Earlier this year the question of how far journalists should go in disclosing their own points of view – especially political ones – became the subject of fierce debate in our craft, in our state, and indeed in this column.
Journalists who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker were outed. Journalism pundits weighed in both for and against giving reporters freer rein to candidly acknowledge their political outlooks. And a UW-Madison student who had signed a recall petition even lost a summer internship at the Journal Sentinel.
Two big developments in recent weeks tie right back to the underlying question of when a journalist’s point of view helps a story – and when it ends up compromising its credibility.
It was big news last week that Journal Communications and its radio station, WTMJ AM 620, will sponsor a new ideologically oriented website and multimedia operation called Right Wisconsin to be anchored by TMJ talk host Charlie Sykes.
Joe Strupp of the liberal Media Matters for America suggested in his report on the operation that Sykes might be angling to be the next Glenn Beck, although Journal Broadcast exec VP Steve Wexler discounted that theory in a comment to The Business Journal.
And in an email interview this week, Wexler suggested that the website itself was more of a consolidation of various independent extensions of Sykes’ radio show than anything else.
“We realized that a lot of Charlie’s work was being presented in many different places – Facebook, our station website, Twitter, etc.,” Wexler says. “The idea of creating one place for his audience to engage in his content makes sense, and we’ve already heard from thousands of people who seem to agree.”
And the focus is more clearly on Sykes’ brand rather than the radio station as a whole: “This project is an extension of Charlie's radio talk show,” Wexler says. “He already creates much of this content across multiple platforms. Soon, it will all be available in one place.”
The plan suggests that despite policies barring news employees of Journal Communications from inserting themselves into politics, for some of the company’s marquee media names, such involvement isn’t just permitted – it’s encouraged.
You can insert the standard disclaimer that Sykes is not a journalist but rather an entertainer and commentator.
“I have been somewhat surprised by some people's reactions, especially since nobody is actually reacting to the new product yet,” Wexler says. (So far, all that greets visitors to rightwisconsin.com is a splash page containing a promise from Sykes that “something big is coming and I need you,” along with an invitation to register.)
To hear Wexler tell it, though, the site will mostly be repackaging stuff Sykes is already doing. “The only thing that is ‘new’ is that we're putting Charlie's online content under one roof where people can access it easily,” he says. “Charlie has been hosting a very successful conservative talk show on WTMJ since 1993. This project simply leverages that success in the digital space.”
It’s not uncommon to hear readers – usually liberals – accuse the paper as well as WTMJ Channel 4’s news operation of rightward bias in part because of their association, however distant, with the AM station’s conservative radio hosts.
(Curiously, in the eyes of conservatives who see the paper as hopelessly liberal, Sykes somehow fails to give the newspaper the same sort of political cover.)
Wexler noted, however, “None of our news departments will be involved in the content of this project, just as they are not involved in our radio talk programming now.”
And Journal Sentinel managing editor George Stanley says he’s not worried about any imputed guilt by association with the radio station’s talkers or the new Right Wisconsin site.
“I try not to worry about things I have no control over,” he says, adding that this year “has been a very typical election year as for complaints – same number from left and right as far as I can tell, like every election.”
Stanley stands by the paper’s independence and says it “serves only our subscribers who come from all points on the political spectrum.” He contends that “the few” critics who conflate the paper with the AM 620 commentators “know better but say it anyway as part of their propaganda spiel … I think our subscribers are smarter than that.”
Stanley should be congratulated for his confidence in his readers, but it's my sense that concerns are more widespread.
A similar issue arises in the coverage of problems inside the Milwaukee Police Department.
The Journal Sentinel's coverage of allegations that officers conducted illegal rectal searches of criminal suspects, and its dogged pursuit of a police video showing the last few minutes in the life of Derek Williams, got huge results last week: criminal charges filed against four Milwaukee cops and an FBI investigation of the Williams case.
Yet those exemplary stories can't help but be colored by years of bad blood between the paper and the department, particularly Chief Ed Flynn – tensions brought on by flawed investigative projects at the paper. The JS stories on longer response times having some tragic outcomes, on the department's continued employment of officers convicted of past law-breaking, and on discrepancies in the classification of crime statistics have all come in for criticism, here at Pressroom Buzz and from Flynn. For all their potential, each came out with serious shortcomings. (For elaboration, see past Pressroom Buzz columns on Flynn and the newspaper.)
(Incidentally, Ben Poston, the Journal Sentinel data reporter who was the principal reporter for
both the crime stats story and the response times story, is leaving the paper
for the Los Angeles Times, sources tell Milwaukee Magazine.)
Even now, the paper’s evident hostility to Flynn may color how readers view the newer stories.
Does antipathy to the chief really run as deep as the Journal Sentinel suggests in
stories about pressure for him to resign? And has the paper perhaps downplayed some of the
department’s own efforts to uncover problems?
I’ve written before about Jay Rosen’s ongoing campaign to get journalists to cast off what he calls “the view from nowhere” and to more candidly embrace and disclose the values and points of view they bring to their coverage. It’s an effort that I’m inclined to view sympathetically.
Yet serious consumers of the news shouldn’t pretend that there’s no downside. When does a point of view – or a preconceived position – end up shading not just how we read or hear the news, but how journalists report it?
And do we end up with a misleading or incomplete picture as a consequence?
What’s the Angle? A bit more on Right Wisconsin: For now, the project’s business model is a bit vague – or at least Wexler is playing that element close to the vest.
In response to my question of whether the site would be seen as mainly a way to drive traffic – and thus advertising revenue – to the station for Sykes’ show, Wexler said simply that the project is “distinctly different from our station website and other digital offerings.”
But when I asked if it was intended to generate revenue in its own right, he said, “Our first priority is to create enough compelling content for our audience so there’s demand for the product. That's our entire emphasis right now as we build it.”
Wexler passed on questions about Right Wisconsin’s prospects as a revenue generator through online advertising, given the conventional wisdom that online ads are still a fairly low-revenue platform for many media outlets. For example, when I asked if he saw evidence that was changing, he called the question “a bit premature. We want to create a product that people are interested in interacting with, first and foremost.”
Likewise, no word on whether it might end up having a pay wall.
Another Approach: Finally, there’s an instructive contrast between the way the Journal Sentinel has responded to problems in its crime statistic stories – with defensive doubling down on its position – and the way the Washington Post reacted a few months earlier to flaws in its own analysis of D.C. homicide data. Craig Silverman at the Poynter Institute explained that paper’s response.
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