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The One-Sided Scoop
A JS blogger broke news this week, but it took reporters to put the story in perspective.

Conservative blogger Christian Schneider helped the Journal Sentinel to a genuine scoop the other day.

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 political blogs.

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 Stein had 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 government policy.

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, forecast 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 Republican.”

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 post.

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 motives.

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 tuned.

Stanley adds that a blanket rule against any anonymous sources:

. . . 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 follow-up 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.

 

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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.

A 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:

It 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 journalism.

 

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