Why blame the blogs?
Erik Gunn e-mailed me last night for an on-the record statement regarding my blog post concerning WTAQ radio personality Jerry Bader’s now-retracted statements about Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton. I responded and offered to answer additional questions by phone if he desired. Gunn was apparently satisfied and quotes me in his article for Wispolitics.com. Here is my full statement (phone number redacted):
The key word I wrote is “supposedly.” I would have a hard time fathoming why, if someone had that kind of personal life, they would think putting their life under the microscope would be such a good idea. I don’t know if the story is close to true or not. Remember, Edwards denied his affair pretty strongly, too. But I really didn’t care. I try not to care about any politician’s personal life. What interested me that Bader was going out there with the story, and if any of the “mainstream” media was going to go with it.
(Of course, I got called the mainstream media not that long ago. Eeeek.)
Bader was pretty strong in his insistence that he was reporting “facts,” but the story just didn’t ring true enough to venture out onto that tree limb with him. I feel pretty good about what I wrote and how I handled it.
I think any reputation Bader had is ruined. Anyway, I am at home if you have any questions. Call me on my cell phone.
I don’t think I was quoted unfairly, but I do wish Gunn had called me so I could have corrected him on some points before he wrote his article. In it, Gunn tries to make a larger point about blogs and talk radio by quoting Katy Culver of UW-Madison,
But Culver also said that the case isn’t just one of the blogosphere run amok. “These are the kinds of accusations that can come out somewhat regularly in talk radio. This isn’t just a blogosphere question. It’s more of a question about talk radio and about how much we care about the accuracy of information in that medium. Are we just blasting away with salacious comment after salacious comment hoping that at some point we hit a bull’s-eye or are we actually caring about what information is out in the public sphere?”
Gunn does not quote anyone that would disagree with Culver or even that the blogosphere ran amok. Six blogs (Gunn’s count) out of the dozens of conservative blogs in Wisconsin is hardly running amok. Several of the larger blogs did not comment at all on what Bader said, including Althouse, Boots and Sabers, Badger Blogger, Real Debate Wisconsin, and the Spring City Chronicle. Included in the six blogs was my own, and Gunn’s reporting showed I handled the issue with skepticism.
The other blogs that I have seen that did touch the issue, No Runny Eggs, Lakeshore Laments, North Shore Exponent, Dad29, and Fairly Conservative, all quickly retracted what they wrote as quickly as Bader’s retraction became known. Unlike their professional media counterparts, the bloggers’ retractions were at least as prominent as the original blog postings and they all took care to responsibly handle what they originally posted to reduce any possible damage to Lawton’s reputation. They did so even though they all made clear in their original postings that they were relying on information from WTAQ and Jerry Bader.
As for talk radio, out of all of the talk radio hosts in Wisconsin only one went with any story concerning the personal life of Barbara Lawton, and that was Jerry Bader. Compare and contrast that record with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s handling of the personal life of a Milwaukee politician in a series of articles that caused Gunn’s editor at Milwaukee Magazine to suggest they print a retraction.
The central issue is Jerry Bader’s credibility, not the credibility of talk radio or the blogs. Bader insisted in the podcast he was being factual and not speculating. He also said there was physical evidence. Bader’s radio station is not exactly a ham radio outfit, so it wasn’t as if Bader’s statement didn’t carry some semblance of a media outlet’s credibility. He also has “mainstream” media credentials given his experience as a news director of WHBL for 16 years. Milwaukee Magazine (where Gunn normally writes the Pressroom column) thought Dan Shelley’s eleven years as a news director was credible enough when Shelley dished dirt on Charlie Sykes.
As long as Gunn was asking questions of the UW-Madison journalism department, Gunn could have asked whether Bader should reveal his sources that clearly burned his reputation. Or what punishment Bader should receive for his podcast. How serious is Bader’s risk of getting sued? How serious is the risk to WTAQ? Did they do enough once Bader retracted the story?
Also interesting would have been a discussion of why the news organizations waited. They were not saints. WTMJ’s John Jagler wrote on Twitter, “the Barbara Lawton rumors have the entire media world freaking out. Who will be the first major news outlet to break it?”
When I tweeted back to him the link to Bader’s podcast, Jagler responded, “that’s not big enough”.
Not that WTAQ and Bader weren’t credible, or that Jagler didn’t believe what Bader said, or that they were trying to verify the story. Just that Jagler was hoping someone bigger would go with the story, prompting my sarcastic reply, “Really? That’s the excuse? (At this point I’ll refrain from making a joke about the shrinking of Journal Communications.)”
Then, when a “mainstream” media outlet did get in touch with Lawton (or was it the other way around), the reporter actually apologized for asking questions about the rumor, which Gunn notes in his article. Really, apologize? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the reporter to say this was Lawton’s chance to give her side? Also, the reporter could have pointed out that Lawton’s abrupt withdrawal from the race for governor, after she so enthusiastically campaigned for the job up to the announcement, will affect voters’ perceptions of her if she decides to re-enter public life.
Finally, Gunn concludes by quoting Wisconsin State Journal editor John Smalley in an attempt to make newspapers sound superior.
“If it had been on the table we would have asked about it, and if we wouldn’t have been able to confirm it, or if it had gotten blown up as nothing more than apparently what it was, then we could have just let it go and not included it in our report.
“I think the lesson is you can’t leap to conclusions and you can’t publish or broadcast things that you don’t know to be true.”
Bader specifically said there was physical evidence to back up the statements in his podcast. Given that, how does Smalley’s quote apply to anything? It would have served Gunn better if he asked Smalley what if a reporter had “sources” who had evidence of an affair and possible blackmail? How many sources would he need? Would he need ne of them on the record? What kind of evidence would Smalley need to see personally?
But that would not have fit what Gunn wanted to write. Gotta watch those mainstream media types.