Monday, November 3, 2008

McIlheran Hearts Jay Bullock, Clubs Ethics

As I was catching up on my reading from my long adventure at Leafapalooza, I came across McIlheran's column listing his spin away from reality, and why he thinks McCain should even be considered to be president. The column in itself is a laugh riot, including this classic line:

With McCain, however, you get an adult now. His growing is accomplished. The best speech the man delivered was at his nomination, and its heart was his story of war imprisonment. What started sounding like a boast turned out to be its opposite. McCain told of how his captors broke him. This shamed him, he said, but also took away his youthful self-regard. He learned, he said, "the limits of my selfish independence," to understand that "I wasn't my own man anymore; I was my country's."

Those are the words of a man who has had time to think and comprehend the meaning of freedom. Obama seems like a bright fellow. Someday, he might achieve such understanding. Until then, I'd trust the guy who seems to know what he's doing.

I was then going to point out the absurdities in this one column, which would have been a Herculean undertaking to say the least.

However, there is something even more alarming than PaddyMac's usual running and hiding from reality. It is that he apparently likes to give sneak previews of his columns.

Jay Bullock, my friend and mentor, received an email from Paddy, with this column. Jay writes:

I am a lucky guy. I think. Somehow, after all these years of duels and ripostes, in the last couple of weeks Patrick McIlheran has added me to his mailing list. That means every few days or so I get an email from him with the full text of a column of his slated to run in the next day or two.

Thursday night I got his preview of Friday's column*. (Confidential to PM in Bay View: Next time, use the BCC field. Your sole liberal correspondent might feel a bit weird about being your sole liberal correspondent, and was probably happier when he believed there was a more even distribution.) "Here’s an early look at my column in Friday's Journal Sentinel. You’re seeing it because I send a heads-up to a select group of talkers and bloggers whose work I admire. You’re among them." See? Lucky!
Jay then goes on to do the fisking of the column, so that we don't have to. But it seemed disconcerting to me that Paddy was giving out advanced copies of his column, mostly to conservative bloggers. Sort of like giving them a heads up so that they can gear up the echo chambers, in a futile effort to make his column look rational.

I am not the only one that caught onto this disturbing behavior.

Gretchen Schuldt Doege, who in a former life was a real journalist, with all the skills and ethics that are associated with the best (cuz she was, and still is, among the best, in my humble but royal opinion), also noticed a problem:
The changing ways columnists and bloggers communicate may mean that maybe hard and fast journalistic rules — like you don’t spread newspaper content around in advance of publication — are changing. To allow columnists to sneak-peak their writings to a handful of friends seems a slippery slope the MJS ought not want to start down. It damages the paper’s credibility and chips away at the trust it must have from its readers. We are left wondering: Who else at the MJS is showing what else to a politically friendly audience?
Zachary of Blogging Blue also picked up on the story. What is truly remarkable about that post, besides his usual fantastic work, and worthy of our attention, is a comment left by none other than Sonya Jongsma-Knauss, the letters editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She comes to Paddy's defense, sort of, but with a really strange twist at the end (emphasis mine):

I think this may be a little bit of much ado about nothing…

First, the ethics agreement refers to articles, not columns. Second, depending on what time in the evening Pat e-mailed his column, it likely had already been typeset for print and probably even already published online. JSonline producers often have Editorial Board content — columns, editorials, etc. — posted by around 7 p.m. the evening before they’re in the paper.

Newswatch and JSonline both tend to disclose, on a daily basis, what will be published in the next day’s paper. So, perhaps it’s time for that policy to be updated…

And as a side note, the Newspaper Guild doesn’t officially recognize the ethics policy.

Is she saying that the newspaper doesn't follow an ethics code? Or that MJS has one on paper, but that it is meaningless in their eyes?

That opens a Pandora's box of disturbing possibilities. As Gretchen points out, it raises the question of what else they are sharing, and with whom are they sharing it? Not only that, but what are these outside influences sharing, and telling, MSJ staff to write? And of equal importance: Why am I not on Paddy's email buddy list? I'm sure it's just an oversight on his part.

No wonder their circulation is dropping faster than Bush's approval ratings. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: This rag isn't even worth the paper it's printed on


  1. Nope, it means exactly what it says -- simply that the guild (the newspaper union, which includes Patrick and also included Gretchen as a represented member during her time at the JS) does not officially recognize the company's official ethics policy. Simply: It is not part of the union's negotiated contract with the company. That is all. That doesn't mean employees don't sign onto it or follow it.

    As I said, though, that's kind of beside the point. If you read the ethics clause, it's obviously a product of a pre-online time and may need some updating to reflect that.

    Nobody can argue that its goal isn't being upheld, and its goal obviously makes a lot of sense. It exists to keep sources from influencing coverage about them. I.e. you don't give a source a sneak preview of what you've said about them, because then they could attempt to influence you to change it.

    Rest assured, nobody runs their articles (or columns, or editorials) past sources to get an OK, and I think it's pretty clear that isn't happening in this case. The only thing that's clear based on the evidence is that Pat sometimes e-mails a column, possibly but not necessarily before it is produced by JSonline, to a few bloggers.

    I know it's more fun to speculate, as in your silly "Pandora's box" of possibilities, but with all due respect to your legitimate concern about Patrick's integrity (or is it just a gotcha game?) you're wrong.

  2. Sounds like a union argument, which is funny considering Paddy's stances are generally on the side not friendly to unions.

    Are not all, or at least a majority of employees members of the union? If so, what would be the point of a company's official ethics policy?

    As I said, though, that's kind of beside the point. If you read the ethics clause, it's obviously a product of a pre-online time and may need some updating to reflect that.

    Perhaps. But then, it hasn't been changed yet, has it.

    I couldn't care less. It does, however, lessen the impact of the paper in my mind to think that one of its columnists is busy sending copy to others in advance of printing or of publishing online.

  3. Thank you for your response, Ms. Jongsma-Knauss.

    However, there are still some holes in the story. As a union brother, I know fully well that there are sometimes company policies that don't fit into the contract, but still needs to be adhered to. And as my colleague pointed out, that has not been changed, and MJS has been online for several years. Perhaps that is something the Guild and the paper need to address, but until it is addressed, and altered, it still stands.

    Secondly, for the sake of argument, let us say for the moment that Patrick did not violate the letter of the code, but he did definitely violate the spirit. I do have strong concerns and questions, especially during this vital elections season, why McIlheran would feel compelled to share his work before the general public would get to see it.

    You indicated that he is not seeking approval from anyone, and I can concede that point willingly. However, why share it? The only rational explanation would be to give other bloggers a chance to have their arguments in defense, or to chorus his talking points, in an effort to persuade the public. But that is why this blog, and our "silly" speculations, exist. To keep the right wing media, which McIlheran is inarguably a member of, from getting away with this sort of garbage.

    Why else would McIlheran include the line, "You’re seeing it because I send a heads-up to a select group of talkers and bloggers whose work I admire. You’re among them," in his missive?

    Why would they need a "heads up" before it is posted on the site or printed in the paper? I have no problem with McIlheran expressing his opinion, has wrong-headed as it may be, but this stinks of something more than just a person expressing his viewpoint in an effort to persuade. This smacks of a concerted effort to manipulate. That is something that the paper, or its staff, should not be doing.

  4. Nobody "needs" a heads up. But smart bloggers/journalists realize their work does not exist in a vaccum. They have and need an audience to interact with.

    So if I had to warrant a guess, the intent is simple column-promotion and audience-building, which any good blogger might be familiar with -- you think of people who might want to read and link to your work and you let them know about it in some way, in hopes that they have an interest in interacting with and linking to it.

    That doesn't stink or smack of anything other than attentiveness to audience.

    Sending out an e-mail seems to me to be pretty clearly within the bounds of the intent of the ethics agreement, as nobody is getting a chance to read/respond to it "pre-publication" (i.e. It is not sent until the page has been sent to press and is typeset. It has been edited, finalized, and it is not possible to make further changes. At that point, it often is also online or will be very shortly). In that sense I think it's generally in line with the spirit of the policy.

    The fact that bloggers are arguing for an antiquated view of "publication" (that online publication doesn't count) strikes me as a bit odd.

    Anyhow, I'll give it a rest after this comment: Professionally, I have had spirited disagreements with Pat on some issues, but I also have high respect for his integrity, which is what compelled me to respond originally on Blogging Blue. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  5. The "heads up" comment was McIlheran's, not mine. You would have to ask him why he felt compelled to write that.

    As for your argument, McIlheran is not a new blogger, nor is he starting up a new, independent blogsite. I know how hard that can be, as well as how hard it can be to develop a readership. After all, I am doing that now at my home site.

    However, Patrick has already as a large established audience, and a site tied to the biggest newspaper in the state. The argument that he is trying to draw in readers holds no water.

    I would also suggest you check the timing issue. Unless Patrick is writing his columns and having the set days before they show up on the site or in print, it would seem that is something you're inaccurate on.

    Again, thank you for your feedback, and you, and Patrick for that matter, are always welcome to comment here.