Ryan Nees, Brian Howey and Jen Wagner: the perfect storm

Dateline: Wed 14 May 2008

This is insider stuff, but still intriguing (one hopes) to those who read blogs, political reports and newspapers, and care about the basics of the craft: accuracy, fairness and, hell yes, media personalities.

Especially when the latter includes a bright young shining star, Ryan Nees, 18 years old, of Kokomo, who for the past year has been tossing off incisive analysis for Brian Howey's well-circulated Howey Politics Indiana. Besides that, Ryan's resume is worthy of -- well, banner headlines on the Howey blog, which he's garnered, along with lots of photos of himself looking thoughtful, which he is, for the most part. According to the PR, (all true), he's an activist who, at age 16, successfully sued the former GOP mayor of Kokomo over an email/political ethics issue; as a result, he became the award-winning darling of journalists; he was an intern last summer in Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's office (yes, despite being a Democrat); he's No. 2 in his senior class at Western High and -- well, the hype goes on.

Trust me, the kid is good. But not perfect.

In a 5/8 post, "JLT Should Seize the Party," Nees put the kibosh on both the "sputtering" state Dem elites and the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, in light of Jill Long Thompson's somewhat surprising win over Jim Schellinger in the Dem primary race for governor.

'Twas "very readable," as we used to say, except for one major goof: Nees wrote that Jennifer Wagner, the Schellinger camp's press secretary, had sent out an email under the name of the previous press secretary, Robert Kellar, "signed by Kellar and e-mailed without his knowledge," wrote Nees. Sounds pretty darn sneaky.

Nees explained that the email Wagner sent was an effort to publicize Thompson's role in the 1992 House banking scandal, which is code for "bring her down." Thompson, a former U.S. representative, was one of many legislators caught up in that ancient overdraft mess.

Wagner -- herself a media darling, with her own following, but alas no closeups -- saw what Nees wrote, and she saw red. Blogger/attorney Gary Welsh broke the news on Advance Indiana that Wagner, a newly-minted lawyer, was leveling defamation charges against both Howey and Nees.

Welsh quoted Wagner's statement: "Not only is his (Nees') assertion not based in reality, but it is potentially damaging to my reputation, and he (Nees) offered it as fact with no attribution or basis. No such e-mail was ever sent by me or Robert."

Wagner demanded a correction -- she wanted her name cleared -- and she wanted the offending post removed from Howey's website. She contacted Howey, she said, because he is the publisher, and she considered him responsible.

Insiders know that Howey and Wagner have a ferocious little tit-for-tat history. Wagner considers Howey's work sloppy and error-prone, and she has made no secret of her disdain. Howey has referred to Wagner as "the nastiest woman in Indiana politics." This is a feud that goes beyond partisanship.

Howey ran a clarification May 11. He has chosen not to comment publicly about the issue, for now, but instead referred to the clarification (which states that Candace Martin of the Schellinger camp sent out the offending email).

Wagner is not mollified, however, and in this, she is right. All journalists know that there is nothing more important than a well-written correction that absolutely sets straight the record and removes any shadow of doubt about the original error. To the credit of the Indianapolis Star and other major newspapers, all corrections are not only overseen by an editor, and then another editor, and then another, and finally a copy desk, but they are also archived, so that anytime a reader or a reporter calls up a flawed story, the incorrect original information will not be repeated. Red ink is also involved.

Alas, the Howey report with the bad info is still floating around on the Internet.

Wagner, as most readers know, was a reporter at the Star, covering the mayor's office before leaving to do her own thing. Like Nees, she is young and gifted, although not quite so young. She is honed by the rigors of writing for a daily, with all its power, glory and grind. Among her best-known enterprises is the creation of the blog Taking Down Words, which, when she served as spokesperson for the state Dems, was filled with her own brand of smack, spice and sense. OK, and a little vinegar and venom as well.

Howey also has his list of solid accomplishments. He's a well-known writer, analyst, speaker and pundit. He too is a former reporter, having worked at several Hoosier dailies. He's got juice in political circles. He's tireless and hard-working.

But this is not about who is the more talented or better-liked individual of these two; it's about the issue of accuracy, and the old adage: check it out. If your mother says she loves you, Ryan, check it out.

Here is what Wagner has to say, which cuts to the chase -- a bit of a smack-down, but better now than later:

"If Ryan Nees wants to be considered a serious journalist, he needs

to play be serious journalist rules.

"He knows where to find me, as does Brian. All they'd have had to do was ask, and I could have shown them the records I referenced in my e-mail.

"But they didn't bother to ask because it's more fun to write about speculation as though it's true....

"So, by way of an official statement, I guess I'd say that I'm disappointed that Brian published the work of someone who clearly wants to be considered a real journalist but who does not understand the difference between fact-finding and fact-invention. Anyone who knows me knows I have a pretty thick skin, but I'm not willing to sit idly by while someone makes things up about my professional actions.

"Calling me names is one thing; making things up and repeating them as truth is quite another. Finally, this isn't a blog. It's something that people pay money to receive. They need to know they're getting a quality product."

Ryan has apologized, as was reported on Advance Indiana. In a phone interview today, he was pleasant and gracious, but he refused to discuss the correction or how he made the error originally. "I have to defer to Brian. I have not discussed talking about this with him."

Howey is preparing his own statement. He expects to release it Thursday.

Oh, dear. Much ado about nothing? In one sense, yes. A rather windy post for such a small matter. Was anybody hurt? Well, yes. Was anybody killed? No.

But on the other hand, this is also about the basic principles: truth, fairness, accuracy. We want people to keep reading...so we better get it right.

Which brings us, optimistically, to the future: Howey is going on vacation. Wagner is contemplating some new moves. Nees is going to Yale. To study -- of course you know -- political science.

Maybe lessons there will be simpler than on Indiana blogs and political reports.


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