conduct him or herself professionally and in accordance with journalism standards and ethics -- has the intellectual capacity to do the same when allowing a source to preview a story for accuracy. If Brauer's facts are right, this wasn't a typical reporter/source situation. It was, in fact, highly unusual, which may have required an unusual approach to get the kind of story he wanted to tell.

In general, when I hear this issue debated, I hear most journalists on the side of journalistic sanctity; that what we do here is so important that no one, not even people who in some cases have entrusted us with the most important story they'll ever be in (theirs), deserve a peek before the world does. I look at it this way: we're supposed to be trying to come as close to truth as possible, although we usually have to settle for fact. What's wrong with making sure we've got our facts correct? Aren't we professional enough to make sure sources know we'd only ever change factual errors, and then follow through on that?

Like I said, I know I'm in the minority on this. But I've never really heard a good argument for not doing something that could potentially make a story more accurate.

Having said all this ... We're not allowed to let sources preview stories, so I don't do it. Although in a few extreme cases, I have.

More Contrarianism

I am on the masthead of Twin Cities Business, but had no role in the negotiations with Mr. Petters, nevertheless, caveat emptor.

Having worked now for 14 years on publications that carefully fact-check their stories before they go to press, my perspective on the prior review question has shifted quite substantially. I long held the Journalism 101 view, espoused by Lyden, DeYoung, and Johnson above (and Brauer it seems), but I have come to believe that approach can also be terrifically self-serving, especially Johnson's contention that letters to the editor or corrections boxes constitute sufficient redress for bad work.

It's much easier to take things out of context and/or distort an interviewee's comments when there is no interaction with them after the interview takes place. It is much harder to be sloppy or underhanded when you have to account for your take on events with the principals before publication. These conversations in no way obligate us as journalists to publish a subject's version of events or contextualization, but they do then obligate us to corroborate an alternate view of events or facts we are presenting.

The act of allowing a subject of a story to see the text of that story should not have a chilling effect on those who are confident in their work. It may be inconvenient or impractical for daily or weekly journalists, but working on monthly cycles as I do, I've come to believe we're derelict NOT to fact check, and if the only way to accomplish it is to show a draft to the subject, so be it.

The old school approach is predicated on the idea that journalists and publications are weak vessels that cannot withstand external pressure and it is better to be wrong than to preview our work, even indirectly, with the people we write about.

Fact checking?

Well, it's not the deed the cover-up eh?

Mr. Platt would have us believe this was all about fact checking? Fact checking what? The interview? I'm sure the journalist has recordings of the actual interview so you don't need Peters to verify that. Are you saying you can't trust your interviewer to faithfully relate the nature and content of the interview? In that case Twin Cities Business has much larger problem with the quality of it's journalists. And if you think a convicted con man sitting in prison is all about the "facts" sir, please contact me, I have two wonderful bridges...

Peters was given access to the article in advance because that's the deal you made to get the interview. Fact checking doesn't enter into it since Peters, again- a convicted con man, cannot be considered to be a reliable source of facts. Peters is not demanding access because he's concerned about accuracy, he wanted access to he could have some control over his image. The only question, and one that I haven't seen addressed, is what if any control you gave Peters over the final piece? So the question is: Did he con you into thinking this interview was anything other than a public relations exercise for him? Did he con you into making changes in the name of "accuracy"?

Straw men caution

First, thanks to all for disparate views ... it's a good comment thread that gets those.

Second, I think we need to make sure we don't equate "fact-checking" with "showing a subject the entire piece." I see some suggestions the two are identical - I don't think they are, and I think Dirk DeYoung's concerns are valid, especially the ones about "other sources."

(I also have concerns about "pre-buttals" stealing thunder; those can't be avoided if a subject knows what you are writing about, but you don't have to give too detailed a head start. I never have a problem reading back quotes or checking facts, though, if time permits. There is too little fact-checking and there should be more.)

One question I didn't ask Dale was why he couldn't have just sent the quotes and facts to Petters' lawyer, rather than the whole piece.

I do agree with Robb that there are times when showing a whole piece gives away nothing, and we should always be mindful that our stories affect the people we write about most of all.

I do think whenever an editor makes an explicit exception to a policy he/she isn't tossing, readers deserve to know, especially if there's a full-page editor's note that contains process. Again, even if we are stiff-spined, it shows faith with readers.

"Recourse"

A clarification, Adam: When David interviewed me for this piece, I didn't suggest that letters to the editor provide recourse for bad work. I did talk about them as a vital part of the dialogue any reputable publication carries on with its readers and, in some cases, its subjects and sources. As for "corrections boxes," I didn't mention those at all. Nor did David.