Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: Be Sure Your Emails Will Find You Out

Posted at 1:34 pm, July 9th, 2012
Herb Strentz Mug

DES MOINES–An ongoing sex-riddled saga and scandal in Central Iowa and its attendant news coverage call to mind the tagline for the 1963 Billy Wilder comedy “Irma La Douce” – “ A story of passion, bloodshed, desire and death…everything, in fact, that makes life worth living.”

Only in the Des Moines area, it might be: “A story of passion, desire, public records, military heroism, government secrecy, educational leadership and newsroom decision making – much, in fact, that makes journalism worthwhile.”

The most recent developments are summarized in a story in the Sunday Des Moines Register. In a nutshell, the woman superintendent of the Des Moines Independent School District and an Army captain featured some two years ago in a 60 Minutes report on his heroism and leadership as part of the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan have seen their careers severely damaged, if not destroyed, by the disclosure of sexually explicit emails they exchanged during a six-week affair.

The superintendent, Nancy Sebring, was about to take a new job in Omaha when the emails came to light in mid-May as part of a public records request by the press. She resigned her Des Moines post ahead of time and also resigned from the Omaha superintendency before showing up for work there. Capt. John Hintz has been relieved of his duties as commander of a recruiting unit while the Army investigates his involvement with Sebring and whether he sent his emails while on duty.

The Register and television news identified Sebring from the outset but the paper and one station held back on identifying Hintz by name until he was relieved of command and the Army announced its inquiry.

There’s enough going on here to provide case studies in journalism ethics, access to government information and newsroom judgments for months.

For example, Register editor Rick Green explained to readers why the paper was not identifying Hintz at the outset of the story in May, even though the newspaper later filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Hintz’s (then known as Interested Party) petition to have his name kept secret. The thrust of his explanation was that Hintz, as far as was known, did not violate any public trust or policy in his part of the exchange. (Although given the 60 Minutes attention and honors he had received, he had a measure of public-figure status.)

And the public records part of the scandal has at least three aspects:

1. Under Iowa law the emails are public records because Sebring used a school district computer for her part of the exchange and the emails were in the possession of the Des Moines school district. Iowa defines a public record in terms of information possessed by a government agency. Not incidentally, the use of school equipment for personal messages violated school district policy.

2. After the first wave of emails came to light, Sebring sought an injunction to prevent further release of damaging emails. Her request was opposed by the school board and by the Register.

3. Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson denied the Sebring request, noting, to paraphrase, that there was not much of her reputation left to salvage and that the emails also were of public interest because they shed light on administration of the schools. (In some emails, Sebring shared thoughts about school board members and conjectured that maybe she could find a place for Hintz in the Omaha schools.)

Having the emails in hand, of course, raised new questions. How do you treat the contents in news columns and on television? For the most part, the descriptor of choice was “sexually explicit.” As reported, a breakdown showed that “of the 115 emails released… 26 were sexually explicit, while another 17 included references to sex acts or sexually explicit photos.” Some of the emails deemed too explicit or raunchy to be published in print or aired on television were posted on line, in a bowdlerized version by the Register but in uncensored versions by Cityview, an alternative weekly, and by The Smoking Gun.

And how has the public reacted to all the coverage and controversy?

A vocal, but likely small, group chastises the media for sensationalism and lack of respect for the privacy of Sebring and Hintz. (But everyone, it seems, wanted to read the exchanges. Cityview says it got a huge number of hits to its Web site the week it ran the e-mails.)

A second group comprises those who don’t want the “sexually explicit” raciness to detract from what they see as a need to hold the school board accountable for oversight of the superintendent and to be more challenging when it comes to policy making.

Perhaps the over-riding sentiment is a mix of disgust, fatigue and sympathy – not for Sebring and Hintz as much as for their families. While Sebring is separated from her husband, who lives in Colorado, she was involved in planning her daughter’s wedding when the email release hit. Hintz, his wife and two children live in Ankeny, near Des Moines.

As for the government-secrecy aspect, the school board and its president, Teree Caldwell-Johnson, at first covered up the reason for Sebring’s hurried resignation. Caldwell-Johnson told the Register that a closed meeting – at which the emails were discussed – really might not have to have been closed at all and that Sebring was not discussed. When the email story broke, the school board essentially said, “See, no damage was done. You found out anyway!”

Difficult to find heroes in this one, except for the efforts of the press to figure out what was going on and to tell the public about it. And even with that, there is no happy ending.

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