Inside the Journal Sentinel,
where talk radio calls the tunes
Well, Bruce Murphy's tell-all Milwaukee Magazine piece about his three years of angst at the Journal Sentinel has a little something for everyone. We'll all have our favorite parts.
WTMJ talk show host Charlie Sykes can bask in the fact that Murphy devoted an entire section to him, labeled, "The Sykes Syndrome." Sykes was already complaining about it on his Sykes Writes blog Thursday, and no doubt will devote some air time today to criticize Murphy's characterization of talk radio. But inside he's got to be gloating.
(Mark Belling, who barely gets a mention, is probably thinking up new ways to attack the paper and get its attention. He must be fuming.)
There's a lot of debate in political circles about how much influence talk radio really has. I'm one of those who say it's overstated. Sykes' listenership is perhaps 4% of the potential adult listeners in the area. In the afternoon, Belling on WISN attracts about 3%. (The way ratings are reported in the Journal Sentinel, ironically, make their audiences seem bigger. Sykes may have 4% of the radios in Milwaukee tuned to his show, but that is a 16% share of the people who actually have a radio on. The newspaper reports the higher number.)
Their clout is magnified, of course, by word of mouth. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
The newspaper editors, who Murphy say consider Sykes an adversary, are unduly influenced by what he says -- especially when the paper itself is a target of his criticism.
This from Murphy's article, writing about the editors:
"Sykes’ impact on them is extraordinary. [Managing Editor George] Stanley would assign story ideas based on what he’d heard on his morning commute. [Editor Marty] Kaiser has invited Sykes to write occasional columns for the paper. Stanley drove off the freeway one morning in order to call the radio show and argue over how he had been characterized by Sykes."
So Sykes sometimes drives the newspaper's agenda. Murphy says Sykes' criticism of the paper, expressed by listeners, caused the paper to go hog-wild about so-called election fraud.
The answer to the question about how much influence the talkers have is that they have as much as you give them -- and the paper gives them too much. They don't only make editors nervous; they rattle politicians, too -- as they intend to do. And they make Republicans more nervous than Democrats, because most of the people who listen are part of the Republican base.
The talkers didn't elect Scott Walker county executive, but they helped. The newspaper, not radio, deserves the credit (along with Bruce Murphy himself at Milwaukee Magazine) for starting the snowball rolling that rode Tom Ament out of office. The talkers certainly helped encourage Glenn Grothman to challenge Mary Panzer, but they didn't beat her, Grothman did, once they got him into the race. And they turned up the hea on Senate Republicans until they dumped Mary Lazich from a leadership spot.
But, try as they might, they couldn't get David Clarke past the mayoral primary, and despite non-stop attacks on John Kerry and Jim Doyle, George W. Bush and Scott McCallum both got their asses waxed in Milwaukee County, which is still solidly Democratic. Walker's election in the aftermath of the pension scandal was an anomaly, not a sea change.
In many campaigns and public offices, Sykes and Belling are a distraction. If you are on their hit list, you are going to remain there, and no amount of talking and gnashing of teeth will change that. If you're a Democrat, or even a moderate Republican, forget about appeasement. My advice to campaign staffs, candidates, and elected officials is not to listen. Keep the radio off.
Listening will do nothing but agitate people and waste time. I've had a pretty good compliance rate, and if they do listen, they don't talk to me about it. That's a blessing in itself.
The Journal Sentinel editors might try (a) coming to work a little earlier, since Sykes doesn't even come on until 8:30, or (b) tuning to an easy listening station. We'd all be better off for it.
The Riemer Coverage
Now for my favorite part of the article.
I've already said the talkers didn't elect Scott Walker as county exec the first time, and I don't think they did the second time, either. But Sykes helped Walker more than I realized against David Riemer last year. (Disclosure: I was Riemer's consultant, so I know much of this firsthand from the outside.) Here is Murphy's report from the inside:
The 2004 election featured a face-off between Republican Scott Walker and Democrat David Riemer. The newspaper gave it little coverage, compared to the mayoral race, and the standard assumption was that editors saw Walker as a shoo-in. In fact, both races ended up having similar margins. But the undercoverage of the county race hurt Riemer because a challenger most needs a chance for the issues to be discussed.
County reporter David Umhoefer, one of the newspaper’s best, was frustrated by his handcuffing. It was a repetition of how the paper had undercovered the county during the pension scandal.
One issue getting scant coverage was Riemer’s charge that Walker hadn’t dismissed top aides eligible for lump sum pension payments. In an appearance on Sykes’ TV show, I suggested that the issue could be a potent one in the campaign.
I hadn’t researched the issue since it was clear the paper had so little interest in the campaign. But when I got back to the newsroom, I proposed doing a story. The response was lukewarm, but I went ahead. I soon documented that three aides could earn huge lump sum “backdrop” payments ranging from $480,000 to $1.1 million. Stanley got excited about the story only after I let him know that the Walker administration had been stonewalling me regarding data I requested; the newspaper jealously guarded its right to get government records. So the story was slugged to run Saturday, three days before the election.
On Friday afternoon, I was summoned for one of those meetings with Kaiser and Stanley. They looked grim. They had on their stone faces. Kaiser had gotten an e-mail from a Walker campaign operative trying to head off the story. The e-mail argued I was biased because of the comment I made on Sykes’ show.
Given that I had made no value judgment on the show regarding Walker’s handling of the backdrop and given that I was the reporter who brought down a Democrat, former County Executive Tom Ament, with my earlier pension story, it was hard to see how an accusation of bias could stick. The story was strictly factual, and Kaiser and Stanley saw no weaknesses in the reporting. But they decided to hold the story until after the election. The newspaper’s image was more important than serving readers and potential voters.
Afterward, Stanley took me aside for a chat. At such times, he could exude a fatherly charisma that was compelling. The newspaper, he explained, had to be careful about its image, had to protect its tremendous credibility with readers. “It’s not because of anything we’ve done, it’s something we’ve inherited,” he noted.
As an example of that clout, he pointed to the Ament pension scandal. He said he had read my story in Milwaukee Magazine, then gave it to Kaiser, and they agreed that the newspaper must cover it. Their banner-headlined barrage, of course, ultimately brought Ament down.
It was a strange conversation. Stanley was using the example of the paper at its worst, when it failed to cover one of the biggest stories in recent history, to demonstrate its clout. He was telling the reporter who broke this story to feel good about the newspaper once again failing to print a pension story.
The picture he painted was not of a paper that fought to break the news but of one that decided which of the stories it was handed was worthy of being printed. “We’ll just get Sykes attacking me and Marty because we’re such big liberals,” he added, mocking the label he found so infuriating.
An exchange with Stanley
Murphy's story on Walker's pension problems finally ran -- two weeks after the election. I sent the following e-mail to Managing Editor George Stanley and Editor Marty Kaiser:
From: Bill Christofferson
Sent: Saturday, April 24, 2004 11:10 AM
To: George Stanley; Marty Kaiser
Cc: Dave Umhoefer; Bruce Murphy
Subject: County executive race coverage
I know that other media are asking questions about the Walker pension story that ran almost two weeks after the election.
I want you to know what I am saying about it, rather than hearing someone else's interpretation of what I have said.
I have not questioned the newspaper's motives in holding the story until after the election. I have not suggested that the decision was because of the MJS' endorsement of Walker, or that it was an attempt to influence the election.
I have said that David Riemer first raised the issue on March 17 (which was reported), and that Bruce Murphy began asking questions about the issue on March 29. I believe he wrote a story on April 1. No story ran until April 18.
My belief is that what happened with that story is indicative of how the newspaper chose to cover the county executive race.
It appears that a decision was made early on that the race would not be competitive and therefore not worth a lot of effort or ink.
If someone were to compare coverage of the mayor's race and county executive's race, my guess is that the ratio of the number of stories and column inches given the two would be on the order of 10 to 1.
It is true that the county exec primary was not competitive, in that it was clear which two candidates --- Walker and Riemer -- would advance to the general.
But after the primary it had the potential to be a competitive race. In fact, soon after the primary I wrote a long e-mail to Marty Kaiser, making that argument. We started about 60-40 after the primary, but Riemer moved 30 points (from 7 to 36) in three weeks of TV before the primary. There was a chance he could close the gap in the general. Deciding it was not competitive, and not covering it, could be self-fulfilling, I said.
I never got a response, and coverage did not change much if at all. The newspaper focused on the mayor's race, with an occasional mention of the county exec election.
When a race is not covered, a candidate's only recourse is to spend money to communicate with voters -- something your editorials always bemoan when discussing the influence of money on elections.
I am not claiming that Riemer would have won if you had given the race more coverage. But I have no doubt that if the exec race had even half the coverage of the mayor's race, it would have been a closer race. Even on April 6, many people did not know who Riemer was. Scott Walker was not well-known county-wide in 2002, but your intensive coverage guaranteed that people knew both candidates and their positions on key issues. That was missing in 2004.
So, no conspiracy theories here. I think the decision not to run the last pension story simply reflects the paper's lack of interest in the race compared with the mayor's race.
It was disappointing. I suspect that raising it now will not help my relations with you in the future. But I think it is important to say.
Frankly, the story you are peddling strikes me as nothing but the typical and predictable sour grapes of a losing campaign. I remember very well when you took the exact opposite position just before the last mayor’s race as the paper closed in on the Figueroa story. We haven’t changed our standards one bit since then and you know that. If your candidate or his opponent had the same troubles with finances, double-charging for trips, etc. as in the mayor’s race, they would have generated as much ink and received the same play. You know that, too. But you’re worried your future business could be hurt after backing a losing candidate, so you’re trying to pass the blame and point fingers. Sorry, you won’t get any sympathy here.
My second e-mail:
I'm surprised and disappointed that you have made this personal.
You are still in denial.
I contacted Marty Kaiser about coverage concerns in mid-February. That was long before the paper went on its wall-to-wall coverage of financial problems and campaign finance reports.
When I raised the issue, I was talking about the fact that you had daily coverage of issues and exchanges between the mayoral candidates, and seemed to be covering every nuance of that race, while virtually ignoring the county exec race.
I am not "peddling" any story. I am simply stating the facts -- you had the information and had a story written before the election on Walker's pension problems, but chose not to run it. I have not speculated about why or claimed that you were trying to influence the election. I have simply stated the facts.
It is true that I weighed in with you when you intended to run a story about the Figueroa story on the Friday before the election in 2000. There was a difference, however -- your story was not true. It was about a suit you said would be filed on Friday. My argument was that if it was not true it would do irreparable harm, and that you should wait a day to see if the lawsuit was actually filed. It was not, as you know. I think you made the right decision and saved the newspaper a lot of embarrassment.
The Walker story, of course, was true. That is a big difference.
Finally, just for the record, no one in the world expected Riemer to win that race. If anything, that campaign enhanced my reputation among people who know anything about political campaigns. I have more work than I can handle.
I am not blaming you for the outcome of the election or "pointing fingers." Again, I am letting the facts speak for themselves. And you have offered no explanation for your decision to hold the story. If there is one, that could certainly clear the air.
Stanley's last word:
----- Original Message -----
From: George Stanley
To: Bill Christofferson
Cc: Dave Umhoefer ; Bruce Murphy; Marty Kaiser
Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 9:02 AM
Subject: RE: County executive race coverage
You’re the one in denial
OK. I didn't expect "sympathy" but I had hoped for an adult response.
The newspaper won't get any sympathy here, George, now that its dirty laundry is being hung out to dry on websites that are read by people in the news business across the country.
After all your appeasement, Sykes will still go after you in the morning. I just hope he doesn't call you a liberal. It would give liberals a bad name.