Pot, meet kettle, meet other kettle

Bruce Murphy:

Somebody high up at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel doesn’t like the Wisconsin Examiner, the new progressive publication covering the state Capitol. You can tell this because the newspaper keeps hammering the same misleading message.

First there was an August 20 JS story on the rise of liberal ‘news’ websites in the state, the use of quotes around news tipping readers off that maybe these groups don’t do real journalism. Then came an August 21 summary of the newspaper’s stories that week by reporter Sarah Hauer which described the Wisconsin Examiner as a “partisan political website.” And then there was JS editor George Stanley’s August 23 column warning to his readers to “Watch out for slanted political coverage” from publications like the Wisconsin Examiner.

So If the Examiner is a “slanted” and “partisan” operation whose claim to cover the news deserves to be questioned and put in quotes, it should be easy to find and report some examples of such journalism, right?

And yet the Journal Sentinel story on the Wisconsin Examiner, by Patrick Marley andMary Spicuzza offers not one example of a slanted or inaccurate story by the publication.As the reporters surely knew, the Examiner actually had one the biggest Capitol scoops in its first few weeks of launching. Its editor Ruth Conniffdid a story revealing that Republicans were discussing using a Joint Resolution to pass redistricting and thereby bypass Gov.Tony Eversand continue gerrymandered districts in Wisconsin.

The Journal Sentinel did a follow-up story that credited the Wisconsin Examiner, while quoting Republican leaders (who pointedly declined to respond to Conniff) denying any such plan.

Conniff also credits her reporterIsiah Holmes with being the first Wisconsin journalist to report on Pentagon spy balloons doing overhead surveillance of the state. This was based on an earlier story by The Guardian, but Holmes hit upon a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, which sells a similarly sweeping surveillance system.

His story was published at 9:30 on August 8th and about 90 minutes later the Journal Sentinel published a similar story byBruce Vielmetti that also mentions Persistent Surveillance Systems in his story. Did he get that from the Examiner story? “I don’t think so,” Vielmetti says, adding that he remembers the company from some prior stories he read.

That’s a pretty squishy reply and it’s worth noting the Journal Sentinel has always been reluctant to credit other publications who are first to report a story. Indeed, back when Holmes was a free lance reporter for Urban Milwaukee, he did a remarkable investigative piece revealing that a transitional living center that is supposed to help drug addicts had seen five residents die of overdoses within eight months and that the center hadn’t been licensed by the city.Weeks later the Journal Sentinel did a story on the opioid deaths and the city review of the center’s license without crediting Holmes or Urban Milwaukee, whose reporting led to the city’s scrutiny.

The main thesis of the JS story on Wisconsin Examiner is that it is a “left-wing” response to right-wing sites like the MacIver Institute. But MacIver was started as a think tank, not a news site. And when it did do journalism, its methods could be questionable, as Sourcewatch has noted: In 2009 MacIver operative Bill Osmulski was charged with obtaining interviews with two elected Wisconsin officials under false pretenses. The MacIver Institute falsely claimed the state Government Accountability Board would deem recall signatures from “Mickey Mouse” or “Hitler” to be valid when counting signatures in the recall effort against then-governorScott Walker.

MacIver is first and foremost a political group whose staff works to support the Republican Party. Thus, it filed class action suits against the Government Accountability Board and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm for their role in the John Doe Probe of Walker. While MacIver has done more reporting in the last couple years, it does so sporadically: its site lists four new stories it did in the month of August and 13 in July. The Examiner did more than that in its first two weeks. One of MacIver’s main “reporters” is Chris Rochester, who is also the communications director for the group. The other is Matt Kittle, who previously wrote for the now defunct conservative site, Wisconsin Reporter, where he did hundreds of stories with Captain Ahab-like obsessiveness bashing the John Doe probe.

The Examiner has hired four experienced journalists, including Conniff, who worked for two decades for the Progressive Magazine while also doing columns for the Madison weekly Isthmus, Erik Gunn, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter of many years and longtime Milwaukee Magazine contributing editor, Melanie Conklin, who worked for years as a reporter for Isthmus and the Wisconsin State Journal, and Holmes, who free lanced for several years for Urban Milwaukee and other publications. The JS story only reports on Conklin’s background.

The Examiner is funded by the liberal Hopewell Fund, but as Conklin told the JS, the publication is “non-partisan,” and it has already proven itself with many solid news stories. Whereas the JS has already followed up on two Examiner stories, it rarely cites the MacIver Institute. I emailed Marley and Spicuzza for examples of some MacIver stories cited by the JS, and Marley, who responded, had to go all the way back to 2009 to come up with three stories. Versus two for the Examiner in two weeks.

Nice bit of weasel work on Cunniff’s and Murphy’s parts here. “Nonpartisan” and “nonideological” are not synonyms. I’ve been on the radio with Cunniff. Her politics are obvious, as are Isthmus’ for decades. And as I’ve stated here before, Murphy despises Republicans and conservatives, and he proves that here.

Their story has the feel of one assigned by an editor (to not one but two journalists) with a pre-ordained thesis. Most stories start that way, but a good reporter (and both Marley and Spicuzza are good ones) is first and foremost curious and driven to find the real story, even if it departs from the original thesis. In this case there is a huge one that was ignored: the decline of for-profit journalism and the rise of non-profit journalism.

Between 2008 and 2018, newspapers lost 47 percent of their newsroom jobs, as the Pew Research Center has reported. “These major cutbacks, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News… are fueling the growth of nonprofit news outlets,” as the Johnson Center, which tracks non-profits, has reported. “In late 2017, both the Guardian and The New York Times announced the establishment of nonprofit wings….philanthropy is pouring new money and emphasis into nonprofit journalism.”  According to another analysis, there are now some 270 U.S. nonprofit news sites, with most popping up in recent years.

You can see that in Wisconsin, where the for-profit Wisconsin Gazette went of business, the Journal Sentinel has suffered a massive loss of staff and the size of the Business Journal has steadily declined. Meanwhile non- profits like WUWM-FM and Wisconsin Public Radio have maintained or increased their news coverage. Even Radio Milwaukee does some news stories these days. Now add the Examiner to the list.

On an average day, a reader interested in coverage of the Capitol will find more stories by checking Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Examiner than from the Journal Sentinel. Urban Milwaukee republishes stories by both publications, along with stories by Neighborhood News Service, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Justice Initiative, all also non-profits. And as for-profit entities like the Journal Sentinel continue to decline, you’re likely to see more of its one-time coverage replaced by non-profit journalism.

That’s the big trend in journalism which the JS story on the Examiner pointedly ignores, because it’s bad news for the newspaper. Instead it publishes a sloppy story lumping the Examiner in with political entities like MacIver or the liberal super PAC American Bridge. Whatever nuance emerges in the story by Marley and Spicuzza (and it isn’t much) was quickly overwhelmed by Hauer and Stanley slamming the Examiner as partisan and slanted. It’s all part of an exercise to convince readers the JS is the only news source you can trust, and to do this the paper publishes an obviously misleading story.

I learned something decades ago. A publication should never, ever write about its competition. There is no way for you to look good in the process. Do good work, and let the readers and advertisers decide. And the market (which, as you know, liberals hate) will decide whether the Wisconsin Examiner survives or not.

 

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