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Fahrenheit 414
Would the Journal Sentinel benefit from shifting all-star reporters away from the Politifact team?




Regular readers know that I’ve long taken a jaundiced view of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel PolitiFact feature. I think the motive behind the project is laudable. But I’ve been wary of the execution from the start, and I’ve grown weary of it since.

That’s unfortunate, because I think the contributing reporters and editors, particularly Pulitzer-prize winner David Umhoefer, are strong and talented journalists. Yet institutional constraints wind up making the overall enterprise more frustrating than enlightening at times.

A textbook example of the feature’s flaw is this week’s piece by Umhoefer that takes Gov. Scott Walker down a peg for his boast that the state’s ranking as a place to do business and moved up to No. 17 from No. 43 two years ago.

Diligently culling through an assortment of other such state business climate studies, Umhoefer pointed out that the picture was far more mixed than Walker allowed, and ranked the statement as “half true.”

The piece demonstrated the classic PolitiFact obsession with trees at the expense of understanding the forest, investing 800 words in the process.

Why not save space by simply showing the governor’s “cherry-picking” in a chart that presents the his quote and then lists conflicting business climate surveys and their findings?


Meanwhile, a much more far-reaching issue – and one that would have admittedly required much more investigation to reach a definitive judgment – would be critically examining just how accurate and predictive such climate surveys are, versus how much they are bent by ideology.

To Umhoefer’s credit, he didn’t ignore the frequent criticism that such surveys are ideologically bound and do more to promote corporate self-interest than community economic well-being. But having noted the criticism, the story kissed off the critics: PolitiFact wasn’t going to weigh in on that issue.

Yet those surveys can deeply influence political discourse, whether in a campaign or a legislative session. So assessing their validity would seem much more beneficial to readers and society than simply calling out a particular pol’s self-serving cherry-picking of those reports – especially when readers have no clue as to whether the surveys are even worth anything.

Why not a detailed assessment of the surveys themselves, looking at their conclusions and rankings when compared with actual, objective data on how states are doing in terms of economic well-being? Which surveys actually offer some value in predicting actual state performance and outcomes? And which ones are consistently wrong?

I ran my complaint past Greg Borowski, the assistant managing editor of projects and investigations at the JS and the paper’s PolitiFact editor.

He replied in an email, “As you note, we spent time in the item addressing the point you see as a flaw in it. We strive to provide not just the fact-check of a statement, but additional context for readers. Clearly, there will always be readers who want more information on a particular item. That is why we link online to all of the documents and sources we cite, so they can explore more on their own.”

Now, I get that with PolitiFact’s brief to put up a piece nearly every day, the more intensive project I’d like to see is outside the feature’s normal bounds. And I don’t dismiss entirely the value of evaluating the truth or falsity – or ambiguity – in individual statements and claims.

Around our house we’re known for paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld. (“You make dinner with the food in the refrigerator you have, not the food you wish you had,” Pressroom Buzz’s Most Loyal Reader told me the other night.) PolitiFact’s mission is what it is.

But I believe readers would be far better served if some of those resources could be shifted around to give readers the bigger picture.

 

*

Good cop, bad cop? Has anyone else noticed the recent JS stories with a much more balanced take on the Milwaukee Police Department? These are in striking contrast to past ones – some legitimate, but some, as I and others have argued, seriously flawed – that have left some readers wondering just what the paper had against Chief Edward Flynn.

Recently Don Walker, who has picked up the City Hall beat, got a lengthy interview with Flynn (who at one point had declined to talk to the paper before it broke one investigative series). And Walker had a story this week on the department’s ShotSpotter system.

Walker tells me that he sought a comment from Flynn after the legislature’s Joint Finance committee in May turned down an amendment to restore some funding for the MPD’s ShotSpotter program, which uses strategically placed sensors to more quickly respond to shootings. Although there was a bit of a delay, Flynn did call back and agreed to an interview. (Of course, given Flynn’s anger with the legislature and the governor, it’s not surprising that the chief would avail himself of the opportunity.)

The ShotSpotter feature came from a reader tip – of sorts. “I got a phone call from an uninformed reader who said ShotSpotter was a waste of money,” Walker says in an email. “I asked him how he knew that. Of course he had no idea.”

His interest piqued, however, Walker asked the MPD for statistics on the ShotSpotter’s performance – and wound up being invited on a ride-along.

Both of these were are good stories, worth printing, worth reading. Yet, I couldn’t shake the thought – was there some sort of effort, perhaps, on the paper’s part to bring some balance to the negative image it has seemingly promoted of the police department in recent years? I asked Walker that.

“As for your inference, you are certainly entitled to your opinion,” he says. “All I can tell you is that I go after good stories, whether they involve the police stories or stories about foreclosure.

“As you have noted, the paper has written some tough stories about MPD. No one has told me to cover or not cover anything.”

Covering City Hall, “it is true I hear stuff about the police department, good and bad,” Walker says. “I suspect you will see more stories down the road.”

 

*

 

Tit for Tat? It looked like pretty naked political payback for Joint Finance to vote last week to throw Wisconsin Watch (The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism) off the UW-Madison campus.

Meanwhile, though perhaps not as deeply offensive to democracy, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin was just plain silly when it denied media access to its convention last weekend to a correspondent from Right Wisconsin. Didn’t anybody remember how Sachin Chheda dealt with Fox News two years ago?

Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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(photo via Shutterstock)





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