Friday, November 2, 2007

When does "more" replace "wrong" in reporting?

I once learned a lesson about fixing mistakes: It's hard to undo a wrong once it's been done, and a weak attempt at correction sometimes makes the problem worse by bringing the wrong kind of attention to it.

Without getting too deep in the details, "we" didn't like the wallpaper in the kitchen, so "we" chose a paint color to go over it. Part of "we" thought that if we didn't like the wallpaper, "we" should take it down first, then paint the bare walls with our chosen color. But another part of "we" thought it was fine to paint over the wallpaper, though some seams might still show. (Seams are unnoticeable details, right?) So "we" decided to leave the wallpaper up and paint over it. Painting was fun, but when it was done, "we" decided that the color had looked much better on the paint chip than it now did on the kitchen walls. Plus, "we" decided that the seams -- the seams "we" thought would be unnoticeable -- were obvious and distracting. "We" spent a lot of time with sandpaper, and a lot of time with new paint chips, and a lot of time re-painting the kitchen.

As a result, "we" have a lot of memories of that process, and "we" decided not ever to undertake a project like that again.

If only we'd taken the time, learned all that we needed to know and gotten it right the first time, "we" wouldn't still be talking about ways to hide the uneven seams under four coats of Killz primer and paint.

What does wallpaper and paint have to do with accountability in Referendum 1?

When you're deciding your kitchen color, maybe you can afford to make several mistakes in a row. It only costs more time and more money to undo what you did wrong in the first place. So what if the wallpaper seams are a little exaggerated now, through several layers of paint?

But when you're Speaker of the House and you pick up the phone to question a University's choice to publish a study in the public interest, you have to know that you may be asked later, Why did you make that call? What was your intent? What did you hope to accomplish by doing it?

Or, when you're a television reporter who takes on the assignment of deciding which television commercials about Referendum 1 are true and which are false, it matters that you take as much time as necessary to collect all the facts before making such judgments. Stamping "TRUE" and "FALSE" in big red letters, with your face on the screen, and your television station's call letters in the corner, leaves a pretty big seam to cover up if you find later that you made a poor judgment.

In the case of the Speaker's call to the University of Utah to question its publication of a factual report on the voucher referendum, the solution to the problem was to stonewall reporters' questions about it.

Curtis' chief of staff, Chris Bleak, told the Deseret Morning News that Curtis did not want to talk about the call. However, Curtis reportedly told KUTV Ch. 2 that the university would "create hard feelings with certain members of the Legislature" because of the report.

But painting over the answers to those questions with a 'no comment' response (,5143,695224018,00.html) only exaggerates the error of that judgment, and only underscores the questions people have about the political games being played with this public policy.

In the case of KSL's Richard Piatt declaration that the commercials run by Parents for Choice in Education were "TRUE" and the ones run by Utahns for Public Schools were "FALSE," it looks like KSL's solution was to do what "we" did about the kitchen: Use a little sandpaper, and add a lot more primer and paint. Except that KSL's solution was on a bigger, bigger scale than our kitchen; our kitchen isn't seen by tens of thousands of television viewers every night.

As for Mr. Piatt himself, he got a big 'thank you' for that judgment from Richard Eyre, a spokesman for the pro-voucher campaign, when he moderated one of last night's voucher debates ( You can see Mr. Piatt's response there for yourself.

Then you can read Mr. Piatt's second coat of primer and paint here ( While it may have been easy for Mr. Piatt to tell friends and family that he got his original report wrong (, it apparently is much harder to admit it so plainly when viewers (and advertisers, maybe, and future "true-false" subjects) are watching:

In the interest of clarity, to help you make up your own mind on how to vote, here's more information on some key points of contention on Referendum One.

Notice that this report isn't a "retraction" or even a "correction," but just "more information."

Our 'Truth Test' reported that people taking advantage of vouchers could affect public school class sizes, as one ad claims. But we went on to question the real difference it would actually make. If you listened to the story closely, you heard our "True" stamp was really a "True, but..." As we pointed out, the "savings" would actually be three-tenths of one percent of the huge $3.5 Billion education budget.

I only saw "TRUE" stamped across the ad in big, red letters. And when I look at the mail that PCE sent out, I only see "TRUE" stamped across the ad in big, red KSL-stamped letters, too. I don't remember seeing or hearing any "BUT" in big, red letters. Doesn't "TRUE" mean "TRUE"? When my doctor's office stamps my bill "PAID IN FULL," it means I paid the bill in full. There aren't any "buts," and both the doctor's office and I understand that.

We also looked at Congressman Rob Bishop's ad that claims vouchers would be financially "good for public schools." We reported true, but pointed out the voucher program is a net cost to the state, depending on how many vouchers are issued. The cumulative financial impact over those 13 years is the $429-million commonly cited in anti-voucher ads, a figure Utahns for Public Schools says we should have also used in our first report.

This another big, red "TRUE" with a little "but." I remember the big, red "TRUE," but I don't remember the little "but." Does anyone?

The anti-voucher ads, however, consistently say that money would be "diverted from public schools." Again, as we pointed out, voucher money would come from the state's general fund. It's true that might someday be education money, but that is clearly not a matter of fact. The money could be used for transportation, corrections, law enforcement, and so on. That's up to future legislatures and is not spelled out in the voucher law.

So in this case, instead of a little "but," KSL gave it a big, red "FALSE" and now adds a little "maybe" at the end. See what happens when you add more coats of paint to those seams? They get more noticeable, not less noticeable.

But in the case of standards and accountability, one of the major themes of the anti-voucher community's case against Referendum 1, there's no backtracking from KSL's original report. Mr. Piatt just adds some new trim.

About standards, we pointed out how anti-voucher ads about accreditation and accountability claim there are few or none, but clearly, there are some. However, those standards may not be anywhere near the standards and accountability set up for public education.

Public schools must be accountable to the state about everything from attendance to test scores, teacher licensing, school accreditation, textbooks, financial audits and more. Voucher schools are required to give students one norm-referenced test. Teachers have to have a college degree OR special skills, knowledge or expertise in the subjects taught. Schools may or may not be accredited.

Isn't that what the commercial said?

See, adding the trim distracts the eye from a really ugly seam that just won't look right, no matter how hard you sand.

And in the end, Mr. Piatt puts a flower arrangement on the kitchen table and hopes people will stop looking at the errors on the walls.

It's a highly-charged, emotional subject, and both sides firmly believe their sides' rhetoric. Rest assured, the debate won't end after Tuesday's election, regardless of which way voting goes.

Neither will the memories end, of this mess that could have been avoided. Just as "we" won't ever forget the term "Tuscan bronze" in our kitchen, a lot of viewers will remember Mr. Piatt's big, red TRUEs and FALSEs.