In The News
Journalism fails duty in Butler race
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
The complaining witness at the bar is the public, specifically consumers of Milwaukee media. The evidence is the Wisconsin Supreme Court race between incumbent Louis Butler and the creature dredged up from the northwoods.
That’s not fair, or course. Certainly not to one of the loveliest regions of our state.
But truthfully, dredge the GOP did after being turned down by several known and respected judges (who may well have sensed how nasty the right-wing machine hoped to turn this supposedly nonpartisan race). They tapped the unknown Mike Gableman of limited record and credentials – but a true judicial activist in going where the right wing sent him.
And then they dredged even deeper to disguise his deficits with smear and demean.
Right or wrong, the third-party supporters of Butler, fearing just this sort of attack, drew the first blood by mocking Gableman in TV commercials, despite Butler’s year-old call for both sides to avoid a negative blitz.
This preemptive strike didn’t sit well with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and other traditional big-business funders, groups more accustomed to being the preemptors themselves. So they unveiled their ads early and often, knowing that Butler would limit the tone of his own ads because he sincerely abided by the judicial code of ethics.
On the other hand, Gableman was champing at the bit to throw the code overboard.
So while everyone expected the third-party ads to get ugly, the shocker was that the slimiest ads came directly from Gableman’s campaign.
His original ad (uglier ones would follow) put the incumbent’s laughing face next to a child molester and suggested Butler had put on the streets a spawn of Satan, also black. Of course, nothing remotely like that happened and even conservative radio host Charles Sykes threw the flag on this fabrication.
But every ad defending Butler brought a new ad from his opponent, often a worse stretch of the truth, as all the third party ads screamed higher and louder.
And here it became clear that the media was not only falling down on the job but didn’t have a clue what the job was.
Consider how Channel 4’s “Truth Squad” evaluated the ad that said Butler “sides with criminals 60% of the time.” Well, figuring that a judge decides for defendants some 12% to 30% of the time, the TV reporter decided the charge had to be “half-true” as opposed to a completely vile exaggeration.
This is the same Bizarro world of “fair and balanced” where, if I tell you Mike Gableman eats children for breakfast, it must be half true. Because he eats breakfast.
Journal Sentinel extended such standards to its news stories, so much so that if Jonas Salk were running against Josef Mengele, the reporters would conclude that both are doctors treating children. Certainly they continued to treat Butler and Gableman as equal offenders in warping facts and ducking responsibility. They decided objectivity was listing their positions side by side. They only had to turn on the TV and do a little research to realize how Gableman had removed himself from consideration as a moral equal.
I know full well how to play fair to both sides in a news article. I can speak with some authority as a three decade veteran and voluntary departee in that newsroom.
But objective journalism always has some caveats.
You don’t employ equal treatment in the face of a flat lie.
If one side is relying on your principle of equal-time fairness to grossly tilt the playing field, your job is to call that.
And there’s a third case – outrage. When an official for public office violates basic decency and fairness, you are not only allowed to get angry, you had better. And that has nothing to do with political persuasion or partisan preference.
That’s why the Milwaukee media coverage of the Butler-Gableman episode has been dumbfounding when not despicable.
I’m sure that editorially JS will do the right thing and endorse Butler . . . on one of its least-read pages. I know the reporters, like everyone else, did expose the blatant distortion in the first egregious ad (yet even here they associated complaints not with journalistic outrage but with the NAACP or Citizen Action or other “left leaning” groups).
But by that point, it was simply a perversion of balanced journalism to treat the offenses as of similar weight. Journalism 101 would expose the difference between oaf and offended.
But if the media wasn’t taken in, why weren’t they speaking out on the news pages as well as the editorial page? I would hate to think it’s the $3.5 million in advertising gained by keeping the fires stoking.
More likely it’s the continuing caution of Journal Sentinel not to offend the suburban conservatives it so desperately wants as subscribers. (This has been a two-decade act of wussiness that has shrunk the reputation and circulation of the newspaper.)
The irony was that Gableman’s methods were sending revulsion and shame through the so-called “law and order” legal community, conservatives and Republicans among them. These citizens also have values they hate to see buried in garbage.
Lawyers in the Armstrong case (chosen for one anti-Butler ad, involving a rape and murder in 1981!) pointed out that Butler should instead have been a model for a CSI episode. He did what a judge should when modern DNA came along to contradict old evidence.
Retired justices and judges who usually stay out of such election races now spoke up for Butler.
The lead prosecutor in the Jensen murder trial, former Kenosha DA Bob Jambois, stepped forward to endorse and defend Butler from a scurrilous ad that misinterpreted an opinion in support of the trial judge.
Again and again, the ads condemned any occasion when Butler insisted on procedure (or just filed his own opinion) in criminal cases.
As Butler told reporters March 26 before a packed fund raiser at the Italian Community Center, such ads don’t attack him but the core of the judicial system in the US Constitution. The Sixth Amendment (the right to a speedy trial and impartial jury) “was being dismissed as a technicality.”
So offended was Dodge County DA Steven G. Bauer that he pulled his endorsement over Gableman’s “cavalier disregard for accuracy.”
“The integrity of the criminal justice system should not be allowed to be tarnished by one man's ambitious desire for higher office,” said Bauer.
(Incidentally, despite claims from the Gableman side, about 20 DAs support Butler; so do 95% of the state judges, and, despite the hasty work of the "Truth Squads," you can't find an attack ad posted by Butler's campaign.)
Even the lone circuit court judge in Burnett County who had preceded Gableman came out for Butler. Jim Taylor, twice the county’s DA and appointed by Gov. Tommy Thompson to the bench, from which he retired after two terms, savaged the “misleading television ads,” said voters were sick of it, and said Gableman’s behavior made it clear “the best choice is Justice Louis Butler.”
The newspaper that so desperately wants conservative readers hadn’t bothered to tell them as of this writing how many of their conservative peers also felt violated
The outrage that should have been the media’s in its news stories fell to a flood of Butler supporters March 26. A remarkable parade of legal minds and officials – Sen. Herb Kohl, Mayor Barrett, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) among them -- stood up with Butler as he continued to ask both sides to “give us our election back” and not drown it in mud April 1.