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At this point, no one disputes that Jessica McBride had an affair with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. The question is when. We can all agree it’s a conflict of interest to have this affair while writing about him, but if the relationship began well after the story ran, there’s no conflict and no news […]

At this point, no one disputes that Jessica McBride had an affair with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn. The question is when. We can all agree it’s a conflict of interest to have this affair while writing about him, but if the relationship began well after the story ran, there’s no conflict and no news story.

It was a couple of weeks ago that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice called me about this story. “Can you tell me when this affair was supposed to have started,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he replied.

Yet Bice went ahead and wrote an innuendo-laden story that simply asserted – but never proved – that McBride had this affair while working on a profile of Flynn for Milwaukee Magazine. Bice ignored information proving the contrary, and failed to do due diligence to establish the facts. All the evidence suggests the affair began in early May, months after McBride completed the story.

Now, as a result of Bice’s hatchet job, McBride has been branded and ridiculed across the country, on countless Web sites and blogs, as a corrupt journalist. It’s a tragedy for journalism, all right, but the real shame falls on Bice and his editors.

Am I overstating this? Let me present the background behind the story and the facts left out of Bice’s account, and you be the judge.

I’ve known Jessica McBride since we both worked at the Journal Sentinel. She was a dogged reporter who was highly regarded by the newspaper’s editors. Jessica went on to become a UW-Milwaukee journalism lecturer and a controversial blogger. Frankly, I often disagree with her columns. (She’d probably say the same of my commentary.) But reporting is another matter.

McBride has been an asset to this magazine, writing four features to date, all well researched. Perhaps her best-known, prior to the Flynn profile, was her story on the so-called “Smiley Face” killers.

It was my idea to profile Flynn, and McBride accepted the assignment in late October of 2008. On Jan. 5, 2009, she turned in her story. The reporting was terrific. She had on-the-record quotes portraying Flynn as an “itinerant chief” who was likely to leave Milwaukee quickly, verifying the fears of those who didn’t want to hire him in the first place. She had a quote from John Polio, a former police chief in Massachusetts, scoffing at the kid-gloves treatment of Flynn by the press. She caught Flynn at a community meeting where he was unable to name any streets in the area, and saw him way-too-frankly explaining why crime in a certain neighborhood might not get discovered quickly (the neighborhood, Flynn said, was “a land of vampires when the sun went down”).

She had quotes from Tom Scanlon, police union president in Springfield, Mass., calling Flynn a “carpetbagger” and accusing him of pressuring commanders to reclassify crimes to lower the numbers. This intrigued me, and I asked Jessica to nose around and see what she could find on the murder rate, which seemed to be plummeting under Flynn. Jessica did a comparison of city of Milwaukee murders with statistics at the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office and could find no evidence of homicides being reclassified.

On balance, the story was positive, but in the storied career of Flynn, which had generated nothing but adulatory press, it was the toughest profile any reporter had ever done.

When Jessica turned in the story, I e-mailed to ask, as I do of all reporters, what had most surprised her about Flynn. Her e-mailed reply mentioned his intelligence, called him a walking encyclopedia, but also said this: “What surprised me was how off the cuff his rhetoric gets – how sharp, and sly, his humor is – and how constantly he uses humor as a weapon or conversational tool. I sort of expected it with the cops, but it was really jarring in the room of black activists. Almost cringe inducing.”

Offhand, this doesn’t strike me as the language of someone in love. 

I next kicked the story back to McBride for a rewrite, which she turned in Feb. 16. During the editing process, Jessica pushed me to include a couple negative quotes, which I vetoed as unnecessary because others in the story essentially made the same point, and the story – at 5,400 words – was already quite long. Once again, this wasn’t the behavior of someone being protective of her subject.

The problem of journalists getting too close to their subjects typically occurs for beat reporters, or for writers who spend a long period of time interviewing someone. To fall in love in the course of doing one feature story is, frankly, no easy feat.

Jessica had just one face-to-face interview with Flynn, for six hours in December, with a police lieutenant and the department’s communications director, Anne E. Schwartz, present the entire time. After this, McBride had some follow-up e-mail questions for Flynn. That was the full extent of their communication prior to the release of the story.

A few days after our story went to subscribers in mid-April, Jessica e-mailed me to ask if I had heard anything about it from Flynn. I hadn’t. I would imagine if she was then having an affair, she wouldn’t have had to ask.

Since Bice did his story, McBride has admitted the affair and released a copy of an e-mail from Flynn dated April 23, in which he complimented her story and suggested they get together for coffee. That request eventually led to their first meeting since December, and the first time they ever met alone, at the Brocach Irish Pub & Restaurant on May 1st. The e-mail suggesting coffee is a public record, as Flynn sent it from work. I’m told that Bice requested the chief’s e-mails. If he didn’t, he should have, and he would have found reason to doubt the affair started while McBride was working on the story.

The meeting at Brocach is discussed in a love letter Bice obtained. Schwartz says she told Bice this occurred after the Milwaukee Magazine story was published. Bice chose not to include this. Worse, he used the loaded word “interview” to describe a chat between McBride and Flynn nearly three months after the story was finished. Without the addition of that one word, his story falls apart.

I told Bice that McBride turned in her feature in January, but he declined to include that in his story. I also told him that e-mails and exchanges I had with McBride (and I shared the one above with him) convinced me there was no affair going on before the story was done.

So when I told Bice, “I don’t think it has any bearing on the story” – a quote he used in his original article – my point was that if an affair had happened, it was long after the Flynn feature ran. But since Bice’s initial story left out any evidence the affair began later, it looked like I approved of reporters sleeping with people they cover. Needless to say, the magazine would never sanction this.

After McBride released the April e-mail from Flynn, this left Bice with just one crumb of evidence to prove the affair started earlier. In the love letter Bice obtained, McBride allegedly wrote that she instantly saw Flynn as a good person and “began to struggle – having to give time to vitriolic, baseless attacks.”

Let me, at this point, make a confession. I’ve had the same feelings sometimes as a reporter when writing about someone for whom I have some admiration. Sometimes, the critics can seem vitriolic and baseless in their attacks. But you still have to consider them in writing the story, and I have no evidence – nor does Bice offer any – to suggest McBride didn’t give Flynn’s critics due consideration.

But beyond this, consider the fact that McBride, if she did indeed write these words, did so at the peak of an affair. People at that point are in their adoration phase: They get gushy, and re-examine and recolor their initial meeting in the most flowery language. Even so, McBride apparently also wrote that she did not initially think of Flynn “romantically, at least not consciously.” But Bice, naturally, left this phrase out of his original story.

Reasonably worldly adults are aware that people having affairs are often not the most reliable narrators. Bice and his editors were apparently too naive to consider this possibility. Call me demanding, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask journalists to take an adult view of the world they write about.

In short, I don’t believe this love letter accurately reflects what was going on months earlier, because it stands in stark contrast to the e-mails McBride sent me while she worked on the story and after she finished the story. Nor does the letter jibe with the story she turned in.

Bice’s exposé quoted national experts on journalistic ethics condemning what McBride did. But they had no way of knowing the affair started after the story was written. Their quotes, however, help convince readers that McBride was guilty as charged by Bice.

Bice led off his attack claiming people in the police department jokingly dismissed McBride’s profile of the chief as a love letter. But not one officer is named, and not even an off-the-record quote is offered to prove this.

Bice quotes the magazine story’s physical description of Flynn to suggest (wink, wink) that the writer must be in love. But Bice offers not a shred of evidence to suggest the description is inaccurate. Of course, the literary style of the passage feels odd in the context of a newspaper story. But this is a narrative feature story; I asked McBride to do a word picture that makes the subject come alive physically, just as I do of all feature writers.

Bice is very smart, and had there been any mush or bias showing in the Flynn profile, he would have pounced on it. You can bet he went over it with a fine-tooth comb – and came up with nothing.

I’m not surprised. In the two months since the story was published, we’ve had not one complaint from readers of factual errors, blind spots, misjudgments or exaggerations. I wish I could say that of all our features.

Indeed, I’d argue the Flynn feature is far more scrupulously reported than Bice’s stories. You be the judge: Here’s the Flynn profile . And here is Bice’s original story  and his follow-up piece.  

We have nothing to fear from such scrutiny. I’m happy to disclose the details on how our story was done. I wonder if the JS can say the same about Bice’s exposé. It often seems like the newspaper never got the memo that in an online world, you no longer control the interpretation of stories. Online readers and bloggers do. And I welcome their examination of the issue.

I have a lot of respect for Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser, and I very much doubt he would have approved the Bice story had he known some of the things Bice chose to leave out – or not pursue – in this story. Bice is a very aggressive reporter, and that has resulted in some important stories. And if editors say no often enough, any reporter will start to become less aggressive. But this particular story seemed to scream out for more caution.

Ah, but sex sells. It’s always tempting to publish something like this – if there is a public policy issue at stake. Bice, however, offered no evidence the affair has in any way detracted from Flynn’s performance as police chief. But a juicy conflict of interest for reporter McBride would certainly justify running the story. Perhaps that’s why Bice stretched the truth to manufacture something that wasn’t there.

For the record, we stand behind our story on Ed Flynn. Should any defects be pointed out, we will do the usual due diligence to determine if a correction or clarification is required.

Typically, once Milwaukee Magazine does an in-depth story on someone like Flynn, we’re unlikely to ever feature him again. McBride, of course, would have been honor-bound to disclose her relationship with Flynn had we ever asked her to cover him again. That’s when the issue of a conflict of interest would have arisen.

Back when I started running McBride’s stories, I heard from liberals who were upset, as McBride is a conservative commentator. My only concern, I told them, is how good a reporter she is. I still feel the same way, and still remain happy with the four features she’s done for us. But I have heard from folks who believe the magazine should cross McBride off its list of freelance reporters. I’d be curious to hear from you, the reader, about this. I always learn from these exchanges, and welcome your thoughts about this entire issue.