It’s just days before the election. Journal Sentinel reveals that a county maintenance worker remembers Scott Walker standing over Tim Russell’s shoulder in the county exec’s office as he installed that secret network router for emails and telling the now convicted Tim, “Are you sure the messages won’t be found?”
Now that would be a believable tale about the illegal out of sight mingling of county and political worktime and deception -- a bombshell, in fact, confirming what many think went on, unlike the current fiction involving family leadership discussions 20 years ago at Trek.
Except it would be laughed away by reputable journalists – especially if revealed six days before the election. Surely no reliable newspaper would publish so obviously political a ploy. That would be the “unleash the dogs” whistle for electronic media and other newspapers to slip their moral traces just because the “reputable” paper did. The state’s largest daily, JS, couldn’t repeat something that nasty without verification and break the basic covenant on Page One taught in journalism schools– could it? (It now admits it did , calling the canards it repeated about Mary Burke “criticism larded with hearsay, innuendo and sexist overtones.”)
Or what if a “credible source” -- credible in that he went to Marquette University in 1988 and took the same classes -- stepped forward with “firsthand” accounts of how Walker dropped out because of failing grades and pending disciplinary action.
Six days before an election? Maybe those wacky leftist blogs would run it, and force the wacky rightist blogs to pay attention. But let’s not anyone pretend that it’s journalism.
What about six months before November 4? The responsibility remains to verify however tempting, just as the late tough-as-nails legendary editor, Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, made a stab at getting the real Watergate story months earlier but decided he would rather see Nixon re-elected than rush in without unchallengeable facts.
Claims from the distant past get intense scrutiny and skepticism all the time. Did the source have ties to the opponent, even a major party position? An ax to grind for being fired? Had he pretended to be a fake from the other party to force an unneeded primary contest on voters? (I just flipped the realities, describing in Walker reverse the people in Walker’s camp who spread those hoary tales about Burke from 20 years ago).
With him the media wouldn’t dare but with her they not only would but did. Other journalists now think JS broke with standard journalism practice to preserve their flagship role among E.W. Scripps newspapers. They don't follow the money but it sure is all about money. What does an outstate company care about a new governor who only wants to do the grit hard work of making Wisconsin better? Keeping Walker alive would put JS and his pretenses of national office in the headlines and sell more papers.
So it’s not just me saying this rush without evidence – and burying that it was without evidence -- was irresponsible journalism,or crass indecent attacks on a candidate and un-American to the sense of fair play. Editorials and new endorsement of Burke from unexpected corners are becoming a stampede and even more establishment outlets tell me they would be blasting away at JS except for their own “try not to think of green elephants” rule – they don’t want to repeat dirty tricks even in excoriating dirty tricks so close to an election.
It’s the same rationale of trained temperance that gives reporters special legal protections and led the US Supreme Court, with considerable dissent, to keep in place a voter ID law in Texas it may later rule unconstitutional. The court held off even on a “poll tax” because it deemed Oct. 18 too close to the election! Yet JS put the Burke canard on Page One Oct. 30.
My first invention about Walker sucked you in for a minute, didn’t it? Because many do think this is close to what happened at the courthouse. But no eyewitness has ever stepped forward and the timing six days before an election would put it out of bounds.
The second invention, 26 years later, is credible only for those legions of Walker haters who haven’t, as I did, culled the archives at Marquette and know many folks just dropped out and still carved fine careers, though few dared to then put themselves as competent to be in charge of public education funding. I also know a hyperactive youth full of unseemly political excesses and deemed “unfit to govern” in a campus newspaper (Walker) shouldn’t be damned forever by hormones. It sounds good and it sure fits a pattern, but it’s amateur psychology to see the parent’s behavior in the antics of a child.
But never underestimate the power of wishful thinking disguised as stories. And never confuse constant presence in the public eye and glib friendliness toward easily seduced reporters with their having real knowledge of what lengths a politician can descend to.
Who really is the mystery candidate here? The believability of my fables confirms Walker is actually the most poorly vetted candidate in this race since no one has dug out a lot of known holes in his history much less the workings of his inner circles and what promises he has made to the sometimes secret and certainly corrupting millions pouring in at the last minute to protect him from likely loss. (Why is Macau and Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Addison dropping another $650,000 into state GOP coffers in the last week? Is he, not Walker, deciding on a Kenosha casino and how many decisions are really rewards for excess support?)
The observer in me says most voters have already made up their minds and won’t pay attention to this smear job, except to remember that this was a newspaper that was once honored in the profession. (Wait till the Columbia Journalism Review or the Pulitzer committee gets done with them!). But combine the dirty trick with the weather forecast (election day is the only day of the week expecting heavy downpours), it clearly was intended to put a likely lead for Mary Burke in question. It's always harder to walk in the rain down rural roads or central city streets than drive up to the polls in a Mercedes.
Despite the attacks, Burke is neck and neck or slightly ahead in the UW Madison polling model. (I’ve written extensively about how the bouncing poll numbers are getting too much attention, but if you want to pay attention anyway, she’s doing pretty good.)
My fabrications have more credibility than the virus infected on Mary Burke, but my larger point is simple. If this had been attempted as a last minute smear of Walker, both his friends in media and journalists who know the rules would have refused to play along or even evoke the lame excuse that it’s out there in crazy land so they have to repeat.
JS pounded the biggest nail it could find into its own coffin. The former employer I once admired is shredding its reputation as it trims down its veteran staff and ponders selling its legendary home.
Smell a rat abandoning a sinking ship? That compels responsible citizens to search for other sources truer to the rules of objectivity and opinion and more open about their purpose. Whether just independent, community oriented or roundedly liberal, or defiantly alternative, they are all looking more honest today. And this may be why there are now so many of them, many using former JS employees as disgusted as I am.