Wayne Slater, the senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, has agreed to participate in a live-blog Q&A right here starting at 1 pm central time. Wayne is the one who wrote the Trailergate article that came out last Sunday and quickly became national news. The reactions to Slater’s piece have provided an interesting Rorschach test. Ann Coulter called Wayne a “rabid partisan Democratic hack.” Democrats have privately speculated about his motives. Journalists have publicly rallied to his side, citing his article as a good test of the Davis campaign’s mettle while privately questioning one of his choices that I’ll go into below.
Here’s the way it will work: I’ll post a question after emailing it to him. When he emails his response, I’ll post that. You keep up with the conversation by refreshing this page. Feel free to post suggested questions in the comments section, though I can’t promise to pose them. Slater’s responses will be reprinted verbatim.
JS: First off, Wayne, let me say for disclosure’s sake that you’ve always struck me as a decent guy. You’ve quoted me in one of your books. We’ve been in a documentary together. You tweeted out excessively generous praise about me. So I’m not going to pretend that you and I don’t get along. But when Ann Coulter, who has set the transgendered community back 100 years, called you a “rabid partisan Democratic hack,” I have to laugh. You and I have often found each other on opposite sides of arguments about campaigns I’ve worked on and you’ve covered. (For the record, I’m not working for the Coalition of the Wendy.) So if you’re a rabid partisan Democratic hack,” as Coulter claimed, you’re a really bad one. You’re a damn journalist, for better or for worse.
To wit, you wrote:
“She lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.”
Why “only”? How long would she have had to live in a trailer park before you would drop “only”? And more importantly, do you think “only” contributed to the impression that she had misled anyone about the length of her residence in a trailer park?
While Wayne works on his answer, here’s his book that I’m quoted in. I even enjoyed the parts that didn’t quote me, though Karl Rove did not.
Great, Gmail just crashed. Figuring out a workaround to get Wayne’s answers. Stay tuned.
1:44pm: We’re back, or at least email is. Wayne’s working on his answer.
WS: The Wendy Davis personal story was that she lived as a divorced teenage mother in a mobile home with a young daughter and facing difficult prospects. The campaign narrative trumpeted that as a significant time in her life and, clearly, it’s a compelling picture for voters. In fact, the time she lived in the mobile home was mostly with her first husband, and only after he temporarily moved out as they prepared to divorce, did she and her daughter live there, a matter of a few months.
What’s significant is not the number of months, but that she was never a divorced mother in a mobile home, as she and her campaign stated. And while the campaign narrative clearly left the impression that living in the trailer was a significant part of this difficult period of her life, it was actually only a brief period. Since the campaign made the trailer a significant part of her story, it seems right to set out the fact that she wasn’t there very long.
JS: Our friend Jim Moore, co-author to you on you corps de Rove and to me on our misbegotten Perry book, wrote this:
Quite a tale, eh? Reframe it around a man. And here’s the interpretation: Can you believe the sacrifices he made for his family, to get his degree, and lift them out of their situation? Lived in a mobile home a few months, lived with his mother, lived in a small, cheap apartment, went into debt, paid off his loans, endured long weekends to make sure he was involved in the raising of his children while reading the law, and managed to eventually become a Texas State Senator and run for governor. The marriage didn’t survive but the couple separated amicably and continued to raise their children together and still have mutual respect. Who is this great man?
He’s a woman. Name of Wendy Davis. Democrat of Fort Worth.
How do you respond to Moore’s criticism that your article’s portrayal of her life was “unfair”? [Jim Moore checks in offline: "That is not a criticism of Wayne's story. It is criticism of the interpretation of the facts he reported.]
While Wayne types, here’s a link to David Hartstein’s great documentary about the 2006 governor’s race that Wayne and I both received billing in.
WS: Our story included those elements, but it included other elements as well to connect, correct and fill omissions or errors in the official narrative. The first narrative is like a comic book. The second is more like a short story, adding detail and connective tissue. The challenge for the journalist is to look at what a campaign is saying and ask — is it true? And to fill in the blanks.
Having said that, there is clearly a double-standard. The sexism that existed back in 1990 when Ann Richards launched her successful campaign for governor — skeptical voters, doubting campaign contributors, a press corps comfortable in the traditional, male-oriented view of politics — was very much an obstacle. I know that because I covered that race and was very much aware of the slight advantages and considerable disadvantages Richards faced. In a quarter century, sexism might have abated, but it hasn’t been erased. I know that. As I take that seriously.
But in a case like this, if the details of a candidate’s up-from-poverty life story had errors and omissions, if the candidate had left the impression going to college on their own initiative and if, upon divorce, the candidates’ spouse had been granted custody of the children (the 21-year-old daughter returned to live in the family home) and the candidate ordered to pay child support — should it not be written because the candidate was a woman? Or should it be written whether the candidate was male or female.
JS: Many of Jeff Davis’ assertions were presented unchallenged as fact. For example, you wrote, “Jeff Davis paid for her final two years at TCU.” Though you gave her space to point out that it was by law community property, this comes across as a he said-she said disagreement. And while he may have cashed in his retirement account, they took out loans together for her law school education while in your article he did this alone. And while you note that she became a working lawyer, you allow him to take sole credit for paying off her student loans. Because this period of her life is summed up by Jeff Davis’ implication that she left as soon as he paid off her loans, your article gives rise to the perception that he was her sugar daddy and not her husband of more than a decade, stepfather to her oldest daughter and father to their daughter in common. Much of this impression is perhaps due to you presenting his perceptions as fact. To what extent do you think your choices as a writer contributed to this misperception of her role in that marriage?
Why Wayne cobbles together a response, here’s a link to my favorite of his Rove books because of the revelation of his first Rovian tactic. When he was a high school debater, he carted in boxes of blank cards to give the impression of over-preparation.
WS: When Jeff Davis cashed in his 401(k) and subsequently took out the loan for Harvard, she was a student, not a working lawyer. In the years after graduation, she did have an income from a law firm and as an officer in the title company that Davis led in Fort Worth. Under community property, they both owned any and all income generated by each partner. So you’re right, the latter payments on the loan were from their joint bank account. And I quoted her in the story saying that. But the fact that Davis told me they separated the same week he made the final payment is a fact as well. And I put that in the story. I think the story accurately sets out details that allows the readers to decide what they think.
Rush Limbaugh interprets it one way, Davis supporters interpret the details another way. That’s our job, putting details in the story that allow readers to come to their own conclusion.
JS: Last question, because I know you have a TV thing to get to. Thanks so much for your time and generous cooperation.
Why the anonymous quote? What news value is there in someone anonymously saying she won’t “let family or raising children or anything else get in her way”? The gratuitous sexist slur seems to give tacit approval and at the very least an unchallenged platform to the same sexist impulses you claim to oppose.
In closing, let me encourage you all to follow him on the Twitter where you can keep up with his articles:
WS: The use of anonymous quotes is a debatable issue in journalism. Some people never use them. Bob Woodward couldn’t exist without them. Clearly, anonymous quotes make sense in the case of whistleblowers, people inside a company or a government office who would suffer repercussions if they told the public the truth.
But that’s not what happened her. The reason I used the quote was because the person is a Davis supporter, a Democrat, someone who has worked with Davis in the past and who intends to vote for her. I talked to a lot of people, not just a few, in preparing the story. And while most people didn’t want to be quoted, many made much the same observation about Davis. There was, therefore, a clear sense that what the person was saying was true. Moreover, it helped frame the facts of the story in a way to help the reader, I felt.
Had it been a Republican, I wouldn’t have used it. Had it been somebody who barely knew her, I wouldn’t have included it. But it mirrored what I was hearing from others. And the quote was from a supporter who didn’t want to lose friendship with Davis but wanted the story to be accurate. In other words, I concluded this quote helped present a truer account for readers.
That said, I understand there are compelling arguments for not using blind quotes in such cases. It’s a judgment call. And readers can judge whether the quote helped understand Davis or unfairly gave a false impression of her. I have a feeling we’re not going to agree.
Thanks, Wayne. And thanks everyone for following along.