Des Moines Register editors still proud of a reprehensible call

Scrutinizing the work of government at all levels is one of the media’s most important functions. Access to public records is essential for journalists to do that job. The Des Moines Register was right to pursue and review e-mails from former Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Sebring’s school district account.

What’s not right: the Register’s editors acting like their most reprehensible call in recent memory was some kind of muckraking triumph.  

This story began in May 2012, when Sebring abruptly resigned. She was set to start work that summer as a superintendent in Omaha; even so, her sudden departure raised questions that Des Moines Public Schools officials didn’t answer thoroughly. The Register filed a request for records, including Sebring’s e-mail correspondence. She tried to stop the release of the e-mails, saying they

were not public records and, even if they were, there was no public interest in releasing them.

[Polk County] District Judge Robert Hanson rejected those arguments, ruling that the emails were public records and were not subject to any exceptions in the law that would prevent their release to the public. In fact, Judge Hanson said those emails revealed important information to the public about the conduct of a top government official.

Soon after obtaining the records, the Register revealed that Sebring had sent sexually explicit e-mails from her school district account. Adding to the scandal, the messages were not to her husband, from whom she was separated, but to a married man with whom she was having an affair. The Register published most of the e-mails, redacting “selected segments […] that were deemed inappropriate, to comply with guidelines for what’s allowed to appear on DesMoinesRegister.com.” Within hours, Sebring had resigned from her new job.

Sebring was wrong to send personal e-mails from her office computer. That she misused the account to exchange messages with her lover was newsworthy.

Details about her sexual fantasies were not newsworthy, though.

Letting the whole world read those e-mails served no conceivable public interest.

Then-publisher Rick Green defended the decision at the time:

Much deliberation went into pursuit of the Sebring story and how to handle the emails between Sebring and her lover, Green said.

“These emails are public record and exchanged on the district’s email system,” he said. “They speak directly to the public trust between the superintendent of Iowa’s largest public school system and her school board, the district’s staff, its 31,000 students and their parents.”

Yes, the e-mails were a public record. Good on the Register for obtaining and reviewing them. But Des Moines Public Schools staff, students, and parents did not need to see the content of the e-mails to learn about the breach of public trust.

Thought experiment: let’s say Sebring had been e-mailing friends about shopping and movies, or her husband about upcoming vacation plans. Would the Register have published the texts of those messages?

Not likely. The newspaper would have reported that Sebring resigned after school board members discovered she had been using an office computer for personal correspondence during work hours, which is unprofessional and against district policy.

If Sebring had denied an initial story about misuse of her e-mail account, it would have been appropriate to release some messages to back up the newspaper’s reporting.

Or, publishing the e-mails would have been justified if Sebring had been having an affair with a subordinate, creating a hostile work environment, or harassing a love interest with unwelcome sexual attention. She hadn’t done any of the above. The man involved didn’t work for the school district and willingly engaged in the conversations.

So the Register’s decision to publish the e-mails accomplished only two things: to punish Sebring, and to drive monster traffic to the newspaper’s website (news flash: sex sells).

This three-year-old editorial call has been on my mind lately because a Polk County District Court judge hearing the lawsuit Sebring filed in 2013 determined that

sexually explicit emails [Sebring] wrote were subject to release under Iowa’s open records laws.

In rulings in May and June, District Judge Robert Hutchison wrote that Nancy Sebring’s claims for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with a contract aren’t “viable” under Iowa law.

Side note: in connection with the lawsuit, Judge Hutchison rejected efforts by Sebring’s attorneys to depose one Register reporter and limited the lawyers’ questioning of former publisher Green. In so doing, the judge honored the principle of “reporter privilege” to protect news sources.

Hutchison’s actions appeared to put Sebring’s lawsuit on track for dismissal. But last week, the insurance company that covers the Des Moines Public Schools settled with the plaintiff instead. Note the slippery phrasing in Mackenzie Ryan’s August 10 report about the settlement:

The longtime educator was set to leave Des Moines to start a new job as Omaha schools superintendent, but she resigned when the emails went public in May 2012 after an open records request from The Des Moines Register.

Sebring’s e-mails “went public” not by some natural turn of events, but because the Register’s editors decided to publish them.

After news of the settlement broke, the Register’s editorial board got back on their high horse:

Sebring conveniently ignores the fact that she made public her “purely personal information” when she chose to use her school district computer and public email account to send sexually explicit emails. The “devastating effects” she speaks of are real, but they’re entirely self-inflicted.

In other words, the bitch got what she deserved.

No, Sebring didn’t “entirely” cause the “devastating effects.” The Register greatly compounded the permanent damage to her reputation and career by publishing the e-mails.

The editors can’t own up to how they reveled in humiliating Sebring. They could have reported her infraction without letting untold thousands of strangers read her correspondence with a lover.

Register columnist Rekha Basu took a more honest look at the situation in her August 11 column:

What complicates Sebring’s case is that as superintendent, she made enemies through controversial decisions, job eliminations and cushy deals for herself and relatives. So some people felt vindicated by her fall from grace. I remember thinking, as many did, that it was fair game to publish her letters because she had brought it on herself.

Like I said, the bitch got what she deserved.

Basu continued,

Now I wonder, was the humiliation equal to the offense? Would it have sufficed to report she had exchanged sexually explicit exchanges with a partner on work email without publishing them?

Obviously, that would have sufficed. But slut-shaming is more satisfying and better for business.

Basu asked,

Even if she did bring the shame on herself, does publishing such material serve a legitimate purpose?

I see none.

As a parent of two children in a Des Moines public school, I wasn’t pleased with Sebring’s leadership. I was happy to see her leave. I didn’t agree with the reasoning behind her lawsuit against school district officials. The Register rightly took the school board to task for flouting state law on open meetings.

None of that is any excuse for how the editors handled the controversy over Sebring’s e-mails.

P.S.- The Des Moines-based weekly Cityview also published many of Sebring’s e-mails online, accompanied by a column headlined, “Nancy, Nancy, Nancy.” After recounting some previous clashes with Sebring over school district policy, Cityview’s editors took the disgraceful slut-shaming several steps further than the Register:

We intended to publish many of those emails in the pages of this paper, but even we were blushing after viewing what read like a stack of Penthouse letters. Her graphic references about her craving for something “long, hard” and her desire for something else with “a suction cup” would make most anyone uncomfortable. But the email detailing why she would be wearing skirts every time she sees her lover was enough to fog even our glasses. But like a train wreck that was taking place before our eyes, we couldn’t stop watching. Simply stated, these emails make “Fifty Shades of Grey” read like “Mother Goose.” […]

This isn’t a matter of Sebring’s private life versus Sebring’s public life, as some have suggested. The district’s email policy is clear, and she violated it in ways that are unbelievably reckless. She apparently felt she was above the policy – untouchable, you might say. Then again, after reading the emails, untouchable may not be the best word choice.

There’s no doubt that Sebring has a strong personality, and there’s no denying that she has strong sexual desires. But simply being an egomaniac and a horn dog doesn’t violate district policy. Sending it out in graphic detail on district equipment does.

In other words, the bitch got what she deserved.

  • Amen

    I am not a subscriber to the DMR and have never read the email stories.  But I thought it was odd that the editors were still proud of their work in this clear case of personal destruction.  

    • there's a disconnect

      between many journalists and members of the public when it comes to needlessly wrecking someone’s life. I suspect that’s one reason opinion polls show Americans hold the media in low regard.

  • Wow! This is horrid

    Apparently I missed all of this sequence of stories, but I’m not sure that I regret having not followed it.

    My immediate reaction is to go broad and say that it’s hardly surprising that folks aren’t buying the printed-page media anymore. Quickly tho I rationalize that this distasteful sensational level of journalism is the journalism industry’s reaction to the loss of those subscribers and daily buyers. The inevitable reaching and gasping struggles of a dying industry, if we will.

    That said, the bad taste of this chain of events does reenforce my sense that the day of the printed page news media has now passed.

    As for the Register’s people involved, Basu seemingly is willing to admit to feeling some shame over her earlier role, but the editors’ position is to stand tall.

    No class there, DMR.

  • Okay

    I know I am about to get excoriated on this page but here goes: it’s a tough call and I could argue either way on whether to print the content of the emails. But if The Register had merely characterized them as sexually explicit and not reported the actual emails, then that would’ve sent readers off on a hunt via blogs, alternate press, social media, public documents for the content, which eventually would’ve turned up anyway. So they opted for the “empty your notebook”  school of Journalism: put it all out there and let the readers decide.  Yes, they could’ve handled it differently but in the end, they are in the business of disseminating information, not censoring it. Again, it was a tough call, and only someone who has sat in an editor’s chair can really understand it. You make the best decision you can, knowing many people won’t like it and let the chips fall where they may.

    Sebring’s life as she knew it, her reputation and career were over the minute she wrote the first email in a public computer.  Nothing The Register did or didn’t do would’ve changed that. Everything that came out would be out there anyway for all to see. In the “old days” that may not have been true, but it is today.  

    • Personally . .

      … I’dve felt better about DMR had they opted for some decency over reader numbers or hits. Let some other outlet be the lowlife.

    • we'll have to agree to disagree

      No other Iowa media organization has the agenda-setting power of the Register. Sure, someone else would have gotten the e-mails and published them, but they would not have reached as large an audience. Sebring’s career was going to be over anyway, but the Register magnified the harm.

      I do not see it as a tough call. As conservative demo said, “let some other outlet be the lowlife.”

      I strongly disagree that they made the decision “knowing many people won’t like it.” On the contrary, they knew that almost everyone in town hated Sebring and would delight in seeing her taken down. And they knew that lots of people who had no opinion on Sebring would click through anyway, just to read sexually explicit content.

      I strongly disagree that declining to publish those e-mails would have been tantamount to “censoring” information. You think the Register doesn’t sit on potentially life-ruining stories about other public figures?

  • Dmr

    What would you think if it was a GOP contender and they revealed the spicy details?

    • Not sure who you're asking, but . . .

      … if it’s for me, I can sincerely say that I didn’t (don’t) know the politics of this lady, nor is that relevant to how I feel about someone’s humiliation.

      When that asshole Sorenson switched from Bachmann to Paul I felt terrible for her public humiliation, despite my loathing her type of conservatism and thus, her as a candidate.

    • I have been urged

      to publish information about GOP public figures’ sex lives that had nothing to do with their job performance.

      Not interested.

      Would not condone the Des Moines Register publishing such information either.

      Sexually suggestive correspondence would be newsworthy if (for example) a government official were harassing a staffer. Then I would support publishing the “spicy details” because the harassment/abuse of power is the story.

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