Pretend, for a moment, that you are a loyal reader of the Flint Journal, a small daily northwest of Detroit. Now consider the following series of items, published in your newspaper since early March:
On Sunday, March 4, the Journal launches a special series, “SonRise & Fall,” on its front page, anchored by an 1,885-word story explaining how SonRise Homes Inc., founded just in 2003, “went from the largest builder based in Genesee County to a company in shambles.”
It was a company that “grew too much too fast,” then imploded in the fall of 2006. The company had four partners — Anthony Hanson and his father, William, and Jack Thomas and his father, Michael — but was led by the twentysomething sons. It was a “Christian-run company,” and its first, twenty-unit project was a success, leading it to expand to become “a one-stop builder that could do mortgages and title work.” Eventually, even a nonprofit SonRise Foundation was established. In late 2005 Anthony Hanson told the Journal his company built seventy-five to 100 homes that year, and aimed to build and sell 200 in 2006. According to the Journal it only ended up selling about eighty, but with its twenty-plus employees, SonRise “was spending and planning based on selling 200 homes”:
As other builders were scaling back due to the poor economy, SonRise was forging ahead and payments to its many subcontractors started to get further and further apart.
Then its major lumber supplier — Universal Forest Products Eastern Division — had enough and demanded all the money it was owed. SonRise didn’t have it.
In September 2006, “Universal filed about $815,000 in liens against SonRise properties,” and soon thereafter SonRise’s bank froze its line of credit, a flood of other liens were placed by subcontractors, and construction in SonRise’s seven development projects “came to an abrupt halt.”
A title insurance veteran was quoted calling SonRise’s owners “honest, decent honorable guys” who got in over their heads, and the story looked at the after-effects of SonRise’s collapse, including Michael Thomas’s apology and his effort to repay his company’s debt. Notably, three of SonRise’s partners could not be reached for comment, and Michael Thomas declined to comment on his attorney’s advice, but the Journal’s story seemed solid.
On Monday, March 5, a shorter front-page story zeroed in on some collateral damage from SonRise’s collapse, while another story reported that no criminal charges have been filed against SonRise. Again, the SonRise partners do not comment. Monday also brings a correction noting which high school Anthony Hanson actually attended.
On Tuesday’s front page Michael Thomas finally speaks, responding with some anger to the Journal’s series while telling how he and his partners have raised more than $1 million to pay off SonRise’s debts. After quoting Psalm 15:4, Thomas said, “We’re going to do everything in our power to pay them. I’m using my cash. My condo in Florida is for sale. My property up north is for sale. My boat is for sale. We’re selling everything we can sell.”
Thomas was “particularly upset” about the lead anecdote from Sunday’s big story (“My son knows how to caulk a bathtub. You made him look like a fool, and he had nothing to do with the money decisions of the company”), and said he resented implications that the company’s bank loans are missing. And those 500-plus liens? Well, they were filed because SonRise told its subcontractors to file them for their own protection, Thomas asserted, saying “it’s the right thing to do, and you paint us like thieves and criminals, for Christ’s sake.”
Some anger and quibbling, you, the reader thinks, but now Thomas has spoken, and the Journal’s series remains fundamentally sound.
But then comes another correction on Wednesday, March 14: Thomas was misquoted on Psalm 15:4, the Journal writes, and “Thomas also denied another quote, saying he used the phrase ‘for cripes sake’ and not ‘for Christ’s sake.’” March 18 brings an angry reader’s letter accusing the paper of “vindictiveness,” but it is a third correction on March 23 that really bothers you: “A March 4 article about SonRise Homes Inc. should have said SonRise partner Jack O. Thomas and home owner Todd Fuhr discussed how they were both looking for jobs, but that Thomas did not ask Fuhr to help him find a job.” Now you start to worry. There are a lot of corrections.
And then, this past Sunday, comes the coup de grâce, an 1,195-word screed by Michael Thomas that the Journal runs on its front page entitled “SonRise responds.” Huh? Hasn’t SonRise responded several times already? Following an innocuous editor’s note, Thomas writes, “I believe the only way to get the truth about SonRise to the public is to write it myself. The Journal is either unwilling or unable to do so. Space will not allow me to refute all of the reckless lies in the three front-page articles, but a couple of examples will hopefully show your readers how unreliable your publication really is.”
Whoa! Thomas proceeds to define journalism using some capital letters, thanks the editor for the opportunity to write, and again criticizes the “untrue and unwarranted attack” on his son from the beginning of the first story, stating, “Here are the facts. The BMW is a 325i. There is no such thing as a 335i.”
It is April Fool’s Day, so you wonder if this is a joke. It is not.
Thomas goes on to attack much of what the Journal has published, accusing the series’ writer of a “lack of understanding and lack of research,” “unfounded innuendo,” and “ignorance of the legal process.” He vents about incidents the Journal has already corrected, and reaches a rhetorical climax in his penultimate paragraph when he asks six successive questions about what the paper failed to include in its reporting. Some of those questions could have been answered if Thomas or his partners had commented initially, you think, but all in all Thomas makes some points.
Now you are seriously disturbed. Why was this man given free rein to trash your newspaper’s work? Does this mean the paper stands behind its previous stories, or could Thomas actually be right? And isn’t the Journal supposed to sort this out for you? You are simply confused. Who are you to believe?
It turns out you, the reader, were not told something very important. In a note to the newsroom staff last Friday, the Journal’s editor warned that “a letter of rebuttal” from Michael Thomas was coming on Sunday. Although the editor still believed the SonRise stories were “fundamentally sound,” and despite the corrections already published, “Thomas still has sought an opportunity to write a letter to our readers responding to those articles,” he wrote, “and in exchange for signed releases from him, his son and the company protecting us from any future litigation, we have agreed to publish his letter on the front page.”
“I can understand that the staff might want more explanation from me on why a front-page letter would be agreed to in this particular case, but there are times when a situation is not improved upon by elaboration,” the editor added. “Our attorneys have recommended we take this step, and I have accepted their recommendation.”
But you, the loyal Flint Journal subscriber, do not know any of that. You just know that you’ve never seen anything quite like this in a newspaper. Both sides have been damaged, and the Journal’s series turned out as messy as SonRise itself.
Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.
You throw the Sunday Journal out the window, and take a look at Monday’s front page, where a big story headlined “Flint Youth Idol” awaits. That’s better. Maybe it is best to pretend “SonRise & Fall” never happened.