Thursday, February 27, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice is a defiant muckraker, at least in a partial definition of that historic term. He has become in effect the journalistic voice, or excuse, for the newspaper to be respected in national quarters.

Dan Bice
He’s certainly the gadfly of public figures left and right.  “Afflict the comfortable” is a part of his mantra, though his column doesn’t seem to allow room for the other side of the old saying, “Comfort the afflicted.” 

The old muckrakers were defined as reform minded, but Bice fits the other important definition -- relentless watchdog and auditor, scouring bankruptcies, campaign contributions, court records and emails (which a friend out East notes amusingly now needs to be redefined in dictionaries -- email should be labeled “evidence mail” since they have so often doused politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie in hot water).

Bice is accused by some readers of leaning left and others of leaning right, which he cheerfully accepts as evidence that he must be doing something right. He is not ashamed of embarrassing anyone when a public record exists.  

For Bice, whom I know casually, all such items are worth printing.  That doggedness -- leaning into and behind public records -- has brought him some scoops along with oodles of national TV time, particularly now with his detailed reports on the Walker related emails. All that attention reinforces the reputation of his employer as honorable practitioner of investigative clout, though the evidence overall is more and more debatable.

Dare I suggest he and a few similarly devoted colleagues have become the only remaining justification for regarding the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as legitimate? 

Journal Communications is now more the media conglomerate parallel of the right-wing Bradley Foundation,   revealing its real political leaning in where it puts its resources and attention. For instance JS still makes nods to the community at large in some of its beats and feature columns as it must, but look at the weight. It’s much like how the Bradley Foundation, with millions to play with annually, gives $18,000 to the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre or $10,000 to the Urban Ecology Center but lards $3 million on the Charter School Growth Fund or $190,000 to the right-wing attack center known as the McIver Institute.  The lack of balance exposes the motivations.

Similarly, that Bice devotion to old-fashioned legwork journalism, honored by national media, has become the JS excuse to be treated as the Fourth Estate institution it once was instead of the shadow it has become in practice.

And that is clearly a mouthpiece of the right-wing, an arm of the Walker campaign and in journalist terms weak-kneed when it comes to tackling wealthy conservative policies or offending too deeply the strong business advertising base it relies on.  When the MMAC (Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) and similar trade groups control your revenue and they are dedicated to dubious education and economic practices, in this difficult age of survival, what’s a poor local newspaper to do? And what’s a rich media corporation to do?  Cooperation readily translates into submission.

Don’t take this as longing for the old Journal and combined Journal Sentinel I worked for over decades before voluntarily leaving in the mid-1990s what I felt had become a diseased company.  I’m not blinded in thinking we were always a better newspaper before then, though there was a stronger separation between the advertising, promotion and editorial departments. 

But at both newspapers (the Sentinel strongly conservative, the Journal more liberal) there were too many independent characters and hidebound pride for any editor or ideology to run away with the train.  The real newspaper people wouldn’t have stood for it. At both newspapers, we had reporters who leaned conservative, center and left, but if they smelled a story, personal politics disappeared in the hunt. Some of the best reporters you wouldn’t take to church. Some of the language made female newcomers blush.  But try to tilt their stories to fit your political views, or leave out a salient detail or a long sought-for phrase, and there would be an explosion. Often was.

We did horrible things that took time to change.  I recall a city editor who thought of himself as a protector of American morality. So at his insistence, the Journal ran names of those caught in the men’s room of a downtown hotel where the police had set up a peephole sting. But only clergy and doctors caught in the homosexual trap were written about, not the workers and clerks, the regular people who wouldn’t lose prominent positions through exposure. When I and other journalists protested, he fought us all the way to the managing editor.  So don’t tell me about the good old days. They weren’t that good and there were reasons so many worked hard to change them.

But today, staffing has shrunk; circulation has dropped sharply; the Internet rules but makes little revenue. Buyouts rain down on the newsroom to eliminate the most veteran workers as too costly to keep, and the few remaining top editors wield far more power and are more in thrall of the revenue factors and the ideological leanings of their masters. 

The temptation began in the reign of editor Sig Gissler in the late 1980s that the newsroom leaders should act as marketing gurus more than journalistic purists and keepers of the flame. With merger and pressure to succeed, that temptation has grown exponentially. Nothing else can explain how often the rounded story – not politically left or right – has failed to get a full hearing. Businesses can hire public relations firms to get a hearing. People on the street and in the courts still need journalists to listen. But there are far less bodies and far less interest. 

The newspaper has abandoned the genuine plight of Milwaukee County and city, except to carp about the poverty, unemployment and education dilemmas as failures of the progressive movement, in favor of building up the virtues of the outlying suburbs where they need to draw readers. 

The irony, of course, is that the suburbs are fading in appeal to younger citizens who should be future readers. They like the growing urban centers. Despite the ingrained pockets of poverty, they are determined to make Milwaukee attract fresh entrepreneurs and activists. Groups of college trained families are abandoning the lure of comfortable suburban living to tackle street by street the neighborhood improvements, the organic reclaiming of the earth, the helping hand for the downtrodden.

It’s much like journalists of yore who worked street by street for stories that revealed the human condition, or knew more about what was happening in city hall than the mayor did -- the days when a music reviewer could be so moved by the plight of inner city housing that his review of a black soprano, pointing out shacks nestled in a community of mansions, became an editorial and front-page campaign.  Don’t expect that concern today.  With a few exceptions, the newspaper is missing that vitality.

Moreover, the paper has lost the strength of diverse voice that two newspapers competing for news once represented (and no local TV station has stepped in to fill the breach; they just add fire videos to the existing pack journalism).   JS has underrated the community needs and made the grievous mistake of blatantly trumpeting its decisions as the views of the “betters” (Madison politicians and the editorial board), an attitude that offends a goodly portion of readers. A genuine local newspaper -- in it coverage not its choice of op-ed columnists -- digs for balance no matter where it finally comes out.

Sykes spells balance problems
for Journal reputation.
Many readers now wonder aloud why parent company Journal Communications continues to damages its reputation of journalistic integrity by turning morning TMJ Radio over to the right-wing blathering of Charlie Sykes. But that was a ratings decision, not a news one. The justification remains that Sykes, like Rush Limbaugh, describes himself as an entertainer not a journalist. (Of course, he wants his opinions revered as hard commentary and he comes from a journalist background. In fact, I worked in the Journal newsroom when he was a reporter there, haranguing veterans with his ideas, which they found amusing or just quietly rolled their eyes. The general opinion was that he was likeable but not believable, and his father, the late journalist Jay Sykes, was more respected. So no wonder Charles moved on to pastures that would put him on a higher pedestal.)

Sykes’ ego has now led to a larger error. His Right Wisconsin, a website requiring paid subscription and full of his musings and those of others who claim journalistic credentials, including several right-wing bloggers JS has hired, was started by him to spread his journalism credentials and is actually owned by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Journal Communications, moving from mere employer of an entertainer to conspirator in right-wing journalistic thematics. That has destroyed the JS reputation for objectivity especially right now, as Walker falls into deeper disrepute through his own behavior as county executive.

Just ask Bice himself.  In a web chat on jsonline Feb. 26, he was asked to comment on whether Right Wisconsin was an arm of Walker’s political machine, given that its editor, Brian Fraley, has been revealed as email contact in the recent release of John Doe missives.  Chatted Bice: 

Brian Fraley on TV when he headed
the McIver Institute in 2012.
“If you want to understand how closely tied Right Wisconsin is to the Walker team, do this: Go to the email records and do a search for the word Fraley, as in RW managing editor Brian Fraley, who worked with Kelly Rindfleisch back in the legislative caucus days. Then note that Fraley is involved in the email exchange that just led Gov. Walker -- apparently -- to fire DOT legal counsel John Schulze. Then turn on your radio and listen to Charlie Sykes argue against the Schulze's firing. It's a small and deeply intertwined world.”

Part of that deep intertwine is JS ownership of this Right Wisconsin so closely tied to Walker’s camp and Sykes’s disgust when Walker backs away from supporting his own gang. 

As of this writing, Bice as columnist has suggested but not flat out said that Walker knew of the secret email network and router set up inside his county exec office.  Meanwhile Sykes pretends it’s all old news though Walker’s pettiness in these emails destroys his Eagle Scout image and explains why Republican and Democratic prosecutors and judges continue to investigate him.

Any journalist can smell that Walker was deeply involved but there is a legal concern – and Walker has a deep bench of high-priced lawyers – about what you can say in print. After all, there wasn’t enough back then to charge Walker with corruption,  just hints that good lawyers could try to strangle in court action.  

As I spelled out to friends who asked:  “There is a legal reason that Walker dodges his obvious knowledge and even media reporters who demand he answers. Consider the consequences if he does admit publicly what the emails of others reveal. It would confirm his role in an illegal coordination between campaign and county workers on taxpayer time. That opens him up to criminal action, in effect reopening the first John Doe while he and supporters are scrambling to delay the second John Doe until after the election.”

So while I understand the caution of journalists, I must point out that aggressive reform-minded newspapers – unlike JS -- would say aloud that Walker knew despite the legal implications. They have lawyers, too, and the First Amendment to protect them when they draw obvious conclusions.  It’s not a matter of opposing or supporting Walker, it’s just going where the evidence leads good journalists.

For now, Bice in his column can hint, but he won’t say. Maybe that’s unusual caution in practice. But maybe, now that his owners have shown their real stripes, he has little choice.

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

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