Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

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December 10, 2012

COLUMN: THE MEDIA WAR

Lon Morris estate continues to skew bankruptcy issue by controlling information

JACKSONVILLE —

Long, long silences, followed by overly general, insanely-uninformative public statements.

Refusal to comment to any news agency, followed by press releases deliberately released outside the news cycle that focus only on information college officials want released.

Lon Morris College estate officials — Chief Restructuring Officer Dawn Ragan in particular -- have long been controlling the flow of public information in regard to its bankruptcy case, a maddening exercise for area journalists who simply want answers.

And the pattern has been around for awhile. For instance, when paychecks at the college were delayed back in late 2011, the college said little about it other than a news release and a few generic quotes about it being "tough economic times." Around the same time, the college was silent about a report that it had failed its Department of Education financial responsibility test for 2010.

Last week, LMC officials kicked their game up a notch by circulating an account of last week's bankruptcy hearing story that only told part of the story — apparently only information LMC officials wanted released, although they couldn't be reached to comment this weekend or Monday.

This wasn't the typical, overly-promotional, work of words. The release was specifically framed to read like a news story by Bruce Vincent, a legal media consultant at Androvett Legal Media & Marketing out of North Central Texas. PR Newswire, a press release distribution service, was charged with releasing the story.

And it worked. The release, titled, "Judge approves Lon Morris bankruptcy loan and upcoming auction" was picked up by numerous news agencies throughout Texas and the United States, by Yahoo, by numerous CBS affiliates, and by newspapers such as the Sacramento Bee — just to name a few.

Editors flocked to the abbreviated, simplified version of this complex story. And who could blame them? With a bankruptcy story as important as Lon Morris, having the issue seemingly all spelled out without having to wade in and do their own reporting must have seemed like a dream come true.

And by making those decisions, the editors ensured that readers throughout the country would learn that the estate auction had been postponed until January — but not that the Texas Attorney General's office lobbied to get the date changed because of concerns all the parties involved would be ill-served by a premature auction.

Readers around the U.S. and beyond would learn from the press release that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bill Parker had authorized a debtor-in-possession loan loan during that hearing — but not that the loan was for $150,000, as the judge agreed. The press release incorrectly listed the loan as being $500,000.

And by virtue of that press release, readers around the US would have no idea that that bankruptcy officials — the ones who paid to have the release written — attempted to convince Judge Parker that the Texas AG's investigation into the bankruptcy is causing deliberate and irreparable harm to the upcoming auction sale. AG representative Hal Morris strongly refuted this allegation days later in a letter to Dawn Ragan and the bankruptcy estate.

In court, Ragan and attorney Hugh Ray III alleged first and foremost the Attorney General was manipulating the media to get a negative message out. But that part never showed up in the story.

One quote readers didn't see in that press release was made by Ray to the judge: "The attorney general has been playing poker your honor. They've been communicating with the press."

And in no place did anyone see Ragan's comments in court alleging that newspaper stories have misinterpreted court files or misrepresented crucial information, spreading doubt and mistrust.

Then there's the cost of writing and distribution. Who paid for it? Vincent did not immediately return a request for comment on how much he or his firm was paid.

Individual PR Newswire costs can range anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $400 or even more, depending on the penetration sought in the distribution process.

In the case of this press release, distribution is attributed to McKool Smith, the law firm for which Ray works, A cursory review reveals that McKool Smith has a long standing relationship with PR Newswire.

 

Reporter Ben Tinsley has been covering the Lon Morris College story for the Jacksonville Daily Progress.

 

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