Setting the Record Straight: PolitiFact or PolitiFiction?
By Ed Garvey Shepherd Express May 11, 2011
What is “fact” and what is “opinion”? Well, sometimes it depends on your point of view. Reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or The New York Times will tell you they report “facts” while the editorial board writes “opinion” pieces based, in part, on facts that appear on the news side of the paper.
Reporters love to say they are objective in reporting fact-based stories, even though neither the reporter nor the reader buys that line. Truth be told, no one is truly “objective” because our backgrounds, educational experiences, families and reading materials shape our views more than an editor of a newspaper. So readers must fend for themselves when reading an article in a paper or magazine to distinguish fact from opinion. It is usually easier to determine if an article has a bias in a magazine, since they often make it known they lean in a certain political direction: If reading Mother Jones, The Nation or National Review, readers make a conscious choice to follow a bias (or choose a magazine that holds opposite views, for balance).
When reading the only daily paper in Milwaukee, most readers know—or think they know—the bias of their daily newspaper, just as they know what to expect most of the time when reading blogs, and they adjust their filters to take that bias into account. When I was in college, there were lots of newspapers—Milwaukee Journal (liberal), Milwaukee Sentinel (conservative), Madison Capital Times (liberal), Wisconsin State Journal (conservative). Today, most newspaper readers have only one local daily newspaper in their city, and it is almost always conservative. In Milwaukee, most liberals think the Journal Sentinel is, at best, a conservative paper. Those readers know that the paper’s parent company, Journal Communications, owns WTMJ, a radio station that carries right-wing talk for hours and hours every day. Charlie Sykes is the one most often quoted, but there are other right-wingers that also fill time. Liberals are rarely heard on WTMJ.
The Journal Sentinel tries to persuade readers that the paper is vigilant in sorting out “facts” from “opinions,” or, worse, alerting readers of falsehoods that might mislead the public. They call it “PolitiFact”—a misnomer if ever there was one. Here is how the game is played: An anonymous (to readers) JS staff member selects a statement uttered or released by an officeholder, candidate or blogger, and then a JS reporter tells readers if the person is a pants-on-fire liar, just a liar or a fibber. Or, often if the accused agrees with JS, perhaps he or she will get the seal of approval.
I had my PolitiFact moment last Sunday. Conclusion? I am a liar! Why? Because that paragon of truth, Scott Walker, said so, and the PolitiFact guy believed him! Lena Taylor popped up on Monday. Look out: The fact police are on the loose.
I wrote a couple of blogs on FightingBob.com about the scary and undemocratic situation in Michigan, where the governor can demand that a local governmental body go through a fiscal stress test. If it fails, the governor can take over the mayor’s office, school board or any other public body and appoint a manager to run the show. Congressman John Conyers said it was an invitation for removal of minorities in elected positions and, sure enough, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder suspended the powers of the African-American mayor of Benton Harbor, Mich.
A person appeared in my office with a memo asserting that our own reactionary governor was planning the same thing in Wisconsin. Facts: Foley & Lardner was drafting the law; Michael Grebe, now head of the Bradley Foundation, formerly was head of Foley; the Bradley Foundation supports the stress-test concept; former GOP Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer was, according to the memo, in charge of the legislative strategy; the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC), where Grebe is chair of the board, was pushing the stress-test idea and created a website to push better governance in Milwaukee County.
After I posted the facts and warnings presented in the memo, a reporter I had never heard of called for “PolitiFact.” He said that Walker denied he was planning to copy Michigan. I said, “Not so fast.” Walker said no one on his staff was working on it. (How about Grebe, Panzer or GMC? They are not on staff, but they act as advisers.) The memorandum said that Foley & Lardner was drafting the bill, and there is no reason to believe that Foley was doing this for free. I suggested that the reporter talk to Walker and “ask him if Grebe is working on it.” The reporter chose not to do that extra reporting, which might well have changed his entire column.
The fact guy, after telling me he covered my campaign for governor and enjoyed it because I was a “bomb thrower,” concluded that I must have been lying—because Walker said so. Really? A bomb thrower was lying about Walker. Why would anyone make that up about Walker? He gives us reason to march on the Capitol daily without my help!
But PolitiFact would have you believe that Grebe, Panzer, GMC, Foley and the JS are the innocent bystanders. Yeah, right.
Ed Garvey is a Madison attorney who was the Wisconsin Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 1986 and the Wisconsin Democratic nominee for governor in 1998.