On Feb. 26, Deadspin’s Greg Howard published a story titled, “How SB Nation Published Their Daniel Holtzclaw Story.” The title was self-explanatory: Howard detailed the chain of command and key decisions that resulted in one of those embarrassments sure to land on everyone’s 2016 media year-in-review lists: Under the byline of freelancer Jeff Arnold, SB Nation’s story “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” sympathetically profiled the 29-year-old former Oklahoma City police officer and former star college football player who stood accused of sex crimes against 13 black women. Holtzclaw, who is half-white and half-Japanese, was found guilty on 18 of 36 counts and sentenced to 263 years in prison. The SB Nation piece went heavy on input from friends and family who could not imagine that Holtzclaw did such things, an emphasis that enraged social media and prompted SB Nation’s top editors to disappear the story.
How bad was it? SB Nation editorial director Spencer Hall called it a “complete failure” in an editor’s note. The company is conducting an investigation into the story’s evolution, and SB Nation’s longform unit is taking a break. Glenn Stout, the longform editor who’d shepherded the 12,000-word piece into publication, was fired. “[W]rongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived,” judged New York University Professor Jay Rosen of the end product.
In accounting for the debacle, Howard took a two-pronged approach, citing “structural problems” at SB Nation, as well as a personnel problem. The debacle, he wrote, was “in part a function of the style and sensibility of Glenn Stout…”
Now Stout is firing back. David H. Rich, a Boston-based lawyer for Stout, has sent Deadspin a request for correction on the Howard piece. “Deadspin’s inaccurate portrayal of Mr. Stout is false and defamatory and has had the practical impact of destroying his outstanding professional reputation, a reputation he has spent the last thirty (30) years building,” reads the letter, cycling through the telltale scare words of a libel suit. In addition to his duties at SB Nation, Stout has written books and served as Series Editor of “The Best American Sports Writing” anthology since its debut in 1991.
As laid out by Howard, the Stout-is-culpable version of events rests on editorial blindness. Stout and others, concludes Howard, should have “listened to one of their colleagues, senior editor Elena Bergeron, who explicitly and repeatedly drew attention to the story’s flaws in the days leading to its publication—-and was, somehow, ignored.” That assessment appeared to square with the view at SB Nation, as Hall wrote in a note posted to the site, “There were objections by senior editorial staff that went unheeded. It was tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution.”
No, no, no — counters Rich. “Most critically, and contrary to the direct statement contained in Deadspin.com article, Ms. Bergeron’s comments were not ‘ignored.’ Each and every comment Ms. Bergeron raised was discussed and resolved through an edited version of the article which Ms. Bergeron specifically approved prior to the publication of the article,” notes the lawyer’s letter (underline in original).
Here’s where we plunge into the muck of story-making.
As Howard writes in his piece, Bergeron brought a great deal to the process. She was a staffer for 11 years at ESPN The Magazine and served as editor in chief of a well-read basketball blog. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” said Bergeron, who is black, to Howard in reference to the draft of the Holtzclaw story. A key summation of Bergeron’s input, via Howard:
Bergeron says her basic critique was that the people Arnold spoke to hadn’t been prodded or treated critically enough, which gets at the piece’s real problem. For a story that centered on Holtzclaw to work, it had to look at the people around him, who thought they knew him best, not as sources, but subjects. Instead of retrying the case through one-sided interviews, it would be far more illuminating to explore exactly how and why these people couldn’t reconcile the facts about Holtzclaw with what they knew of him. Here was a beloved son, friend, and teammate; here, too, was a prolific serial rapist. If Arnold weren’t deluded, perhaps he would’ve seen that what he’d reported was a study of delusion.
She also told Deadspin: “I wanted to go point by point and discuss it editorially. I didn’t want anyone to misunderstand why it was harmful and offensive. I wanted people to understand why.”
In the correction-demand letter, Rich counters that “[a]t no time did Ms. Bergeron or anyone else ever suggest to Mr. Stout that they believed the story was inappropriate or that anyone had read it and thought that it defended Holtzclaw, that he had been dismissive or disrespectful of the victims in any way, promoted rape culture or was insensitive with regard to any issues of race or sex or abuse.”
Perhaps, but the documents disclosed as exhibits on behalf of Stout turn up a rather sophisticated bit of editing by Bergeron. This point requires some explanation about an important issue that arose in Holtzclaw’s trial. As the SB Nation story explains, there was no dispute from the defense that Holtzclaw had actually encountered the 13 women he was charged with assaulting — GPS placed him at the spots. From the SB Nation story:
It is what happened after that initial contact that became the point of contention between the prosecution and the defense. There were periods of time left unaccounted for because Holtzclaw either turned off the computer in his car or didn’t radio in updates. It was during these times, the prosecutors charged and the jury determined, when Holtzclaw went from the football player turned caring cop to serial rapist. But the defense, and even Holtzclaw’s most earnest defenders, his family and supporters, firmly believe those assaults never took place. They consider those gaps inconsequential, nothing more significant than a harried cop on the beat who sometimes forgot to make a radio call or flip a switch, rather than the premeditated actions of someone preparing to commit a sexual assault.
It’s at that intersection where life becomes most difficult for the man who now finds himself trapped between his role as a police officer and the father that believes his son couldn’t have committed these crimes.
Seizing on a similar passage in a draft version, Bergeron sent an email to Stout challenging the deference accorded to Holtzclaw’s “earnest defenders.” She wrote, in part: “I do not wish to have this story re-adjudicate the case but this is a point of fact that the writer and ‘earnest defenders’ dismiss pretty easily and are allowed to without a reasonable amount of cynicism or journalistic prodding,” noted Begeron in the email. “What did the defense offer as the reason for those unaccounted for periods? Holtzclaw’s parents are both in law enforcement, did [they] say anything about that being a normal occurrence for cops on the beat?”
Such a good point. Bergeron, indeed, is asking that these people be treated as “subjects” and not so much as “sources,” as Deadspin reported. She’s asking for a bit of accountability from them. How could they feasibly insist that these gaps were just a matter of happenstance? There was more, too. Bergeron criticized the story for devoting excessive space to “wondering how this happened to a man who once had NFL dreams, rather than an exploration of how the people around him are resolving the Daniel they knew with the one who was convicted in a court of law,” she wrote.
With this stern criticism in hand, Stout turned to Brian Floyd, SB Nation’s managing editor. The email reads, in part:
Is there any kind of consensus here? If people had concerns about this story, why was that not communicated to me days ago? That’s the whole point of getting stories in early. Elena seems to take most issue with the decision to focus on trying to determine what happened to DH rather than solely on the reaction of his family and friends. They’re not the story, he is, and that was something that came up quite early in the reporting. And you’ll note that their reaction to the conviction is what actually asks the question we try to answer, because none of them can find any explanation to square the predator with the person they knew.
Email got the parties only so far. It was time for a conference call among Stout, Bergeron and Floyd. The way Howard recounts that call, Bergeron claimed that insufficient journalistic due diligence had taken place and that “the stark reality of the situation—that the subject of the story was a man who had recently been convicted of using his station to rape and prey on 13 black women—was never met head on.” Stout disregarded the input in a stormy conversation, according to Howard.
The Stout camp differs. Here’s the letter from Rich:
Instead, the 4:00 PM telephone call was a productive and professional discussion with regard to the points raised in Ms. Bergeron’s email. Mr. Stout began the call by explaining the genesis of the story. Since Ms. Bergeron’s comment seemed to indicate she thought the story should be about Holtzclaw’s father and friends, Mr. Stout noted that this was not the story Mr. Arnold had set out to write, and that such a story should really only be written as a follow-up after a story focusing on Holtzclaw had first appeared. The parties discuss the position of the story she had highlighted in her email, and Mr. Stout agreed to make a change to clarify one point in the story, a change he had previously indicated to Mr. Floyd over email would be made. Ms. Bergeron also pointed out a redundant statement in the article and mentioned that she was troubled by the story’s lede, which she thought was too sympathetic. Mr. Stout responded that was why he made what he called an intentional “hard turn” at the start of the second section of the article and noted the crimes and charges. Ms. Bergeron said that after seeing the story in design, her concerns were less pronounced. Mr. Floyd concurred and a consensus was reached.
Following the conference call, Stout did make some adjustments to the text — adjustments that sharpened the depiction of Holtzclaw. The draft, for instance, carried this text:
But Holtzclaw’s most earnest defenders firmly believe those assaults never took place, that those gaps are inconsequential and indicate nothing more than cop on the beat who sometimes forgot to make a radio call or flip a switch.
And Stout strengthened it as follows:
But the defense, and even Holtzclaw’s most earnest defenders, his family and supporters, firmly believe those assaults never took place. They consider those gaps inconsequential, nothing more significant than a harried cop on the beat who sometimes forgot to make a radio call or flip a switch, rather than the premeditated actions of someone preparing to commit a sexual assault.
In an email, Stout apprised Bergeron of that change, as well as another one (bolding in original email from Stout, to highlight text changes). According to the letter, Bergeron responded with this line, “Works for me. Thanks for being so receptive!”
Did Howard catch every nuance in this editorial process? No, and he couldn’t have. Stout, after all, declined to cooperate for his story. “As Mr. Stout was stripped of his authority to take any actions as SB Nation’s Longform editor, he could not comment or cooperate with Deadspin.com on its forthcoming story or anyone else for that matter,” reads the lawyer’s letter. That’s an excessively bureaucratic excuse. Defend your work.
Yet even without Stout’s cooperation, Howard’s report correctly notes that a key concern advanced by Bergeron never fully took root in the editing process, aside from some marginal tinkering with the text. That concern, of course, relates to the way that the story treated the intimates and associates of the accused. Had the story more completely heeded Bergeron’s prescription, it may well have blunted the social media backlash. Or perhaps just presented a less credulous picture of the convicted rapist. Or whatever — it would have been better.
As to Bergeron’s apparent contention that the lede was too sympathetic toward Holtzclaw — bingo! It was. The above correspondence reflects Stout’s feeling that a “hard turn” at the start of the second section capably countered the lede’s softness. Here are the first three paragraphs of that section — judge for yourself:
Nearly six weeks before Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for committing the series of rapes and unthinkable sexual crimes while on duty as a police officer in Oklahoma City’s Springlake Patrol Division, Cortland Selman, a medical device salesman from the Detroit suburbs, sat on an unforgiving courtroom bench only seven feet away from his former Eastern Michigan teammate and attempted to fit the pieces of a confusing and disturbing puzzle together.
Selman, who also played linebacker, appeared to be an unlikely ally. The black native of Detroit had already been vilified on social media, which saw the crime primarily in racial terms, for his support of his friend, but was unmoved. To him, this was about loyalty, about standing up for a teammate, not skin color. “I’m here as his brother,” he had told a reporter.
Like everyone else, Selman wondered how it was possible that Holtzclaw could have become the racial predator who preyed on black women, most of whom already had a history of run-ins with the police over drugs or prostitution. How, Selman questioned, could Holtzclaw have morphed from being a model police officer dedicated to serving his community one day to a being someone that Oklahoma County district attorney David Prater painted at Holtzclaw’s sentencing hearing as a “rapist masquerading as a law enforcement officer.”
So: Wasn’t the Deadspin story essentially correct in asserting that Bergeron’s concerns were disregarded? We asked Rich, and he responded:
Not from our perspective. The purpose of the call was to talk collaboratively about the points Ms. Bergeron had raised in her email and to provide context about the story Glenn thought was being told through the article. The key point here is that after seeing the story in design, Ms. Bergeron agreed, first on the call and then a few minutes later in writing, that she was content and satisfied with the story as modified. I would also add that the issues which were discussed over email and then on the call were not the matters which later became part of the public discourse, namely that the article had been dismissive or disrespectful to victims, promoted rape culture or was insensitive with regard to race or sexual crimes.
Lastly, context is very important here. The Deadspin article paints a very specific picture in stating that the “intense conversation devolved into an argument” which was “unresolved” at the conclusion of the call. Th[e] message indelibly and undeniably left with Deadspin’s readers was that Glenn got into a heated argument with Ms. Bergeron in which she complained that the article was insensitive and “unpublishable,” that she was literally and figuratively “hung up” upon and that her concerns were disregarded and cast aside. Of course, this portrayal is demonstrably false and in no way resembles reality.
Another possibility is that Bergeron “was content” because she felt steamrolled or outnumbered or worn down by the resistance she encountered. Attempts to secure comment from her haven’t fetched a response. In any case, Rich and Stout may well be right that the objections voiced by Bergeron “were not the matters which later became part of the public discourse.” But must she have been so clairvoyant? Wasn’t addressing matters of tone and emphasis a good start toward repairing the draft before it hit the unforgiving Internet? “To hold her to a standard where she would have to articulate the criticism made after the fact before the fact doesn’t really wash for me,” says Tim Marchman, editor in chief of Deadspin. “It’s certainly conceivable that if she thought that she went head on…she felt that would have been dismissed so she went with another angle that would have fixed the problem.” Nor does Marchman view Stout’s changes as a meaningful implementation of Bergeron’s critique. “They were minor edits that didn’t go directly to the core criticism she was making, based on the information I have available to me,” he says.
For the record, the letter states that Deadspin can comply with its journalistic obligations if it “retracts and corrects its erroneous publication and publishes a fair and accurate follow-on story which corrects the record so Mr. Stout’s reputation can, in some small part, be restored.” An unlikely prospect, according to Marchman. “The materials…actually seem to me to buttress our story, the central thrust of which is that Elena Bergeron objected to the story…and that she got run over in the editorial process. It all seems to be borne out by what’s here.” Particularly compelling, he says, is the email record in which Bergeron levels significant concerns with the story — concerns that encountered pushback. “It seems a little strange to me to use that as evidence that her concerns had been addressed,” says Marchman, who notes that Bergeron presented suggestions that “really would have improved it and the response is pretty much, ‘I disagree.'”
Exhibits in the Rich letter reveal something of a scramble by editors to fall on swords after the story’s undoing. “I accept full responsibility,” wrote Stout, in part, in an email to his bosses. “I accepted the pitch, I put it forward, I directed the reporting and oversaw the entire story through multiple drafts to finished product.” Kevin Lockland, SB Nation’s vice president of editorial, wrote back, in part, “In this case, I am ultimately responsible. We operate in a manner where we attempt to produce the best possible work with a proper process, but the least amount of bureaucracy. We aim to operate in a manner where everyone feels the authority to make smart decisions and take risks. But we also owe it to our staffers to provide the right level of support on that decision making. In that manner, I failed us in this case.”
Fay Sliger, spokeswoman for Vox Media (which owns SB Nation), says the company has no comment about all this stuff.