Monday, June 29, 2009

The Omaha World-Herald takes its revenge

JULY 6: There is now an update to this post available here:

Two stories. Same subject. Same reporter. One is a finely-nuanced portrait. The other is an act of vengeance. It's more evidence that, to paraphrase one the best media critics I know, Hell hath no fury like a newspaper that thinks it's been suckered.

It's all fallout from the safe-haven law in Nebraska. A recap: Every state has a law allowing parents to surrender their newborns to authorities, no questions asked. The limits on how old the infant can be vary from state to state. But in Nebraska, the original law allowed parents to surrender children up to age 18. And that's exactly what more than two dozen desperate parents and guardians did, until the Nebraska legislature closed the loophole late last year.

One of the most compelling stories to emerge from the safe haven debacle was that of the Staton family; Gary, his wife RebelJane and their ten children.

Much about this case is undisputed. The oldest child, now 19, was from RebelJane's first marriage. Gary adopted her and raised her as his own.

Gary worked, apparently whenever he could get a job, given his limited skills. When the tragedy that led him to use the safe haven law struck, he was earning $10.75 an hour as a machinist.

RebelJane wanted a lot of children, but apparently, she raised them well. They're polite and well-mannered. While some are a little behind in school, most excel.

Story #1

According to a 2,200-word in-depth profile of the family that originally ran in the Omaha World-Herald on March 29 (not June 28, as the World-Herald website says):

RebelJane Staton ruled her home as strongly as her name implies.
While Gary Staton brought home a paycheck, Rebel paid the bills, arranged for food stamps and sometimes found temporary jobs.
She grounded the kids when they brought home bad grades and assigned book work to help them improve. For three years, she home-schooled a few.

Nevertheless, in 2004, they fell behind on the bills, the gas was shut off, the home became filthy – and, of course, the children were taken away. This is, after all, Nebraska, which, year after year, takes away children at one of the highest rates in the nation. Ultimately, the state did chip in a little for rent and utilities, and nine months later the children were returned to their intact, married, two-parent family, in which all of the children were born in wedlock.

Then, suddenly, after 17 years of marriage, and shortly after giving birth to the tenth child, RebelJane died. Gary was left desperate, distraught and overwhelmed. He was too proud to turn to his own family for help, and either too proud or too afraid to turn to the government – especially given what the government had done to the family a few years before.

Not that there had been no government assistance over the years. According to the March 29 World-Herald story:

With an income tax refund sitting in the bank, Gary received permission from his employer in June to leave work to get his life together.

Come September, money was dwindling. Bills were due. The family received $900 a month in food stamps and $250 a month in Social Security benefits for seven of the nine children, but it wasn't enough and the family was close to getting evicted.

Gary filled out job applications at his old workplace, but he never heard back. He was too proud to ask Rebel's large extended family for help.
Though state officials calculated that the family had received almost $800,000 in different forms of government aid, including more than $600,000 in food stamps, Gary didn't check into subsidized housing or other aid once he was out of work.

"I could have gone and asked the state for help, but I didn't," he said. "There was no place for me and the kids to go and we were just too many. It would have been crazy just trying to fit all of us in."

About that time, he heard news reports that people were dropping off kids at area hospitals, invoking the safe haven law and facing no criminal penalty.

This comes about half-way into a story that paints a picture of the family in all its complexity. The story talks about how the oldest child became a surrogate mother to the family, how Gary found a new girlfriend a year after RebelJane died, how this pleased the oldest child but upset some of the others but how, nevertheless, all the members of the family still loved and cared about each other. The story describes how, after Gary invoked the safe haven law, seven of the children were placed with RebelJane's aunt and the oldest two with foster parents, and how Gary ultimately gave up parental rights but still kept in touch with the children. The story talked about how he did not regret his decision because he was sure "It's the best thing I could do for them." Toward the very end, the story noted that Staton decided having more children was out of the question.

For the World-Herald it was a return to the kind of excellent journalism that characterized its coverage of the safe haven problem – (the coverage collapsed when the time came to look at solutions.)

The story was no puff piece. If you want to draw much harsher conclusions about Gary Station than I did, the material is there – and, indeed, the headline on a follow up story characterizes the response as ranging from "approval" to "contempt." The story gives readers the context they need to render a judgment without making the judgment for them.

Story #2

But three months later, things had changed.

If the first story suggested that, perhaps, Gary should have sought more help from the government, a story that ran yesterday took a very different tack.

Now, Gary Staton, overwhelmed, hapless father who had, perhaps made some bad judgments, becomes Gary Staton, welfare king. This time, the dollar figures were the principal focus of the front-page "World-Herald exclusive" that led the Sunday paper. They were the subject of the headline, they were at the top of the story, they took up more than one-fourth of the story – and they were taken out of context:

Since the Staton children were young, the family has received $995,468 in different forms of government aid, including more than $600,000 in food stamps and $109,774 in Medicaid, according to Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services records.

Only much, much farther down in the story do we learn the ages of the children. Then a reader who was so inclined could pull out a calculator, do the math himself and find out that this huge total dollar figure probably comes down to about $169 per child per week. And little or none of it was for "welfare as we knew it." It went to give the children health care and put more food on the table than Staton could afford on his machinist's pay. A lot of the rest probably was Social Security survivor benefits a fact mentioned in the first story, but not the second.

Or, to put it another way, all of the public money spent to help this married man and his wife raise their in-wedlock children over 18 years is less than one bonus paid to one of the financial industry parasites who helped plunge our entire economy into chaos. (And we really can't say "yes, but that's not government money" anymore, now can we?)

But the reporter isn't done yet. Now there's a new issue of government money that the same reporter saw no need to mention before:

The children were placed in foster care after their father left them. Under the latest figures available, the state paid an average $725 a month per child to foster parents in similar situations.
Staton has given up custody of his seven youngest children. They remain in foster care with their mother's aunt, who hopes to adopt them. The two oldest boys were in foster care until last month, when a 75-year-old Omaha woman was approved to be their guardian.

Both women are eligible for adoption and guardianship subsidies. Parents who adopt state wards may apply to receive Medicaid health insurance and a monthly maximum subsidy of $1,490 per child until the child turns 18.

Why, suddenly, the righteous wrath about foster care and adoption subsidies for the great aunt? Strangers would get the same amounts. (In fact if RebelJane's aunt is not a licensed foster parent, she may not even be getting what the World-Herald thinks she's getting.) And why, all of a sudden, are subsidized adoptions a problem? Would the World-Herald be happier if Madonna had adopted the children and gotten the same subsidy (they are paid without regard to income, and odds are, RebelJane's aunt needs the money more.)

An extra dose of humiliation

To what can we attribute this outpouring of journalistic indignation? Apparently it all goes back to that line at the end of the first story where Staton says he's not going to have any more children.

He changed his mind.

As noted above, the story was the lead on page one of the Sunday paper, under the heading "World- Herald Exclusive." The headline itself said: "Man who dropped off 9 kids now dad-to-be; While Gary Staton's girlfriend is pregnant, the safe haven wards are with caregivers eligible for state aid." They also threw in an unflattering photo.

How dare he????? The nerve! The gall! Conceiving another child while still poor. And after he said he wouldn't. Everybody knows only middle-class people should be allowed to procreate, right?

Indeed, that may explain this line which turns up in the story right after the detailed enumeration of taxpayer costs:

After Staton's newest child is born, the state cannot remove it from his custody unless there is evidence that the child is in danger, said Brenda Beadle, Douglas County chief deputy county attorney.

And the problem with that is?

It also explains a final bit of humiliation for Gary Staton at the very end of the story. The story returns to his earlier promise to have no more children, but this time the reporter uses a quote from her original interview with Staton in March that she did not feel was needed in her first story. Story #2 ends this way:

"If I had a thousand dollars," [Staton] said "I'd get fixed."
Staton declined to be interviewed for this newer story – wisely, from the look of it. But he did make this point in an e-mail to the newspaper: "Do you think I'm going to raise this one alone?"

The fact is, there probably are thousands of other families across America with similar arrangements. Dad becomes depressed after the first wife dies; he can't cope. Then, a year later, another woman enters his life. That causes stress in the household. So a caring relative moves in to help – or the children go live with the relative while dad stays in touch. But it's all done informally, out of the public eye. Even if the relative ultimately becomes a kinship foster parent, it's still likely to stay private.

So yes, Gary Staton blundered by invoking the safe haven law. But that's no excuse for what the World-Herald just did to him – and to his children.

Was there cause for a story? Yes. The first story prompted some sympathy for Staton, along with some contempt. You can draw all sorts of conclusions about Gary Staton's decision to have another child, including conclusions far harsher than mine. Having opened the door with the story in March, there is an obligation to tell people the rest and let them draw their own conclusions.

But a story somewhere in the metro section that reported the fact that Staton had conceived another child, reaction from family and friends and Staton's comment in the e-mail - in short, the story the World-Herald published, but without the hysterical headline and the huge section high up about tax money which read like they added by Fox News – would have been fine. It would have been enough to inform anyone who wanted to withdraw sympathy from Gary Staton; while reducing the chances that Staton and his new girlfriend will be deluged with hate mail – and that the children will be ridiculed at school this week. (The children are not named, but it's hard to believe their neighbors and classmates don't know who they are.)

That also makes this story a setback for all of us who have crusaded for opening court hearings and records in these cases. Most of the time, the press shows admirable restraint in these situations while advancing the public good; the World Herald's own coverage of the safe haven families – until now - being a fine example. But every exception, however rare, is more fodder for those who want to use secrecy to cover up their own far more common, far more egregious failings.

The journalist's worst fear

So what in the world is this really all about? It's not really about Gary Staton or his children. Based on my 19 years of experience as a reporter, I'd say it's really about a newspaper that feels suckered – and, specifically, a reporter who feels betrayed, a reporter who thinks she was made to look naïve in front of her colleagues. Or maybe it wasn't a reporter, but some editor who demanded this kind of story. Either way, nothing – nothing – is more mortifying to journalists than believing they have been made to look naive.

Ever wonder why so much political coverage is about strategy and tactics and so little about issues? Because covering issues is considered naïve (after all, they're politicians, they won't keep their word anyway, right?) Knowing the strategy, understanding who's up, who's down and who's likely to win this or that state – that's how you score points among your peers.

Why are there reporters who won't write a story about an initiative or program that seems successful – in any field, not just child welfare? Because if it turns out the program isn't what it's cracked up to be, the reporters are afraid they'll look naïve.

Of course the build 'em up, tear 'em down cycle also is a part of political reporting. But politicians crave the limelight and know what they're getting into. Newspapers ought to think twice before bringing down the full weight of their righteous wrath on a man who is maybe desperate, maybe hapless, maybe irresponsible, but definitely an awfully small target for so much front-page fury, especially when some of that fury may harm the children.

And, in the age of the internet, there is an extra reason to be extra careful about any story involving poor people having children. This is a particularly hot button for the virtual lynch mob – the despicable haters who fill the comment sections of newspaper websites under any story about poor people with vulgar demands for compulsory sterilization. The World-Herald does not post comments with its stories yet, but it's already started elsewhere, with one website calling Staton a "slimeball" and a "dirtbag." But then, that's essentially what the Omaha World-Herald did, with just a bit more subtlety.