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Wall Street Journal plays up the quirky.

When it comes to a Russian-made military cargo plane stranded on the Michigan Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior, the question "What's up with that plane?" was asked m one of the headlines of a Wall street Journal article, yet never much answered.

That same plane's peculiar fate gets a fuller examination in the online incantation of the still-breathing FOCUS/Midwest magazine. This may be another example of a non-profit funded online version of the Fourth Estate doing a more in-depth treatment of an event than the mainstream media--or it could just be a typical roll-of-the-dice editorial call to give a topic or an event a different spin.

The FOCUS/Midwest piece in May (http://focusmid produced by C.D. Stelzer is thorough, meticulous recounting of the plane's recent history as reflected through the convoluted financial dealings of Madison County smoke-filled room veteran politico and developer Gary Fears. Stelzer's piece is a painstaking tour through co-investors, who knows who and how, bankruptcies and shadowy motivations. It's a dissection of how a political and economic insider like the 64-year-old Fears is still up to his ears in skullduggery, which makes the stranding of the giant Russian plane that much more interesting.

The Wall Street Journal, in its July 12 page-one story, took a weird tale and just focused on the quirky factor. FOCUS/Midwest, in the two-part series on Fears, tried to delve into the how and why of what happened and extended their effort beyond a gee-whiz veneer. The WSJ reporter whose byline is on the piece, Bryan Gruley, declined to discuss why he took the tack that he did, saying that WSJ reporters "generally do not discuss our news gathering decisions publicly. I think the story speaks for itself and I stand by its accuracy."

Accuracy is not the problem with Gruley's article. For a light, odd-ball feature it achieves its purpose. Yet anyone seeing the page-one headline and expecting to find out if not what happened to the plane, then at least how it happened, will be disappointed. The FOCUS/Midwest two-parter is awash in details. Stelzer's use of the bankruptcy filing by Fears in St. Louis opened the door to his maze of investors with backgrounds in pornography, casinos and online gaming.

The manner in which Gruley reported the bizarre plane piece may have been dictated by its expected placement: as the page-one quirky feature. That has been a standard for decades at the WSJ. In the issues previous to the Russian plane saga, the topics for the page-one feature included diaper-wearing pet chickens ("Fowl Fans See Golden Eggs"), new female members of the Czech parliament posing for a racy calendar ("Czechmates"), and how some men don't like the new fancy shavers ("Razor Burn").

That's not exactly the place for a follow-the-money treatment of a Russian military cargo plane headed to Pakistan and stalled in Michigan. So instead of breaking down the twisted financial and political path that led to the Ilyushin Il-78 being grounded on the Upper Peninsula, the WSJ played it for laughs.

FOCUS/Midwest missed the joke, played it straight. Stelzer said of the WSJ: "They took the skeleton of my story and left out the complicated parts."

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Author:Wilson, D.J.
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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