By Dave Begel
Let’s get one thing straight before we even get started.
I love newspapers. I grew up on a newspaper. I worked for many years at what was once one of the very best local newspapers in the country. I’m very comfortable with a newspaper.
And, I understand newspapers.
That’s why today we’ve got to take a look at the incredible war the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is waging against the police chief of the City of Milwaukee, along with a couple of other examples of why this paper has fallen so far, so fast.
There is no dispute that the paper is engaged in what, to some people, looks like a campaign to discredit Chief Ed Flynn and the rest of his department.
There have been a steady series of stories – what they call “Watchdog” stories – about things in the department that have left a clear impression. The paper has left the impression that Flynn is easy on cops who break the law and that he has fudged statistics that show a drop in crime in the city.
Then the paper asked for some documents and Flynn told them it would cost $10,000 to assemble them and the paper had to pay. The paper complained. The chief held a news conference. The paper sent a reporter to shout at Flynn and clearly provoke him. The paper also, surprisingly, videotaped the confrontation and then posted video saying the chief stormed out of the meeting with the reporter shouting at him. Flynn left. The reporter was shouting.
But it didn’t look to me like any storming out. And believe me when I say I’ve been stormed out on by some of the best of them, including Bart Starr. I know what storming looks like.
I’m convinced this whole event was staged by the paper, which knew what the outcome would be with a reporter instructed to “raise hell” with the chief.
Plenty of bloggers and media watchers have pointed out the factual holes in the series of stories by the Journal Sentinel. And there are lots of them. But the question remains: Why would the only paper in town set it sights on one of the best things our city has to offer – an effective, responsive, corruption-free police department?
The department is not without fault, of course. And the history of our chiefs, from Bob Ziarnik to Phillip Arreola to Art Jones, is not absolutely stellar. Flynn stands head and shoulders above that crew. The image the paper is painting of the department and its chief is a long way from the truth.
The newspaper is in a difficult position. Circulation keeps plunging. Influence is all but gone. They barely cover the news themselves anymore. But they can win prizes for blockbusters. And that’s what drives them.
I love blockbusters. The series the paper ran on the scam in day-care providers was not only great journalism but a great public service. When they discovered that horrible pension scandal in the county they shook local government to its very foundations.
Pulitzer Prizes followed. The most hallowed of all prizes in the world of journalism.
I’ve been told by people in a position to know that the paper has decided that covering all the news is beyond their scope now, with its shadow staff and limited resources. So, they have decided to go all-in on what some at the paper call “Pulitzer Pursuit.” That’s where their best reporters are tasked and that’s where their resources go.
But it’s the old story about the king. If you are going to shoot your arrow at the king, you better kill him. In the world of journalism, if you are going to do a watchdog report, it better be true.
To explain this just a bit further, let me give you the chronological replay of some of this.
- Get statistics.
- Call an authority figure or expert. Say, “If this happened, what would you say about it?”
- Expert says, “Well if this happened it would be (put in whatever damning word or phrase you want).”
- Paper leaves out the first part of the expert’s response and just uses the damning part of the quote.
- Voila! You have an independent authority backing up the paper’s contention.
I hate this kind of journalism. It’s just not ethical. This is a paper that holds itself out as a paragon of virtue and the last guardian of ethics left on earth.
However, there is nothing like ethical journalism slanted to make you look good.
In a related development I’ve got to call the paper out on one more thing. Wednesday they ran a story about a man named Montaous Walton, who ran a scam pretending to be a professional baseball player. It’s a convoluted story, but very interesting.
The problem for the paper is that a colleague of mine at OnMilwaukee.com, Jim Owczarski, wrote in depth about this guy weeks ago. His story was much more comprehensive and interesting, as well.
I really don’t mind the paper getting ideas from other media outlets. But if they are truly ethical, they give credit. They don’t pretend it’s their own story.
Just one more piece of shame to drop on the pile.