By: Brian Sikma
A few weeks ago it came to light that a reporter and regional editor for a local Wisconsin newspaper was publicly backing the effort to recall one of the state’s Republican state senators. Ryan Whisner, who covers state politics among other topics for the Jefferson County Daily Union in Ft. Atkinson, cheered on the efforts of recall Fitzgerald organizers saying on their Facebook page, “You can do it Lori!” Whisner was directing his comment at Lori Compas, the organizer of the effort to recall state Senator Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican who helped push public sector union reform through the legislature in early 2011.
Repeatedly over the past few months Whisner, as a reporter, has covered the recall effort being run by Compas. Even before the recall attempt his beat regularly included reporting on the actions and statements of Senator Fitzgerald. That he would openly align himself with the recall effort and cheer it on has caused some controversy. Mark Belling, an opinion leader and conservative talk show host in Milwaukee, asked Whisner’s paper for comment on the incident. The paper’s managing editor, Christine Spangler, replied to Belling saying that both she as the paper’s editor and Whisner regret the incident and believe it should not have taken place.
The paper denied that the incident reflected any possible bias that it might have against Senator Fitzgerald. The credibility of that denial, and the credibility of the paper, could now be on the line.
Documents show that both Spangler and Whisner signed petitions to force a recall of Fitzgerald. In fact, Whisner’s name surfaces on the very first petition which also contains the name of Lori Compas, the organizer of the effort and the one whom Whisner cheered on during the final days of the signature gathering period. Managing Editor Spangler’s name appears on petition 2716 of the file.
That both Spangler and Whisner signed the recall petitions goes a step beyond just one of them offering moral support to the project. It shows that both of them are deeply involved, at least in this instance, in a very partisan action that – although perfectly acceptable for average citizens – does raise questions about their impartiality as journalists. If Spangler and Whisner do have a bias, and a review of Whisner’s articles does show hints of bias coming through, then they should be honest about it.
In recent piece on the recalls Whisner wrote:
“Recalls have become common in Wisconsin since the political tumult of 2011 that saw Walker and Republicans pass collective-bargaining changes, one of the country’s most restrictive laws requiring photo identification at the polls, and a budget that included $800 million in cuts to public schools.”
Choosing to use such language such as “country’s most restrictive” when, in fact, Wisconsin’s legislation mirrors similar laws found in states like Indiana is a value judgment that other, perhaps more impartial, observes could easily disagree with.
Touting the triumph of recall advocates in obtaining what may be enough signatures to force a recall of Fitzgerald, Whisner opined in a news piece:
“Democrats and their allies are looking to punish Republicans for passing a contentious law last year that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights. The brainchild of Gov. Scott Walker, the proposal generated weeks of around-the-clock protests at the Capitol and drove the Senate’s 14 Democrats to flee the state in a futile attempt to block a vote on the plan.”
It is a value judgment, not an impartial fact, that Walker’s budget repair bill “stripped” public workers of “nearly all their union rights.” The measure did reform collective bargaining, but it did not terminate unions and it did not prohibit or prevent public workers from joining unions and working together through unions. It is also a mistake to view it as a fact that the reform “drove” Democrats to “flee the state.” Democrat state senators chose to leave Wisconsin, they weren’t involuntarily hustled out because of some bill that was introduced.
If Christine Spangler and Ryan Whisner want the Jefferson County Daily Union to be a partial, biased source of information, they should simply be clear about that. There is nothing dishonorable about declaring where your biases might be and what lens you are going to use to view things through. What is dishonorable is claiming the mantle of impartiality when nothing could be further from the truth and your own actions evidence that indeed you do have strong, partisan feelings that support one side and not the other.
When the first flap occurred with Whisner’s ill-advised comments, it appears that at least Whisner, and possibly Spangler, had already signed the recall petitions. So while they tried to proclaim their own credibility and assure the public that all was well, they were aware of their own personal bias, a bias that ran deep enough to sign a recall petition.
While the ultimate judge of a reporter or editor’s failure to disclose a bias must be left up to the public, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics contains a section on conflicts of interest that can serve as a helpful guide. Even though the code does contain protections for progressive tenets and operates under the flawed assumption that it is possible for any human being to be impartial and unbiased, here is what it has to say in part about conflicts of interest:
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
It would appear that based on these simple rules, the managing editor and one of the regional editors of the Jefferson County Daily Union failed to live up to their obligations as self-proclaimed impartial journalists. If the Jefferson County Daily Union wishes to be clear about its bias and be a newspaper that has a partisan slant that is perfectly acceptable. What is not acceptable are journalists and news organizations that use the mantle of impartial fact-finding to legitimize their own partisan points of view.