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).
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.
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.
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.