As a person who makes his share of mistakes, I feel empathy for Nancy Sebring.
Who among us would want our most intimate conversations posted on a news website? Who among us would want our dumbest, most reckless act exposed on the front page of a newspaper?
As the top editor of a newspaper and news website, however, I think The World-Herald had to tell the humiliating truth behind Sebring's resignations.
Indeed most readers seemed to agree, based on the letters and emails we have received since the story came out June 1. But a number of readers also raised concerns and asked questions about our role in and handling of the story and the intrusion on Sebring's privacy. So I want to address the gist of those questions here.
How did these exchanges become public in the first place?
Unintentionally, The World-Herald started a chain of events that led to the discovery of graphic emails between Sebring and her lover.
On May 7, the newspaper made a formal request of the Des Moines school district to see all public records of Sebring's correspondence related to Omaha and her pending job as Omaha superintendent. Some of the salacious exchanges occurred in emails also noting meetings in Omaha with school officials and community members.
It was The World-Herald's request that led Des Moines district staff members to discover the emails and take them to their school board's top two officials. They confronted Sebring and she resigned almost immediately. She and the district then put out a misleading story as to why.
Did you ask for the emails because you had been tipped to her extramarital affair?
Heavens no. We had no idea. Our inquiry was completely unrelated. We were hearing that Sebring was getting a lot of free job advice from people in Omaha and we were looking into that.
Why did it take so long for the story to come out?
About the same time Sebring resigned in Des Moines, she called The World-Herald and asked us to narrow our public records request. She said the full request might encompass such emails as her sister congratulating her about the Omaha job. The newspaper, unaware of the sexually explicit emails, agreed to receive only communications to and from people in Omaha.
Is that kind of negotiating for public records normal?
Yes. We make requests for public records frequently on a range of public issues. As a matter of routine, we listen and try to be reasonable when a public official tells us a records request is impractically broad. In this case, Sebring used our reasonableness against us and put up a smoke screen. It bought her some time before we found out the truth.
So what if she had an affair? Why does the public need to know about that?
Well, Sebring exchanged inappropriate emails with her lover on public school computers, using her district email account, sometimes during the workday. She knowingly violated a district policy that she undoubtedly had enforced with employees as superintendent. Her actions raise questions about her judgment, her prudence and her character.
Why so much emphasis on the sexual part of the story?
The extramarital affair is tethered irrevocably to her questionable actions, to her resignation and to her attempts to cover her tracks.
Why did you publish the emails themselves?
I thought that this would be a difficult story for readers to even believe unless we gave them some sampling of the intimate nature of the emails. Personally, I found it hard to believe until I read the emails.
What's the fuss? The emails didn't really seem all bad.
If you read them in The World-Herald and on Omaha.com, you read versions that were edited for taste by me and several other World-Herald editors. There were long passages, explicitly XXX-rated in nature, that were removed entirely. Our rule of thumb was, “Any doubt? Take it out.”
As a person and as executive editor, I try not to be judgmental about others. But editors have to make judgment calls about the actions of people, especially public officials. In this case, our readers needed to know about these regrettable actions by this official.
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