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”?
Well, that’s not surprising. The paper buried the lede – and
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.
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
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repealed 2009 legislation, which would have allowed people to go directly to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
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
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.
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
the error in the original JSOnline story, he adds, “We were fully
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
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
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
Or consider an even more sweeping story tackling whether
unequal pay is a problem in Wisconsin. If so, why, and what could help to
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
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
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.
On Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 11:09 AM, Erik Gunn wrote:
— 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?
. . .
below, or write Pressroom at email@example.com.