Pressing story takes toll on editor-in-chief’s emotions
by Elizabeth Enke
At The Ramsey County-Maplewood Review, a subdivision of the Lille Suburban Newspapers, which focus on St. Paul suburbs, there is a strict policy regarding the release of a suspect’s identity: the identity cannot be released until they are formally charged with a crime.
In 1998, the superintendent for the Maplewood-North St. Paul-Oakdale School District (District 622) had complaints filed against him by teenage girls alleging that he displayed inappropriate sexual behavior in their presence.
At a meeting with the mayor of Maplewood, Bob Cardinal, reference was made to rumors he had heard about the superintendent’s police reports. Supposedly, the police officer dealing with the case was a juvenile officer, and sent him to counseling—a way of dealing with juveniles, not adults.
During a phone conversation between the Review’s editor-in-chief Holly Wenzel and the superintendent, he acknowledged that other publications and media were inquiring and asking questions about the case; no one had yet chosen to run the story.
“In journalism school, you always dream of being the first with a story," said Wenzel. “But in real life, the fact that these organizations with deeper pockets, more reporting time, and master access to legal counsel that ours had passed on the opportunity made us feel very vulnerable in leading the way."
The Review, along with other publications, was in possession of the police reports from these incidents. Oddly, no other media source or print publication decided to release what most would consider pressing information, to the public.
“He was a person with a wife and adult children," said Wenzel. “We actually sat in the newsroom and talked about what effect this would have on him, on his career, and on his family."
In 2000, Wenzel, along with editors and reporters struggled with the decision to release the identity of the superintendent since he was such an important figure in the school district.
“The [superintendent’s] case was the only one where I've actually cried in the newsroom as my boss and the publisher and co-workers and I sat and tried to decide whether to run it," said Wenzel.
They eventually decided to go to print with it.
“We honestly didn’t know if doing the story, and it was pretty obvious it was our choice, as other media had backed off, would result in just a resignation, a firing, a lawsuit, or a suicide," said Wenzel. “We had to go with what we had."
While preparing the story for publication, The Review staff found themselves in what could have turned into a legal dispute. The police reports The Review had received stated that the superintendent told police that he was wearing “nylon running shorts without any underwear underneath" during the incidents.
The Review’s lawyer, Mark Anfinson, told the paper that even though that information was disclosed in the reports, the superintendent could still potentially sue the paper for a type of “prurient invasion of privacy."
The Review decided to only note that the superintendent was wearing a pair of shorts.
“It really wasn’t a struggle [making the decision]," said Wenzel. “We could get the point across that there was lewd behavior."
Being as The Review was the first publication to go to print with this information, they received multiple criticisms from people in the community, especially the school district.
Wenzel noted that the paper had printed a sidebar focusing on Mayor Cardinal regarding the situation. They wanted the public to form their own opinions and tried to be as transparent as possible.
The sidebar states that Cardinal knew there were rumors circulating in the community about the incident for months. Cardinal then asked City Attorney Patrick Kelly what all the fuss had been about. It was then that Kelly and the police chief decided to give the police reports to the superintendent; he then released the reports to the Maplewood City Council.
Because the superintendent had never been formally charged they were accused by the public of reporting false information. The Review said the police reports indicated that a woman from the first incident was able to identify the superintendent in a photo lineup.
The Pioneer Press ran a version of the same story after The Review stating that “witnesses were unable to identify The superintendent in a photo lineup and county attorneys declined to press charges."
“I was just mad," said Wenzel. “I don’t care if people have different opinions about things—I just want them to be working from the same facts."
Wenzel believed that one of the biggest ethical issues pertaining to this story was that the information was no longer timely. By the time the story went to print in 2000, the incident was two and a half years old.
Additionally, Wenzel believed that it was important to go to press because Cardinal had alluded to the incidents and felt it was important to let the community form their own opinions of the situation.
“People should know," said Wenzel. “We don’t get a ‘thank you’ for concealing things in newspapers."
Prior to the superintendent’s position for District 622, he was involved in school districts in Eau Claire, White Bear Lake, and Duluth.
Wenzel was curious to see if his changing of locations had anything to do with the accusations against him. This meant that Wenzel had to do an even deeper investigation. She had to contact police departments in the school districts where the superintendent had been employed.
“I couldn’t say ‘this is what is going on here’ because the superintendent hadn’t been charged," said Wenzel. “It could be considered libelous or slanderous for me to ‘spread rumors’ in his former workplaces [and] hometowns by asking specifically if he’d behaved improperly with teenage girls."
Because Wenzel could not come out and ask straightforward questions she had to approach the situation in what she referred to as a “cat-and-mouse" questioning session with the police.
“[They would] of course ask, ‘what kind of things are you looking for?’ and I’d have to say, ‘well, you’d know it if you saw it in the records," said Wenzel.
The police departments from other districts were unable to find reports on the superintendent in their communities.
“They didn’t find a thing," said Wenzel. “We were actually hoping there was something there so we wouldn’t be alone on the allegations."
According to Wenzel, soon after the story ran, the superintendent resigned at a board meeting. At the meeting a girl that claimed to have experienced an encounter with the superintendent was present. She informed the board chair she would tell her story if the superintendent did not resign.
Before the superintendent decided to resign, Wenzel met with the superintendent in his office. Wenzel said that she apologized for what he and his family were going through, and according to Wenzel he responded with something along the lines of “there’s not much to be done about it now."
Wenzel acknowledged that the superintendent was very brief while answering her questions, but maintained a professional manner, and that is what she appreciated most, despite his situation.
After the resignation, the superintendent’s story was not over for Wenzel.
About a year and a half after the the superintendent’s story was published, The Review had hired a new promotions writer.
The young woman writer had told The Review she had an encounter, much like the other incidents, when she used to work at Home Depot and had been away at college when the the superintendent’s stories were in circulation.
She asked Wenzel if there was a picture of the superintendent available.
Wenzel remembers she got “caught up in the spirit of things" and was able to find a clipping of the superintendent.
“[I] didn’t think anything of it," said Wenzel. “[I] just walked over and stuck it under her nose and said, ‘is this him? She took a long, horrified gasp, covered her face with her hands and burst into tears."
The young writer had only discussed the Home Depot incident with her mother and sister; she had no idea similar things had happened to other girls until it was brought up in conversation that day.
“It just seems like in journalism you never get confirmation like that about stories you’d otherwise be wondering about years later," said Wenzel. “Seeing this competent, smart 22-year-old sitting there sobbing, brought home to us that someone’s anonymous lewd behavior does affect the victims and it is serious."
The superintendent died a few years later of a rare blood disease order called amyloidosis. The Review had to publish an obituary for the superintendent and the newsroom was again in upheaval determining what was “appropriate" to publish.
Wenzel said it was discussed whether or not the superintendent’s accusations within the school district should be referenced in the extended obituary; their publisher forbade it.
Wenzel said that she felt that the superintendent’s accusations needed to be mentioned in the obituary.
“We felt it was ‘the elephant in the room nobody’s talking about," said Wenzel. “At the same time, we understood that he wanted to have an obituary that credited the man for what he did for the community."
In a follow-up e-mail Wenzel stated that one of the scariest things she felt was that if she had just said that there was not enough information available to continue the story.
“I might have been able to convince those around me to drop it," said Wenzel. “That in itself was a huge burden."
Wenzel believes The Review made the right decision to run the superintendent’s story.
Recently Wenzel came across a quote about a newspaper having “an obligation to tell the truth, not to hide it," by famous Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“That’s just what it felt like," said Wenzel. “We just needed to tell everything we knew and let people judge for themselves."