The World-Herald always tries to be fair to public officials and others who are the focus of news coverage, especially unflattering news coverage. So it’s important for me to set the record straight about our staff’s interactions with Goodwill over the past two months prior to this week’s investigative report.
I can say with absolute, firsthand certainty that Frank McGree is misleading the community in his statement Wednesday by suggesting that he had just a few days to respond to this newspaper’s inquiries. His Board of Trustees knows better as well, assuming that the members read their emails.
Here is what McGree told the public Wednesday:
“I was contacted by the Omaha World-Herald last Monday after work, with a list of questions and a two-week deadline for answering them. Upon following up Thursday to let them know we were working on the answers and nearly complete, we were told the stories were actually running Sunday. Unfortunately the Omaha World-Herald decided to run the stories without our answers to their questions.
“As many organizations and corporations can relate, there can be a certain hierarchy with getting statements out, especially given the accusatory nature of the questions issued to us. In the end we were given less than a week to reply — which was impossible to pass through the proper channels in our organization. Direct communication is imperative and important to us; we make it a priority to set the record straight and as always — to be clear with our donors, employees and the community at large.”
That’s McGree’s story. Here is the whole story:
The newspaper initially contacted McGree’s staff in mid-August seeking interviews with him and a representative of the Board of Trustees. Reporter Henry J. Cordes and columnist Matthew Hansen explained from the beginning that they wanted to discuss high executive pay and the apparent lack of thrift-store revenue going to help people in need.
The newspaper was denied that request and was told it would have to settle for general written statements from McGree and board Chairman Joe Lempka as well as background information about the programs at Goodwill. We subsequently repeated our request for interviews. We were denied again.
On Sept. 1, McGree informed members of the Goodwill Board of Trustees in an email that his leadership team had decided that no one would talk with the newspaper’s staff about executive pay. Instead, McGree told the board, Goodwill had hired an outside media consultant to help officials react to our articles after they were published.
McGree told board members that he expected The World-Herald stories to run Sept. 18 or sooner.
Cordes and Hansen continued to gather facts and check and recheck their conclusions throughout September and early October.
On Monday of last week, Oct. 17, The World-Herald reached out directly to McGree and Lempka via email with “our final request for an interview.” The email contained a list of questions “that you can choose to answer via phone or email in the next two weeks.”
The “two weeks” phrasing was a typographical error. We had meant to write “two days.”
Indeed the very next sentence of our correspondence made our intentions clear: “We are close to publishing our stories, possibly as early as this weekend.”
No one from Goodwill responded to this final request in any way. Not to clarify our publication timeline. Not to address our questions.
Because of the lack of response, Cordes and Hansen again reached out to Goodwill officials last Wednesday and Thursday.
Only afterward, in response, did a Goodwill staff member say that officials there were working on getting answers to our questions in the next week.
In response, Cordes told the Goodwill staff that the series would begin running Sunday.
Cordes even suggested to Goodwill officials that they contact me, the executive editor, if they were concerned about the newspaper’s timing.
But no one from Goodwill contacted me or in any other way asked The World-Herald to delay publication.
That was entirely consistent with McGree’s email statement to his board eight weeks ago, when he expressed his intent to address our questions only after the articles were published.
“First and very importantly, a Goodwill team and board leadership are deeply involved,” McGree assured board members Sept. 1. “We have met a number of times in person and via conference calls. In addition, we have engaged the services of an outside consultant with a great deal of media experience.”
McGree also wrote, “Our marketing team is working on a number of talking points, as well as printed material. All of this will be available to you as soon as the article hits the paper.”
So now you have the whole story.
Public officials and other community leaders who deal with us regularly know that we try to engage officials on tough stories early and often so we can be fair to them and better informed ourselves.
The efforts prior to publishing this investigative report were consistent with our high standards of fair-minded reporting.