An accidentally revealing look into the media

George Mitchell:

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice teed up an interesting Facebook exchange following Brian Hagedorn’s apparent victory. Bice provides insight into the newsroom’s mindset regarding Hagedorn’s traditional Christian views. It’s a reminder of how far the paper has drifted away from traditional journalistic standards.

(Disclosure:  I am decidedly not a fan of Bice. I argued here that resignation would be the honorable thing to do in light of his John Doe writings.)

Bice began his Facebook string by citing an excellent column by Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Here’s Bice:

Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty chief Rick Esenberg argues in a column that Judge Hagedorn’s victory is a “vindication for religious tolerance.” Interesting spin on Hagedorn’s less-than-tolerant position on same-sex marriage and gay rights. Intolerance = tolerance.

Got that? Hagedorn is “less-than-tolerant” for adhering to a traditional Christian view, one that also is prominent in Hebrew and Muslim doctrines.

Bice thus passes judgement. Reporters are not supposed to do that. While a “columnist” is afforded leeway in expressing personal views, Bice’s writing in the recent campaign constituted a key part of the Journal Sentinel’s news coverage. It’s crystal clear here what he thought of Hagedorn’s beliefs while reporting on the campaign.

At a later point in the Facebook exchange, Bice adopts the classic Journal Sentinel pose of neutrality and objectivity:

I let people know that Hagedorn had written a number of controversial things on his blog. I also wrote about Neubauer’s family ties to Planned Parenthood. I didn’t ask either candidate to do anything in response. I let voters know about this info. They decided the merit of the info.

But other comments from Bice offer a much different perspective. Amazingly, at one point he includes opposition to same-sex marriage in a litany of bona fide historical American black marks. Check this out:

Religious people in American history have used their faith to argue for slavery, Prohibition, eugenics and against civil rights and same-sex marriage.

As Esenberg separately noted in the exchange, “…as recently as 10 years ago, Barack Obama would have been ineligible to be President” if opposition to same-sex marriage was a litmus test.

In a vintage Journal Sentinel style mastered by the paper’s editor, George Stanley, Bice also knocks down some straw men.

He says, for example, “Because people base their political positions on faith doesn’t mean those opinions are above scrutiny.”  I know of no one who said Hagedorn’s political positions are “above scrutiny.” The objection to the Journal Sentinel coverage was that is so obviously reflected a non-neutral assessment Hagedorn, i.e., he is “less-than-tolerant.”

Bice includes me in his straw men targets, to wit, “George Mitchell‘s point about religious tolerance is nothing more than an effort to shut down public debate — an odd position for a free speech advocate.” Yeah, I seek to “shut down public debate.”

Many factors, Craig’slist, for one, explain the precipitous demise in Journal Sentinel circulation. Other issues, notably the newsroom’s blinders when it comes to loss of objectivity, also are prominent. I, for one, thought the early 2019 hits on Hagedorn from Bice and Molly Beck doomed the Hagedorn campaign. Never have I been more encouraged to have been so wrong.

There is another dimension here of how the media (about whom I wrote here yesterday) might have contributed to Hagedorn’s win and with the slump in newspaper readership. My thesis is that most people in my line of work are out of touch with their readers.

In the shower the other day (where I do my best thinking) I came up with a five-part test for people in the media — is or are (insert journalist name here):

  1. Married?
  2. A parent?
  3. A homeowner? (Side question: Do you work in the same community where you live?)
  4. A regular church attendee?
  5. Someone who owns guns and uses them (i.e. hunting or target shooting)?

Notice there is no mention of the journalist’s political worldview, though the more No answers, the more likely someone is to be a liberal. The first three get to the subject of commitment, and questions two and three are about commitment where you are, not merely considering where you live to be your next stop on your career journey. Moving when you own a house is not a very snap decision.

Marriage (as opposed to living together) is making a public commitment to your spouse. (It also reflects on the ability of a journalist to remain in journalism given that many journalists are the smaller contributor to their household income.)

Being a parent only changes your entire life, and in ways you can’t predict when you find out a child is on the way. Being a parent means you become concerned about the state of the schools your children attend, but also how much they cost in terms of property taxes on your house. Property taxes fund other government services, so home ownership translates into interest in local government.

The last two relate to how the journalist relates to the dominant culture in “flyover country.” Media in at least the Madison and Milwaukee markets fail this test repeatedly. Maybe that’s why the Madison and Milwaukee media, at a minimum, guessed wrong about Donald Trump’s winning Wisconsin and the future Justice Hagedorn.


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