Dazzle 'Em with Details

Northwest Rebuts Star Tribune Investigation

There's a statement from Northwest Airlines Executive VP for Operations Andy Roberts in today's Star Tribune taking the paper to task over an October 2 front-page story about maintenance during the two-month-old mechanics' strike. It appears on the opinion page, even though it reads like the kind of letter newspapers--this one among them--often get from corporate public relations staffers following the publication of a long and damaging article. It's looooong on details and technical jargon and probably intended to look like a laundry list of errors made by the reporters, but to be so dull and impenetrable that most readers won't absorb anything other than its size.

We could stack the reply up against the story and take a stab at reconciling it, much in the style of those campaign ad dissection stories TV stations roll out right about this time each year, but that's really an exercise better conducted by the reporters who pieced together the story and their editor(s). Alas, in this case all readers get is the company's statement, unrebutted and without any helpful context. The end result? Northwest was allowed to leave the impression that two storied investigative reporters were firing blanks.


Regarding the internal Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors' reports highlighted in the article, the paper did not state whether it obtained its source documents from the FAA through a Freedom of Information Act request or from another, unofficial source. Readers may not realize fully that FAA inspector reports are internal documents exchanged between the federal agency and its employees. Similar to a reporter's notebook, they contain observations and information, but they are not designed to draw official conclusions.

Now, a quick look back at the story in question reveals that we aren't talking about random notes slipped to a hungry scribe by a disgruntled worker with an axe to grind. I don't know where the Strib got these reports (although there are some whistleblowers in the food chain who have aired these same safety complaints to Minnesota's lawmakers), but they are official documents, and in quoting them Strib reporters Paul McEnroe and Tony Kennedy went to great lengths to carefully describe what they did and didn't prove. To describe them as internal documents is disingenuous; they're "internal" to a taxpayers' agency that serves a crucial public safety function. They are better described as public records; indeed, reams of them are available online or from document clearinghouses.

You, Jane Q. Public, could cozy up to a nice stack of them tonight, now that "West Wing's" been moved to Sundays. Except that the exercise would be enough to send you scurrying to read the documentation that arrived along with your new dishwasher. Which returns me to the point. Had Northwest's letter arrived at this newspaper, the writers would have been offered a chance to defend their work--not rebut Northwest's opinion of the story, but respond to allegations concerning facts and ethics. Suppose McEnroe and Kennedy had been offered that chance, and that rather than engaging in a semantic debate they had chosen to argue that Northwest's letter in no way discredited their carefully documented story? Again, we aren't privvy to the reporting here, but we imagine there's at least a chance Northwest would have heard the response and pulled the letter.

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