The public trust, scorned
April 18, 2012
More than once, we’ve discussed the need to rebuild civil institutions that have been damaged by the political Left applying double standards and exempting itself from the rules others are expected to follow. Prime examples are a justice system that can’t be trusted to give political conservatives a fair shake and a media that willingly blinds itself to misbehavior by the Left.
One civic leader, Milwaukee’s George Mitchell, has weighed in with an op-ed submitted to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The newspaper has not published it.
An Abandonment of Journalistic Standards
Assuming a chest-thumping posture, the Journal Sentinel brags that it “has broken every story” about what should be a secret legal investigation by District Attorney John Chisholm’s staff.
Why the paper is proud is a mystery. Its coverage mocks journalistic values. For example, its reporting relies on people who likely have broken the law. Given the stakes, including the possible impact on the gubernatorial recall election, the paper’s actions are the antithesis of journalistic responsibility.
For nearly two years, unnamed sources have selectively leaked information to the Journal Sentinel. Resulting stories cast many individuals in a negative light. Often those people are legally prohibited from comment. And those free to respond would be fools to enter a “he said, they said” battle with unnamed sources — a battle moderated by Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice.
The people portrayed unfavorably by the selective leaks don’t know who has spread negative information to the paper. For legal and practical reasons, they can’t effectively respond. Consequently, readers receive a sliver of information — the opposite of transparency and balance.
Is there an overriding public purpose that justifies setting aside the traditional journalistic goals of transparency, balance, and fairness? None whatsoever. To the contrary, relying on unlawful release of selective information corrupts and erodes concepts central to our justice system.
The Journal Sentinel disputes that it has used information provided unlawfully. But how can that be considering that the proceedings are by law secret and that key participants cannot comment publicly?
The apparent answer is that the paper uses intermediaries — that is, go-betweens not bound by the secrecy order. Thus, says the Journal Sentinel, its hands are clean.
Really? The paper’s sources, of course, got their information from people who were bound by the secrecy order – people who broke the law. By doing so, and by publishing the results, they and the paper undermine the very foundation of the investigation.
Who are the intermediaries that have leaked information to the paper? No less a source than reporter Bice lists candidates:
“FBI agents, friends of FBI agents, family of FBI agents, staff in the US Attorney’s office, friends of US Attorney’s office employees, family members of US Attorney’s Office employees, witnesses, friends of witnesses, family members of witnesses, judges, family and friends of judges, judicial aides, court reporters, friends and family of court reporters, lawyers involved in the case, lawyers formerly involved in the case, lawyers with partners involved in the case, friends and family of lawyers currently or formerly involved in the case, certain county workers, friends of those county workers, family members of those county workers.”
Bice’s list confirms that the supposed safeguards of the “secret” investigation are a sham. His possible sources run the gamut of the legal system; Bice exempts virtually no one.
What might motivate the leakers? Bice’s list encompasses 43 members of Chisholm’s staff who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker. (Not identified by the Journal Sentinel, mind you. No, an independent watchdog group called Media Trackers did that reporting.) Yet Bice and his boss downplay the ramifications of widespread hostility to Walker among those working for Chisholm.
Supposedly, Chisholm is displeased that his investigation has been shredded by selective leaks. You’d never know that from any public comment or any description of actions he has taken in response. And where is Neal Nettesheim, the Appeals Court judge presiding over the investigation? What has he done to restore a semblance of order? If the judge and district attorney won’t protect the process, who will?
In an e-mail exchange with me, Bice said he wasn’t “aware” that any of his sources were breaking the law, adding, “Yet even if someone did, wouldn’t that be their concern, not mine?” That flippant approach epitomizes the Journal Sentinel’s conduct. It has turned a blind eye to motives of the leakers and the impact of reporting selectively leaked information. Rather than pursue the source of widespread, illegal leaks, Bice and the paper are joined at the hip to that unauthorized activity.
All in all, this has been a sorry episode in the history of Milwaukee County jurisprudence and journalism.