Get Me Rewrite: Deasy Story Evolves in L.A. Times

By Mark Walsh — October 30, 2013 4 min read
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It’s been five days of ferment in Los Angeles over the future of John Deasy, the superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District. It began, at least publicly, with a story on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 24, headlined “L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy to Resign.”

The uncertainty ended late Tuesday, when after a lengthy closed-door evaluation before the Los Angeles school board, the district’s general counsel announced that Deasy had received a “satisfactory” performance evaluation and that his contract had been extended until February 2016. Deasy had brief remarks after yesterday’s close-door evaluation that there was an “excellent and honest conversation on building the rapport to work together so that we can continue to lift youth out of poverty,” as the Times quoted him.

For more on yesterday’s news, see my colleague Lesli Maxwell’s report here. My purpose with this post is to unravel some of the elements that went into the L.A. Times’ original item that said Deasy was resigning, and what happened after that.

“Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy has told Board of Education members that he plans to resign in February, according to high-level district officials, including some who asked not to be named,” Times reporter Howard Blume reported in that post, which was published about 6:30 p.m. Pacific time on Oct. 24. “The reaction from the office of board President Richard Vladovic left little doubt. ‘We are shocked,’ said Mike Trujillo, a spokesman. ‘Dr. Vladovic is shocked, saddened and surprised.’”

Within minutes, bloggers such as Diane Ravitch, a Deasy critic, and Alexander Russo, were spreading the news on Twitter.

By 10 p.m. Pacific time that same day, Blume had spoken to Deasy, and the Times published a much toned-down report suggesting that the superintendent “may leave in coming months.”

“Deasy declined to discuss his intentions Thursday evening, saying that he has not submitted a letter of resignation and that he would have more to say after his job evaluation Tuesday,” Blume wrote in the later story, which also appeared in print in the next day’s paper.

On a reporters roundup-type discussion on radio station KCRW the next day, Blume explained the evolution of the stories.

The original report was based on an off-the-record tip and confirmed by the response from Vladovic’s office, Blume suggested.

Blume apparently later reached Deasy, who “was very polite and he was kind enough to return my call,” the reporter said on the radio show. “He would only say that ‘I have not submitted a letter of resignation,’ and I presume that’s true, but of course that didn’t address the question.”

“We had an on-the-record source who sort of changed the version of events over the course of the evening,” Blume continued. “That absolutely required us to change the story. We felt it would be irresponsible to do otherwise.”

He suggested that Vladovic’s office changed its tune, saying the shock, sadness, and surprise that had been expressed earlier was about the rumor of Deasy leaving, not about any actual knowledge the office had of the superintendent’s plans.

“We had some off-the-record confirmation,” Blume added on KCRW, “but we didn’t feel that was strong enough to leave the story intact if our on-the-record source from the head of the board of education was reflecting and modifying the response, so we modified the story.”

Blume made a similar point in a Web chat on the L.A. Times site on Monday.

“It seemed like you had to dial back your story from Thursday night - what happened?” a participant asked.

“That’s true,” Blume said. “We had on-the-record confirmation from Vladovic’s office and strong of- record confirmation. But then Vladovic’s office pulled back. I don’t think they wanted to get too far in front of this.”

It was clear that Deasy had been thinking of leaving, amid shifting support for the superintendent, and controversies including a troubled rollout of a $1 billion iPad program for students. The Times reported today that Deasy had met with Vladovic last Friday and proposed resigning in February and staying on as a consultant. But over the weekend, community support for keeping Deasy grew, and speakers in the public portion of Tuesday’s board meeting overwhelmingly supported him.

So, as Alexander Russo put it in a post on his This Week in Education blog today, “What just happened here?”

Russo suggested there were two possible sources for the original leak: Deasy himself, “to scare the board into keeping him,"; or board president Vladovic’s office, “to try and create momentum around an early Deasy departure.”

The LA School Report, an independent Web site that covers the L.A. Unified district, seemed to take some delight in chiding the Times with a posting, “Story of Deasy Media Frenzy in 15 Tweets,” that said the much-larger rival’s story “wasn’t quite true.”

A Los Angeles Times spokesman originally offered me an interview with Blume (and forwarded me his KCRW interview), but then said Blume was busy with followup reporting until much later tonight at the earliest.

Of course, this wasn’t exactly “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But the episode demonstrates the competitive pressures facing news organizations in the deadline-every-minute era of Web news.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.