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Wrong Target?
Journal Sentinel slaps Mary Burke for repeating its own error.


Mary Burke holding up nomination signatures in Waukesha on Thursday.
(photo by Mary Burke campaign)


You’ve heard about the recent PolitiFact item that declared reporting from the Journal Sentinel “False”?

No?

Well, that’s not surprising. The paper buried the lede – and blamed a politician for repeating its own error.

That the politician happened to be Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke simply fueled the suspicion of political activists, who saw it as one more sign (along with the ownership of conservative commentary website Right Wisconsin by the paper’s corporate parent, Journal Communications) that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is in the tank for Republicans, in general, and for Gov. Scott Walker, in particular.

Here’s the story. Back in March, in a short JSOnline report about a study comparing women’s and men’s pay rates, writer Karen Herzog mentioned that Wisconsin was one of just five states lacking a law that mandates equal pay, regardless of gender.

The Burke campaign issued a statement on April 8 that pointed out the repeal, by Walker and the state Legislature, of Wisconsin’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act – which made Wisconsin “now one of just five states without an equal pay law.” Burke promised to bring back the 2009 act, which was passed under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.




Enter PolitiFact, which dutifully investigated
and took 1,200 words to point out what was wrong with saying that Wisconsin was one of five states where there is no equal pay law.

The original source of the erroneous information was the National Conference of State Legislators, which had posted a database on equal pay laws.

Reporter Dave Umhoefer contacted the NCSL and in the story explained why its database was incorrect. He interviewed employment lawyers, reviewed state statutes, and even called up old PolitiFact clips to point out that yes, indeed, Wisconsin does have law on the books that bars wage discrimination by gender. The Wisconsin law, still in effect, predates the repealed 2009 legislation, which would have allowed people to go directly to civil court over wage-discrimination claims.

PolitiFact’s piece took note of the earlier, incorrect JSOnline report and included a link, in the online version, to the now-corrected wage-disparity story.




In his criticism of PolitiFact,
Jud Lounsbury at the liberal Uppity Wisconsin blog acknowledges that the underlying claim . . . was actually a great statement to analyze—it wasn't something ridiculous like checking the veracity of a re-telling of the origin of the state's nickname—and it was judged from just the right camera angle.

The problem, Lounsbury wrote earlier this week, is that the JS aimed its Truth-o-Meter in the wrong direction and blamed Burke instead of squarely pointing at the paper or the NCSL.

So, Politifact basically discovers that one of their own is guilty of not citing the NCSL and that the information is wrong anyway, but instead of calling out the Journal Sentinel reporter or the NCSL... they go after Mary Burke.

The Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact editor, Greg Borowski, believes that the paper’s handling of the matter was not just guiltless but exemplary.

Responding to my emailed questions, he writes that the story:

… underlines the exact purpose of PolitiFact Wisconsin. In fact, it represents one of the main reasons PolitiFact was created – to get beyond he said, she said claims and dueling numbers and examine the underlying facts of an issue. [I’ve reprinted Borowski’s full statement, along with my questions, at the end of this column.]

When contacted by PolitiFact, the Burke campaign pointed to the NCSL study as evidence for its claim, prompting Politifact to drill deeper into the NCSL’s methods and find the error. “That formed the basis for our False rating,” Borowski says, “something no one, including NCSL or the Burke campaign, has challenged. In short, we got it right.”

By acknowledging the error in the original JSOnline story, he adds, “We were fully transparent.”

As for why the paper rated Burke’s claim and not its own, Borowski says that Politifact exists “to examine statements made by and about Wisconsin political figures and issues … Put simply, we believe politicians are responsible for what they say.”

He argues that it “does not seem appropriate” for the paper to have ignored Burke’s misstatement. “Likewise, for those who question our impartiality, does it really make sense for us to be doing Truth-O-Meter ratings of items by our own news staff?”

And he calls “absurd” any claim that Right Wisconsin compromises PolitiFact Wisconsin. “We at PolitiFact are often taken to task by [Right Wisconsin] (just as we are by Democrats and left-leaning bloggers and websites) when it serves their purpose or agenda.”




I don’t deny that the piece
was forthright in acknowledging the paper’s error – although it could have done so a lot sooner than the ninth graf – and I disagree with the widespread claim that the paper is routinely biased for the GOP in its news columns. I know the inside of enough newsrooms well enough to know that, as Borowski points out, there is no “nefarious connection” between the paper and Right Wisconsin.

But I still find it astonishing that the paper and its editors don’t seem to get why so many people view the relationship between the two with such suspicion. If their skepticism is so unreasonable, perhaps the paper should rethink its blanket ban on journalists so much as signing political petitions.

As for the PolitiFact piece itself, I don’t find it deeply unfair to Burke, but critics have cause to call it misdirected, at least in part. Couldn’t the NCSL have also been rated “False,” alongside the leading Democratic candidate for governor?

This episode is yet another example of a problematic aspect of the PolitiFact formula.

Burke’s statement and the Journal Sentinel’s own error could have been corrected in about half the space – if not less. It’s a quick fix, and one that still misses the most important issues at hand.

Why not a story that looks more comprehensively at the Democrats’ demagoguery – stretching over the last few years – around the 2009 law and its 2012 repeal? Or, in another vein, why not examine Republican demagoguery over the Affordable Care Act, which extends back to long before the law’s passage in 2010?

Or consider an even more sweeping story tackling whether unequal pay is a problem in Wisconsin. If so, why, and what could help to change that?

Answering those questions would take resources, and I know those are increasingly constrained at the Journal Sentinel, as they are at all news organizations. Still, an attempt could make a far greater difference in the lives of Wisconsin readers and workers than any Truth-o-Meter ratings, whether True, False or Pants on Fire.

*

Below are Greg Borowski's response to my questions and the questions themselves.


*

From: Greg Borowski

Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 1:48 PM

To: Erik Gunn

Subject: Re: Comment, Please

. . .

Our rating of the claim by Mary Burke underlines the exact purpose of PolitiFact Wisconsin. In fact, it represents one of the main reasons PolitiFact was created – to get beyond he said, she said claims and dueling numbers and examine the underlying facts of an issue.

When we approached Mary Burke’s campaign and asked for their evidence to back the claim, they said they got the information from an NCSL study. We could have stopped there. But we examined the way the group reached its conclusion – in short, they put some key words into a database of state laws and reported what they found.

In doing so, their key words missed a key fact: That Wisconsin does have such a law, albeit under a different name. That formed the basis for our False rating – something no one, including NCSL or the Burke campaign, has challenged. In short, we got it right.

Our PolitiFact item from the beginning noted that a story that appeared on JSOnline relied upon the same information from the study (as did one in the Washington Post. It may have appeared in other media outlets as well.) We even linked to the JSOnline item. We were fully transparent about it.

In fact, after the rating, we went  back and corrected the JSOnline item. That is an appropriate thing to do. When mistakes come to our attention – even via this unusual route – we correct them.

(http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/for-median-wage-earners-state-women-make-10000-less-than-men-b99226369z1-250487201.html?3)

None of that changes the central focus of what we are doing at PolitiFact: Our purpose is to examine statements made by and about Wisconsin political figures and issues. That is why we focused on the claim by Mary Burke. Put simply, we believe politicians are responsible for what they say.

I suppose one way to handle the item would have been to simply ignore it, since the same information had been used by one of our reporters. But that would have let the False statement perpetuate. That does not seem appropriate. Likewise, for those who question our impartiality, does it really make sense for us to be doing Truth-O-Meter ratings of items by our own news staff?

Finally, the idea that we at PolitiFact Wisconsin are somehow compromised by Right Wisconsin is absurd. I have no say over what they do. They have no say over what we do.

If there were some nefarious connection, perhaps they did not get the memo – since we at PolitiFact are often taken to task by them (just as we are by Democrats and left-leaning bloggers and websites) when it serves their purpose or agenda.

Our only agenda at PolitiFact Wisconsin is to serve readers and voters by providing some of the most thoroughly-reported and clearly-written pieces you will find on topics that politicians – of all stripes -- would rather manipulate, shade and spin.

That’s what we did on this one.

Greg


*

On Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 11:09 AM, Erik Gunn wrote:

Greg – RE: http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2014/apr/13/mary-burke/mary-burke-says-scott-walker-left-wisconsin-women-/

See

1) http://uppitywis.org/blogarticle/ouch-journal-sentinel-gives-false-rating-its-own-paper-says-repo

2) http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/04/15/1292233/-Milwaukee-Journal-Sentinel-Inadvertently-Puts-Their-Own-Foot-in-Their-Mouth

Comment please:

-- Did P’Fact bury the lede as to JS own role in promoting  this error?

-- Should your story (per Lounsbury-- http://uppitywis.org/blogarticle/ouch-journal-sentinel-gives-false-rating-its-own-paper-says-repo) have more directly “call[ed] out the Journal Sentinel reporter or the NCSL...” ?

-- Given the repeated way the issue has been mis-stated by pols in the past (evident in the number of times P’Fact has had to run checks on similarly erroneous claims arising from the 2012 repeal of the 2009 law) is perhaps an alternative approach – focusing on the actual state of pay discrimination and pay discrimination law in Wisconsin – perhaps more useful to readers in the long run and a better deployment of the newspaper’s increasingly constrained resources?

-- Acknowledging the inherent bias in the Kos diarist’s point of view (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/04/15/1292233/-Milwaukee-Journal-Sentinel-Inadvertently-Puts-Their-Own-Foot-in-Their-Mouth ), do you think that there is any legitimacy to the argument the diarist makes that Sykes’ Right Wisconsin and its ownership by the MJS’s parent company undermines MJS claims of fairness and objectivity?

. . .

*

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