In The News
Milwaukee smear typifies misguided journalism
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
In a balanced examination of the Obama administration’s up and down encounters with the national media over its first year, respected analyst Ken Auletta wrote in the New Yorker in January that technology changes, news cycles and other factors of haste and competition had “fed the press's dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict."
One result Auletta reported, aside from the White House failing to control coverage as it would like, was the greater play given to petty negative attacks that knowledgeable media in the past would have quickly dismissed as overblown. Auletta and several journalists interviewed cited several examples. Peter Baker of the New York Times noted how “we're way too eager to chase the same story everyone else is chasing, which is too often the easy story and too often the simplistic story -- and too often the story that misses what's going on."
The White House tries to manipulate the media, as every president does, but journalists understood White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer’s comment that “we thought it was absurd” when Sarah Palin invented the existence of death panels in government health care reform. Recalled Pfeiffer, "There was a perhaps naïve view on our part that, if a major political figure says something that is entirely untrue and ridiculous, the press would treat it as untrue and ridiculous."
This “chase and miss” process also infects local coverage. It is made easier by governments that take transparency and open records seriously – especially when too many in the media allow that reality to avoid the harder work of pursuing the worst offenders of public policy and trust. These are the malfeasants working in private industry, the ones both sides now acknowledge cost more jobs and upended economic stability over the last decade in every state and community. Perhaps the anger by all sides at private banks is too facile, but there is also truth that political pull and private sector status allowed them to escape oversight for far too long.
Public officials, public workers, union leaders and others face regulations, financial reports, levels of required transparency and freedom of information laws that lay bare every wiggle in their lives, while private companies escape such scrutiny and can commit far greater crimes and misdemeanors without challenge.
If you’ve been looking carefully -- and too many in the media haven’t been, perhaps because they rely on ad revenues from the private sector -- the sunlight of government reporting indirectly illuminates the shadows in which privateers can and do operate.
Curiously, all sides of the partisan divide have begun to recognize this, though those who want profits above all else seem comfy with the status quo. Stories in publications as broadly different as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times now point out that the Supreme Court relaxation of rules of how corporations can give to political candidates will be not just a boon to TV stations in desperate need of ad revenue (good for the bottom line) but open the door to “foreign nationals” to support US candidates without the requirements of identification and limits US citizens encounter.
The responsibility for fairness and accuracy still resides with journalists more than the government. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, John McCarron takes his “friends” in the media to task because “it is far easier to investigate the public sector than the private.”
It’s right, he notes, that “governments are required to conduct their business in a public forum,” but that doesn’t free investigative reporters of the responsibility to go after the biggest crooks with the deepest pockets – even though they can bite back harder.
Fear of libel laws and loss of revenue, McCarron suggests, are reasons why “our journalism generally gives the private sector a free pass.” “Wouldn't you love, just once, to hear a corporate board discuss the pros and cons of moving their manufacturing to China? Or of boosting their stock options while chopping employee benefits?” he asks readers.
“What gets written and said about public officials doesn't even have to be true, so long as the accusing media can show they didn't know it was false. Not so in the private sector, which only has to prove an accusation was harmful and incorrect.”
You don’t have to go to Chicago, where it is easy to point out the misbehavior of the Democratic political machine and ignore the secret corporate manipulations that cost the taxpayers billions, as did McCarron.
In Milwaukee, it took a criminal indictment to expose a $36 million shopping spree by a Koss vice president – and that was just the iceberg tip to millions of dollars in wasted money by corporate executives. Only independent media has reported how the private sector has been sitting on its hands in providing money for new developments, blaming equally private banks for a lack of loans, while federal stimulus money has saved jobs and kept unemployment down from originally predicted double digit levels.
Those in private businesses know they will hardly ever be exposed, just as public officials know that every $100 mistake or questionable trip can become a front page headline.
Bad or lazy journalists easily tarnish the reputation of public officials for a careless moment or misplaced record. But mainly that happens because of their managers in private media who control the reporters and may have their own attitudes or ideological agendas. Veterans in the business know how to avoid that pressure or even laugh it off. Recent departed employees at Milwaukee’s Journal Company, which dominates local coverage, tell stories about those dangers. They are particularly amused, considering the innuendos about public candidates’ personal lives, when they recall the legendary affairs, office love and sexual intimidation that have inundated their newsrooms, influenced coverage and make Sen. Ensign look like a choir boy.
You would think there should be some balanced recognition of the Golden Rule before tainting public servants, or at least remembrances of their own private weaknesses before journalists launch into attack mode. But what a comfort that journalists do not have to revel their personal failings or their own tax liens, bankruptcies and negative evaluations by their own workers -- and frankly, why should they? They more than most should know that’s unfair. In the real world there are many legitimate reasons for such entanglements. Bankruptcies and tax liens do produce better money managers. Workers have many valid reasons to knock even good bosses. All this should inspire human restraint rather than a chance to humiliate opinions they oppose.
Education coverage in the Journal Sentinel has long been an arena for such behavior, but never more so than in January when disgruntled management mandated (some insiders say) an effort to undercut the MPS school board’s three final candidates for superintendent of schools. The newspaper has strongly backed eliminating school board control and handing such a choice over to Milwaukee’s mayor. So a few days before the final decision among the three, the newspaper trumpeted that all the candidates had “checkered” pasts despite years of public service and constant (and sometimes hasty) examination by school districts around the country.
For one candidate, it was a negative evaluation by a principals’ union at a previous job, though JS managers should be thankful that their evaluation by the many unions working at JS do not have to be revealed. For another it was the existence of tax liens, a restitution situation most of the declining readers of the Journal Sentinel would readily understand.
JS has kept up demonization for the winning choice, Gregory Thornton, bringing up things in every article like a 1997 personal bankruptcy involving a restaurant he tried to start and a trip to Africa that even a previous supervisor (the kind of guy who would get an endorsement from conservatives) labeled a “cheap shot.”
Thornton’s record in salvaging low-income low-performing schools is actually a model of what Mayor Tom Barrett and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to be pursuing in administrative ability and innovation. Yet a JS editorial didn’t report that and speculated instead, without evidence: “We doubt if Thornton - who also has a question swirling about whether he misidentified his wife's occupation when he was applying for another post - would have been Mayor Tom Barrett's pick.“ (Incidentally there is growing evidence that this obviously thin charge is actually a case of journalist misidentification, the wrong Thornton).
Simple fact: JS management , out-hustled and outmaneuvered by the MPS school board and long having escaped scrutiny for its simplified views on public education, was conducting a smear campaign. The exercise would have been laughable – except that Thornton will now try to prove himself as an MPS administrator amid an exaggerated assault on his reputation.
Such ongoing media behavior has done far more than create a swoon in revenue for corporate media. It explains why so few good executives are willing to enter public service. It has produced a sense of sadness and shame in veterans of journalism. It has contributed to the national ennui referenced by Obama in his State of the Union speech – a universal distrust of the motives and methods of not just corporations and the government but of the media itself.