Odd twists, unexpected turns make Monson story tough to figure out

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • April 5, 2006 - 11:46 AM

Google the phrase “Things are not always as they appear” and you’ll get 19,000 hits. After trying to find out what happened with the Dan Monson story, I’m not surprised.

I went into sleuth mode last week, retracing the steps of reporters and editors before publication March 22 of a story based on anonymous sources that said Monson, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach, was “not expected to return next season.”

But shortly after the story landed on doorsteps, Monson said that wasn’t his impression, and later that day athletic director Joel Maturi said he expected the coach would be back. Readers began contacting me to say it looked as if the newspaper made a huge mistake in publishing the story.

Those readers’ sentiments were summed up well by Jim Ingman, a financial analyst in Eden Prairie, who wrote, “Either name the specific source and the readers can decide its credibility, or wait until you hear it directly from Joel Maturi or Dan Monson as an official public announcement before reporting it. Otherwise, start a blog. At a minimum, you owe a public apology … .”

Trouble is, it’s hard to apologize if you don’t believe you were wrong. Every reporter and editor involved in that story told me he believes the story was accurate when the presses rolled that Tuesday night.

“I believe it was accurate at the time we made the decision to publish,” said managing editor Scott Gillespie.

“I back that up. I believe the story was correct,” said Glen Crevier, assistant managing editor for sports.

Jeff Shelman, the Gophers basketball beat reporter, said he was tipped to rumors Monson might be leaving by a source late the morning of Tuesday, March 21. By midafternoon, he had two anonymous sources confirming what the rumors suggested. WCCO-TV (Ch. 4) went with a story on rumors of a Monson departure at 10 p.m.

Shelman and reporter Chip Scoggins said they contacted Maturi three times, describing what the story would say and listening for whether Maturi, whom they know well, would signal they should back off.

Both said Maturi didn’t do that, and gave uncharacteristically vague responses. Shelman said Maturi told him, “I’m not going to go there.” Scoggins said Maturi said to him, “Write whatever you want to write.”

“I don’t have a doubt in my mind the story was right,” Shelman said.

Did something change overnight that resulted in Monson’s lack of departure? “It’s the question I can’t answer, or I put my sources at risk,” said Shelman.

Perplexed about where the truth is in all this? Just wait.

While major institutions usually leap to defend their own if they think the press has been unfair, it took the entire day after the story ran, until 6 p.m., before Maturi finally held a press conference to say Monson would be staying.

Now, as Alice in Wonderland might say, this just gets curiouser and curiouser. A major mistake in the newspaper usually sparks a call of complaint to me or to one of the top editors. The University of Minnesota has not been shy about making such calls in the past. But so far no call has been made by the administration or Maturi seeking a correction.

I called Maturi late last week to ask about that and why he hadn’t warned reporters off the story. “I try to be sensitive about what I say about coaches’ contracts,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to get in the habit of commenting on whether coaches will be back before the season is over and that Shelman and Scoggins contacted him before the final game. That, he said, is why his answers were vague. “I can assure you before the game started that I knew Dan Monson was going to return,” he said. As for why he hasn’t asked for a correction on the story, Maturi said, “That’s not my job.”

Now, regular readers of this column know I am no fan of anonymous sources, although there are times when that’s the only way to get important information. It’s always risky — especially when the anonymous sources are predicting something that hasn’t yet happened. Circumstances can change suddenly. People can get cold feet.

Is that what happened here? Or did the anonymous sources — and the newspaper — just have it wrong, as Maturi now suggests?

Shelman won’t reveal the identity of his sources, so it’s impossible for me to check with them. Reporters and editors who know the identities say they were rock-solid sources who would have known what they were talking about, even though they didn’t work for the university.

I’ve checked to make sure the vetting of the anonymous sources followed the newspaper’s rigorous standards. No one made a misstep I’ve been able to detect; they were methodical and cautious.

Patrick Reusse, veteran sports columnist, also thought they had it right and weighed in with a column. Like the others, he’s beating himself up pretty good, going over what they did and didn’t do. Maybe they should have called Monson, although he was coaching a game that night. Maybe Maturi’s vague comments should have been interpreted as a denial.

“We all could have been more skeptical. But everything we gathered made more and more sense … it took on this momentum,” Reusse recalled.

Did the story shift in the night? Or was it wrong all along? In either case, Reusse said, “We have to take ultimate responsibility for that story.”

Gillespie added that “no one involved felt good about the confusion caused by the story, and we apologize to any readers who felt misled.”

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