How the Strib got scooped on KFAN host Dubay’s arrest

A little after lunchtime Friday, a source sent me a tip: KFAN radio host Jeff Dubay had been arrested for felony narcotics possession.

I groaned, and not just because I was trying to wrap up a week’s work. In the ’90s, I was a KFAN host, and Jeff was effectively my sidekick. He was a good guy and almost hysterically into sports, a trait he and other KFAN hosts have successfully played off of ever since.

I checked the Ramsey County Jail bookings and Dubay’s arrest popped up. No one had broken the story, but I did a gut check and decided I didn’t have the stomach to “out” Jeff’s troubles — the scoop just didn’t seem worth it given the world of hurt he must be in.

Friendship is a media reporter’s biggest conflict, but I rationalized my judgment this way: surely the daily press was already hot on the trail and I’d get beat anyway. (After all, I found the booking record on the PPress website!)

A KFAN source confirmed that mine was not the first call he’d received on the matter. Having wimped out, I sat back and watched to see how the news would emerge.

That evening, PiPress broke the story (I think); the bust led WCCO-TV’s Friday 10 p.m. newscast. From the Strib: nothing about Dubay on the website — and nothing in Saturday’s paper.

As it turns out, Strib reports Judd Zulgad and Tony Lonetree were working the story along with everyone else. Zulgad’s and Lonetree’s version didn’t appear until later Saturday, and finally showed up in Sunday’s paper.

From the outside, it looked the Strib behaved a bit like me — letting more aggressive news operations name names and writing about it only after someone else had done the dirty work.

As it turns out, there was a simpler explanation: higher standards and human frailty.

The Strib has long resisted naming uncharged arrestees — to protect reputations if there isn’t enough evidence to charge. (The Pioneer Press has long named names, reasoning that the arrest is public information.)  In March, I wrote Strib editors were reconsidering this policy in the Internet era, but managing editor Rene Sanchez said that review is still going on.

He says the Strib brain trust originally felt the Dubay story was in the “gray zone.”

“We asked some questions we typically ask in these situations — is it a crime with a victim, or a victimless crime? We didn’t have a clear answer to that. There was a little bit of a debate about whether he was a public figure,” Sanchez explains. “Perhaps most significantly, we had reason to believe his lawyer would put out a statement that would make the decision easy.”

As it turned out, the lawyer’s statement never came — and this is where human frailty enters the picture.

“This one is entirely on me,” Sanchez says of being scooped. “A whole series of Friday night issues with other stories forced that question to the sidelines, and unfortunately I never picked it back up until Saturday morning. That’s when I decided that the person involved was enough of a public figure to note his arrest in the paper and online.”

Hey, man — it happens.

In hindsight, I don’t think there’s any question Strib management was far too cautious on the public figure question — Dubay clearly qualifies. Still, newsrooms are complex organizations, high-wall policies still have a place in the Internet era, and any manager big enough to own a mistake deserves some consideration.

As of this writing, Dubay has still not been charged. Maplewood Police Chief David Thomalla says his department will send the case to the Ramsey County’s Attorney’s office for a charging decision later this week.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Mitch Larson on 10/21/2008 - 03:40 pm.

    I listen to PA and Dubay a lot. I guess since he’s a public figure, this can be reported. But since he’s not running for office… it just seems self-serving for papers and internet to report on this.

    To be honest… I like him a little more now. He’s human, like most folks.

  2. Submitted by Bob Collins on 10/22/2008 - 07:18 am.

    Judging by the lawyer’s comments, there was good reason for the policy to wait until charges were filed. According to the Strib this morning, the reports of meth were wrong, that he possessed “a small amount of cocaine.”

    There’s still honor in getting it right rather than getting it first. Newspapers — and others — should resist the temptation to lower their journalistic standards. It’s about all they’ve got less than is a marketable commodity.

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