Conservative blogger Christian Schneider helped the Journal Sentinel to a genuine scoop the
On Tuesday, 24 hours or so before
the official announcement, Schneider told
the world about Gov. Scott Walker’s
decision not to fully expand BadgerCare – which would have brought the state some
$4.38 billion in federal money – but instead to seek what Schneider
characterized as “middle ground” in reducing the number of uninsured in the
state. He wrote about it in his blog that’s included in the JS “Purple Wisconsin” aggregation of
Schneider’s scoop was so exclusive
that, in a front-page story on the governor’s intentions the JS published Wednesday – the same day Schneider’s
op-ed column appeared in the print edition – reporters Patrick Marley and Jason
to attribute some of their information directly to his work.
While the details may be peculiar –
the story breaks in a partisan blog, then gets picked up by mainstream
reporters – in the overall scheme of things, this looks at first like a fairly
standard occurrence in conventional journalism: An inside leak, typically
anonymously sourced, to selected news organizations about a proposed change in
Sometimes these stories come from
critics hoping to torpedo the new policy, sometimes from the authors who hope
to give it an early boost, especially if they know it will be controversial.
Schneider’s score was almost certainly of the second kind. And to
read his approving assessment of the governor’s policy is to understand the
motive: The very first report on the governor’s actual intentions came wrapped
in an enthusiastic endorsement, which you can bet the leakers were counting on.
It also came with no meaningful
rebuttal from critics of Walker’s approach, although fierce criticism could be
expected and did indeed greet the proposal once it was out in the open.
Walker’s intention to reject
Medicaid expansion money was entirely predictable (progressive blogger James Rowen, another “Purple Wisconsin”-ite,
the decision days earlier with no inside dope), but that doesn’t really
diminish the genuine news in Schneider’s scoop.
To be sure, Schneider has had some
past problems with accuracy, like his
embarrassing skin-back on what turned out to be a fabricated claim by a
campaign activist who claimed to have been beaten up “for being a gay
In light of his history, lefty blogger
Chris Liebenthal, who took
a lengthy look at the earlier incident, harshly
criticized the JS story for its
reliance on the Schneider post.
I understand where Liebenthal’s
scorn is coming from, but I don’t really have a problem with Marley and Stein’s
first go at the story in Wednesday morning’s paper. In some ways, having
Schneider break the story, however it was spun, gave them a freedom to simply
confirm it with a source of their own, then to seek initial reactions –
including from critics of the Walker plan.
But, curious whether the JS Madison
reporters and Schneider had to operate under the same set of rules when it
comes using anonymous sources, I asked Managing
Editor George Stanley and Editorial
Page Editor David Haynes about
policies on their respective sides of the paper – as well as how the story
might have turned out if Stein and Marley had had to rely only on the Schneider
Haynes told me in an email:
Christian's piece was
treated like any other work of journalism.
I don't allow
anonymous sources on the opinion pages in content that I control (that
excludes, of course, syndicated material) unless an editor a) knows the
identity of the source; b) discusses with the writer the potential motivations
of the source; and c) discusses what the writer did to verify the information
from that source. In this case, I was confident that Christian had confirmed
the information he reported with multiple sources. As a courtesy, I notified
the “news" side of the JS what we had in advance of posting the item.
In a follow-up communication, Haynes confirmed that he and
Schneider had spoken directly and specifically about Schneider’s sources and
In a separate email, Stanley wrote:
Patrick and Jason have
to tell us who their source or sources are and why they don't want to be named
so we can weigh whether or not to use it and how much we can tell readers about
the source if we do go ahead. That's true of everyone in News.
. . .
Sometimes we report
online what other people are saying with full attribution and let people know
we don't know if it's true or not, whether it's the State Journal, Cap Times,
Post-Crescent, AP, etc. and link to their stories. So we say something
like: AP is reporting out of Arkansas that Brett Bielema is leaving
Wisconsin to coach the Razorbacks. We have not confirmed this report. Stay
Stanley adds that a blanket rule against any anonymous
. . . gives all the
power to the people who already have it and, for example, fails to protect
whistle blowers who are not powerful but who see wrongdoing, haven't been
able to stop it through normal channels and want to report it to the public so
they can stop it. So we use unnamed sources with specific rules . . .
Here, of course,
the anonymous sources aren’t powerless, but rather powerful people who hope to
get their story told first in the most favorable light. But I think it would be
hard to craft a workable policy on anonymous sourcing that would be so
fine-grained that it would only address “whistle-blowers” and not ever permit
“official leaks” – and I don’t know what the point would be of such a rule.
And is the paper being “used” here? Probably. Since when is
that a new thing? The fact is, the JS
story gave plenty of room to criticisms of Walker’s proposal by
knowledgeable policy experts.
That said, it was left to the AP to produce perhaps
the most damning criticism of the Walker move, including “Obamacare” critic
Robert Laszewski’s reaction calling
the governor’s plan “a crazy policy.” (Laszewski is also quoted in the JS reaction story but somehow didn’t get
quite so provocative when he spoke to Stein.)
And that, more than anonymous sourcing, points out the
worthlessness of so many easily gotten inside scoops for any news organization,
especially when they go to people whose loyalties are more reliable than is their
history for accuracy.
In Defense of The Old Ways: For a contrast that sort of easy and
one-sided exclusive coverage, consider the story of labor journalist Mike Elk. Elk is the son of a union
organizer. “I grew up on picket lines,” he wrote this week, and his reporting
shows his intimacy with and passion for the culture and lives of the working
class. (I started reading him when he joined the coverage of the Wisconsin Act
10 controversy two years ago.)
But he’s also written about labor
with fierce independence, at times stepping on the toes of union leadership when
the facts led him in that direction. It was a sad day last year when In These Times, the journal where he
published, had to let him go when it lost a grant that had paid his salary.
post this week by Elk apologizing forthrightly for a long-ago ethical
breach caught my attention. But what I find especially interesting and even
moving is his growing appreciation for the tradition of journalism rooted in
facts and in delving into the full story from many sides, rather than just the
easy and cheap purveyance of provocative opinions:
would be impossible to erase the values that generations of my family have
instilled in me, nor would I ever want to. If there was a strike at a media
outlet where I worked, I would never ever cross the picket line and would
disparage those who did, but if I was covering a story I would cross the picket
line to get the company's sides of the story. I've realized that in order to do
justice to the folks I grew up with it is important to divest my emotions from
the almost scientific accurateness needed to present a story. Pontificating or
getting too emotionally invested in my story doesn't help the folks I grew up
with, it just gets Twitter followers.
I’d like to think that people like
him – deeply passionate about their subjects, but also deeply engaged with
sorting out the truth in all its complexity – are the real future of
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