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How did Blake Mastin fool two Twin Cities newsrooms?

In early June, KSTP-TV and KARE11 latched onto an irresistible story: National Guard mechanic Blake Mastin had a designed a novel cap to stop the then-gushing Gulf oil spill.

KSTP’s Megan Newquist quoted Mastin’s lawyer saying he was “negotiating with BP right now.” The Detroit Lakes man told both stations the idea had helped plug a broken water main during the 2009 Fargo floods; KARE’s Jeffrey DeMars intoned, “It’s likely no other idea has a proven track record like this.”

Five weeks later, on Monday, KSTP flew Chris O’Connell to Detroit Lakes. Anchor Bill Lunn introduced the report by saying Mastin’s idea “appears to be working. ... And now he’s getting ready to head to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress.”

O’Connell then told viewers Mastin “says he has the answer to the BP oil spill, and apparently BP agrees ... He could stand to make millions of dollars ... He’s quit his job with the National Guard to take on the oil spill cause full-time.”

But in less than a day, the story had sprung more leaks than a BP well. Pioneer Press reporter Jessica Fleming wrote a 1,300-word exposé in which a BP spokesman flatly denied using Mastin’s design. A National Guard spokesman issued a similar disavowal; as it turned out, the mechanic was being discharged “for lying about a felony conviction.” A Fargo engineer had never heard of Mastin or his device. There was no Congressional testimony.

Oh, and Blake Mastin also goes by the name Blake Sundvor, which lengthened the rap sheet.

One day after breathlessly announcing Mastin’s triumph, Lunn issued a dramatic about-face: “The Detroit Lakes man who claimed he had the answer to the BP oil spill may not have the answer at all. Tonight, we started asking even more questions after some of the answers didn’t add up.”

Despite that somewhat disingenuous admission of error, KSTP news director Lindsay Radford concedes her reporters didn’t ask enough questions. “We don’t like looking stupid,” she says. “It takes a long time to build credibility, and it’s easy to destroy.”

(For a full coverage timeline, see "The life cycle of a myth" at the end of this post.)

Unlike KSTP, KARE11 never reported a BP deal, and rejected the "D.C. testifying" story because it couldn’t confirm it, Fleming reported.

However, KARE's story may also have a hole. Even though news director Tom Lindner told Fleming his station’s piece “just put [Mastin’s] idea into public discussion,” it made a factual claim that the cap concept was “proven” in North Dakota.

Lindner refused to answer my questions about whether KARE confirmed Mastin’s Fargo account at the time, if the station was doing so now, or if a correction was in order. Unlike Radford, KARE's news boss is not ready to admit a mistake.

What went wrong
KSTP’s fundamental reporting error is obvious: not contacting BP. Asked if that would be the logical call to make, Radford says, “It would. But nobody did.”

She adds, “If I recall correctly, we might have made a poor assumption on our part that [Mastin’s] attorney was verifying the BP part of the conversation.”

Blake Mastin
KSTP Screen Shot
Blake Mastin

Bill Toder, the attorney Newquist named in KSTP's initial story, denies ever talking to BP, much less confirming it; he says Mastin was never his client. Another lawyer quoted, Jaren Johnson, did not return a call for comment. A Twitter search reveals that on June 29 — after Newquist stated BP “is negotiating” with Mastin — someone with the Twitter handle @JarenJohnson tweeted: “Need contacts at BP. Have a client that can stop the Gulf oil leak.” The pitch included a link to KARE’s story.

In any event, a lawyer hired by Mastin is hardly an independent source. In everything that appeared on KSTP’s air, the only sources referenced were Mastin or lawyers linked to him.

Everyone agrees Mastin spoke with someone in U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s office; Fleming reported it was an intern. Radford says that there was “confusion” between O’Connell and producer Julie Holton about confirming the D.C. appearance. (When O’Connell was in the air, he couldn’t make calls.)

No one figured out that Mastin wasn’t testifying — even though it led KSTP’s report.

What went right
Meanwhile, over at the Pioneer Press, Fleming’s b.s. detector was clanging. The Dakota County reporter initially became interested after seeing the June 15 KARE11 report, which was datelined Lakeville.

“I thought it would be a funny little bright,” she says — journo-speak for an upbeat story.

However, when she went looking for Mastin, “I couldn’t find him, the library couldn’t find him, it was like he didn’t exist,” Fleming says.

She eventually got a cell phone number from KARE’s DeMars around June 20, but didn’t get a callback from Mastin until July 16. “Blake is super-slick,” Fleming says. “Any question you have that could possibly trip him up, he has another answer. He’s pretty amazing. But we were never going to run a story without a BP confirmation.”

Getting a BP comment wasn’t easy; the oil giant obviously has bigger fish to clean. But Fleming says the spokesman who picked up the phone, Daren Beaudo, shared her love of the Green Bay Packers, so the reporter was able to forge a connection that eventually produced an answer.

Fleming had Googled Mastin using different spellings of his name (KARE spelled it wrong) and eventually found sources who said the mechanic was not what he seemed. She was working the story diligently, but when O’Connell’s breathy Monday report hit, it forced her to “really kick it into high gear.”

Capping the hype
Meanwhile, the alarm bells started going off at KSTP.

For whatever reason, the early June report did not prompt Mastin skeptics to contact the station. However, after the Monday hype, Radford says, “We did get emails from his hometown area, saying he’s not who you think he is, he really goes by this name. We ran the background checks, and got him on the phone.”

Part of that conversation was replayed in KSTP's last report.

O'Connell: "Did you lie to us here?"

Mastin: "No, I did not."

Radford says the station “probably didn’t” Google Mastin, as Fleming did. (O’Connell deferred comment to his boss.) Doing background checks on every source isn’t practical, she notes — but the station may institute a policy of doing so on all-too-alluring subjects like Mastin who “come out of the blue.”

The life cycle of a myth

♦ KSTP's June 9 story (Megan Newquist, reporter)

♦ KARE11's June 15 story (Jeffrey DeMars, reporter):

KSTP's July 19 story (Chris O'Connell, reporter)

The Pioneer Press' July 20 story (Jessica Fleming, reporter)

KSTP's July 20 story (Chris O'Connell, reporter)

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Comments (6)

Lots of very serious journalism lessons in this story. I hope some journalism class somewhere gets the chance to look at this and see that yes, people do lie, and no, you can't skip steps like quick google searches, confirmation calls (no matter how difficult they might be to get), or even just asking a few extra questions just because you think you have a good story. More times than not it will come back to bite you.

I was waiting for the yo-yo to come out.

Is an entire column really needed to explain how KSTP and KARE "news" rooms were fooled by this guy? These "reporters" are lucky if they know how to Google someone's name, let alone go out and actually confirm sources.

Kudos to Jessica Fleming for staying diligent and correcting this mess as best as she could.

Isn't it bizarre that none of these TV news reports spoke to (or at least aired words from) a source other than the subject of the story? I know that's not entirely unheard of, but for a story like this?

Dave:Thanks for the analysis on how things went wrong. This foulup should never have happened.