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 […]

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?

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