Last week’s misleading John Doe coverage generated enough reader criticism to prompt lengthy email responses from Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley.
Critics clearly got the attention of the newsroom. Lengthy sections of Kaiser’s and Stanley’s emails to readers are identical. Kaiser and Stanley clearly teamed up to quell a widespread subscriber pushback.
The Kaiser and Stanley emails are highly instructive. Both Kaiser and Stanley deploy and knock down straw men in responding to readers. Each dodge the principal objection to the paper’s initial story last week. Of even greater interest is Stanley’s take on the broader John Doe investigation. It is a revealing look at the newsroom mindset. It undercuts Stanley’s (and Kaiser’s) claim that the paper is neutral in its coverage.
First, recall what prompted the outcry about the paper’s initial 1,600-word story, the story that launched a national wave of misleading headlines and social media traffic. The headline and banner story — with three bylines and contributions from three other reporters — placed Walker at the center of what prosecutors called a "criminal scheme" to violate state election law. The story went nearly 300 words before reporting a comment from Walker. It continued another 700 words before confirming Walker’s claim that two judges had rejected the prosecution theory. Not until the second-to-last paragraph did it actually quote one of the judges.
But what are the undeniable facts, before and after last week’s document release? They are, first that Walker has not been charged with anything and, second, two separate judges have said there is no evidence to support charges.
Thus, as the paper’s many critics have pointed out, the real "news" is that the released documents detail a months-old prosecution theory that has failed to gain any legal traction. Are the documents news? Yes. But should early stories have explained that news in the clear context of the judicial rulings?
By not doing so, did the Journal Sentinel fuel a misleading national wave of negative stories about Walker? Yes.
Stanley’s answer to such criticism? He basically argues that the judicial rulings are old news, previously reported by the paper. But in advancing that line, Stanley acknowledges that the newsroom was 100% aware of the rulings when the documents were released last week.
This makes the paper’s initial stories all the more reprehensible. While the newsroom knew that two separate judges had rejected the prosecution theory, it buried that crucial fact. Stanley acts as though the mere existence of the earlier stories provides the context that local and national readers would have needed last week.
Rather than respond to the principal criticism, i.e., the initial stories lacked crucial context, Stanley and Kaiser duck that challenge. Instead, as Kaiser says, "We believe that Friday's stories and headlines accurately reflected the news. We were reporting from the documents released Thursday…" He and Stanley appear to think the paper can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It can’t report Thursday’s news in the context of crucial prior news.
The Stanley email spins the broader John Doe story in a way that reveals a newsroom bias he consistently denies. It was the Governor, he pointedly says, not the Journal Sentinel, that "made the decision to closely coordinate the governor's campaign fund-raising and spending with those of private groups in a way we haven't seen before in Wisconsin under current campaign finance laws. Gov. Walker, his staff and his supporters chose to test the limits of campaign finance laws in this way." In essence, in Stanley’s view, Governor Walker brought the John Doe investigation on himself. This thesis makes the Journal Sentinel’s John Doe biased coverage much more understandable, to wit:
•Stanley and the newsroom believe Walker, his staff, and supporters "chose" to test the law, to push it to the edge. In attributing such intent, Stanley thus invests himself with the power to read Walker’s mind. For him and others in the newsroom, Walker & Co. "chose" to test the law instead of merely to follow it. That would be the same law that two judges have said he did not violate (or "test").
•Stanley claims that Walker acted "in a way we haven't seen before in Wisconsin under current campaign finance laws." Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Jim Doyle’s two campaigns will recognize the hilarity and cluelessness of this claim. But what’s more important is the way this reaffirms Stanley’s theme that Walker brought all this on himself.
A revealing and gratuitous Stanley observation gives further insight into the paper’s John Doe coverage.
He writes, "Wisconsin's elected representatives passed campaign finance laws years ago as an effort to thwart corruption and let the public know who were the primary financial backers of election campaigns." The obvious suggestion is that, in Stanley’s view, Walker’s intentional decisions are at odds with such lofty goals. Yet, to repeat, Walker has been charged with nothing and two judges have found no evidence that he did anything other than exercise First Amendment rights.
While the Journal Sentinel’s top editors won’t address the main criticism directed at last week’s stories, other actions illustrate that they have paid some attention to the reader response. Through subsequent stories, op-eds, and the posting of various documents and commentaries, the paper has provided a range of information and perspective. Of course, these moves do absolutely nothing to address the flawed coverage and the resulting national misinformation that it has caused.
The one thing the George Stanley can’t bring himself to do is to admit and correct a fundamental error