Sent Oct 3, 2003 to Neil Skene, Creative Loafing by Steve

Dear Neil,

Our mutual friend Tom Julin assures me he has the highest respect for you as a journalist, so I can only assume you must have turned over our request for corrections to an editor who apparently does not subscribe to the high ethical standards applied by you and most conscientious journalists.

As you gather, I am sorely disappointed at your Atlanta papers’s response to the documentation we  provided to show that corrections are clearly warranted as a result of the September 11 Fishwrapper column.  In fact, we believe what we provided was more than enough evidence to suggest even an apology is due in wake of what can fairly be described as nothing more than an unwarranted and malicious personal attack on Jane and me byyour columnist.

First, as I have mentioned to you before, I have serious concerns about the placement of what were termed “clarifications” in the current issue.  And before I go on, since we’re talking about corrections, why DID your paper label them as mere “clarifications?”  When your columnist writes that we immediately began a vigorous fund raising campaign and you determine the fact is that our effort began a year later, is it fair to soft-pedal that and mischaracterize it as a “clarification” and not the  correction it really is?

But back to the placement issue.  You continue to allow Internet readers to easily access the original column with easy-to-find  links from the current Fishwrapper.  Wouldn’t basic fairness dictate that visitors who do link to the original column should be able to either easily see on that page or easily link to another page where the corrections are as prominent and easy to find as the original errors still in the column?  Of course you could also simply edit the original column to incorporate the corrections instead of continuing to publish information you know is inaccurate or misleading.

We are also extremely disappointed with the fact that what efforts have been made have been buried. Even knowing corrections  were online somewhere on your site, neither Jane nor I could find it.

At least on the Internet, which is all I can see from here, it is buried at the bottom of nine letters to the editor in a section called Talk of The Town.  And what’s even more unfair about this placement: even if one were to click on Talk Of The Town from  your homepage, one would have to know which of NINE separate links there would take you to the page where you could then scroll down and hunt for these corrections.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful and I’m sure you don’t welcome any journalistic advice from me but, please, do you and your papers not subscribe to a basic tenant of ethical journalism that errors should be corrected with the same general prominence as the original error?

And this isn’t just some wild idea of mine.  I note that while the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has no Code of Ethics or published standards members should aspire to, Article IV of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Statement of Principles says:

“Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.”

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists also makes it clear:

“Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

We sent you seven well-documented examples of errors in Sugg’s column.  What has been done with them is not, in our view, fair or responsible.

You accurately corrected the fact that our fundraising did not begin immediately upon filing our lawsuit—but you ignored clear evidence that Sugg’s characterization of our fundraising could not be honestly characterized as “vigorous.”  One mention on a website qualifies as “vigorous?”

You accurately corrected Sugg’s mis-reporting of our real estate as “a townhouse” but instead of telling your readers he was on notice of the inaccuracy of that information pre-publication and yet never even then bothered to check the primary source (assessors’ records easily available on the internet), your paper makes it appear there is still some question about the accuracy of your columnist's report by writing “Wilson says it’s actually a “house.”  Come on Neil, do you have to go to lengths like that to protect your guy?  I sent you the record from the primary source Sugg never consulted.  It is a house, it's not just that I claim it is. And more important, is that fair to your readers?

And that’s what little “good news” there is in your paper’s efforts to correct the slew of errors Sugg published.

We are amazed that instead of correcting Sugg’s report that Jane and I were fired for repeated acts of insubordination, your “clarifications” merely characterize that as the station’s position and goes on to say Jane and I claimed we were fired as whistleblowers.  Then, instead of accurately and honestly reporting that a jury agreed with Jane, your correction ignores 
that fact and jumps to, “The station prevailed when an appeals court ruled the state’s whistleblower statute didn’t apply.”

Don’t your readers need to know a jury heard five weeks of testimony, viewed all the evidence, and sided with Jane before an appeals court overturned their decision on a legal technicality which is totally unrelated to why we were fired?

Your “clarifications” also altogether ignored Sugg’s assertion, printed as fact, that our legal exposure of $3 million is “a gross exaggeration.”  We clearly documented it is not.  Any competent, independent lawyer would confirm that.  Do your readers not deserve to know that the assertion you published as fact is, indeed, incorrect?

And especially troubling: your clarifications also completely ignore Sugg’s grossly inadequate and unfair summarization of our response to his clear implications that we misappropriated funds donated for legal expenses.   Back to that ASNE Statement of Principals for a moment, do you and your papers not subscribe to the journalistic principle that:

“Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.”

Wouldn’t you agree that Sugg’s summarization of our responses to serious allegations and implications by merely reporting “Wilson last week refused to disclose any accounting of the money he collected for the lawsuit,” is far from an honest and fair report or interpretation of the response we actually provided?

You don’t think our statement that we have painstakingly kept our promise to spend donated funds only for legal fees and our offer to provide a full accounting to any donor of date should have been included in a fair report of how we responded when confronted with year-old real estate records?

Again, from the SPJ Code of Ethics:

“Give voice to the voiceless…”

Do you not fail to provide us a voice when you allow your columnist to ignore the statements we provide by not using even a single quote from us?  Does that kind of journalistic misconduct, apparently condoned by your editor, not lead the reader to believe we had no real response?

And I won’t even get into the convoluted details about Sugg’s false characterizations of the “reasonable belief” issue at trial, or the actual basis of what we decried as lies in the reports we were pressured to broadcast.

In closing, we do appreciate your paper’s offer of 500 words.  Please advise the deadline for that response to be  included in your next issue.

But meanwhile, I again appeal to you personally to assure the corrections we have requested are made fully and fairly.You can and should act immediately to assure whatever you publish in response to the material we sent is given reasonably the same prominence as the errors in the column you continue to publish on your website.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.  I look forward to your response.

Steve Wilson