Monday, October 03, 2011

Punished For The Sins Of Others

In a recent article for his newspaper's "PolitiFact" feature, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Kertscher declared two claims to be untrue. One was made by the Walker administration. The other by the head of an association representing town governments.

So did Kertscher put the governor on the PolitiFact hot seat? Nope. Did he shine his light on the town official? Nope. He took me to task for telling people what they said.

Kertscher first e-mailed me and then telephoned to question me about four different comments I made in my speech at last month's Fighting Bob Fest. He ultimately determined a remark about government spending on road building was the only one needing scrutiny.

I told him I was citing a statement made on page 14 of a budget document issued by the Walker administration in March that said the spending plan sunk "a total of $5.7 billion in Wisconsin's transportation system, including a $410.5 million (14.7 percent) increase in highway funding over base amounts."

I also told him that another newspaper reported in early September that the Wisconsin Towns Association's executive director "says he knows of several townships with blacktop roads in need of repair that have opted to dig out the blacktop and go back to gravel."

Curiously, neither Kertscher nor any of his colleagues at the Journal Sentinel had ever questioned the assertion made in the budget document. They gave the administration a pass and allowed the claim to go unchallenged for more than six months. It was not until a citizen activist brought it up in a speech that it was deemed worthy of examination. And then after judging it factually inaccurate, he assigned the blame to me.

Kertscher concluded that the budget for highway spending didn't increase by 15 percent, it actually went down.

He did not base his conclusion that the Walker road spending claim was untrue on the word of a private research group like the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (which, by the way, issued a study this year showing that borrowing for road construction has been increasing at an annual rate averaging 17 percent) or reporting by an independent news organization like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism run by former Wisconsin State Journal reporter Andy Hall (which reported that Walker's budget as amended by the Legislature ended up increasing state highway spending by 13 percent).

Comically, he cited two administration sources who now insist there is a cut in the budget for road building. That's the very same administration that was responsible for making the original claim of a 15 percent increase. Did Kertscher turn his journalistic wrath on the Walker administration for talking out of both sides of its mouth? No, he did not.

Perhaps now it's clear why he didn't challenge another statement I made in my speech, namely that when millions of Americans are looking for real news and some honest-to-goodness truth telling about what’s going on in the country, they tune in to Comedy Central.

What Kertscher wrote struck me as juuuust a bit unfair. But hey, life's not fair. Serves me right for putting any stock in anything the Walker administration has ever put out there. And shame on me for repeating a direct quote from a local government official who was speaking on the record.

Yes, I regard his reporting in this instance to be unfair. But he also crosses the line that separates unfair and hypocritical by faulting me for doing what he and other reporters do every single day. Reporters cite official government documents all the time and they quote public officials all the time. And then if someone says their reporting is factually incorrect, they say "hey, don't look at me, I'm just reporting matters of public record." But when I pointed out two matters of public record, Tom Kertscher effectively branded me a liar. That is a flagrant double standard.

Kertscher's reporting in this case is either the byproduct of exceedingly sloppy journalism or some very troubling bias.

In any case, this is the kind of thing that gives a noble profession a bad name.

1 comment:

xoff said...

You left out the bright side: It was, as far as I can determine, the first time the Journal Sentinel ever mentioned Fighting Bob Fest in its print edition.

You gotta start somewhere,