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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

From a War Zone Veteran

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The recent battle between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Police Chief Ed Flynn has prompted comparisons to the epic combat in the 1970s between Mayor Henry Maier and The Milwaukee Journal.

As a veteran from the front lines of that war zone, I can tell you it's not even close.

As ugly and as insulting as Maier could be toward those of us covering him in those days, I've told people over the years I honestly believe it made for good journalism.

Unlike the brazenly biased coverage we see today from Fox News and bloggers pretending to be reporters, a common sin of journalism back then was reporters becoming too close to public officials they covered.

No danger of that with Maier. He regularly refused to take questions from anyone working for the Journal Co. and would use live televised news conferences to vilify us personally instead of answering legitimate questions.

The challenge to a young reporter was to remain calm and professional in the face of infuriatingly dishonest attacks. If I had responded with biased, unfair coverage, the terrorists would win.

Exaggerated Claims

The situation today between Chief Flynn and the Journal Sentinel is not the finest moment for either.

Flynn is wrong to retaliate against the newspaper by trying to charge it $10,000 to examine public records. And the newspaper steadfastly refuses to acknowledge its own erroneous assumptions in investigating Flynn's department.

The newspaper shouted challenges at the chief at a press conference and then exaggerated his exit as a major storm. It was more like partly cloudy.

The conflict started with the Journal Sentinel's valid concern about the police department under-reporting violent assaults to the FBI. Perhaps, the newspaper speculated, the errors might even be great enough to make the city's violent crime rate appear to be going down when it actually was going up.

That's a pretty big “perhaps.” People don't care about the precise numbers, but if crime were increasing when city officials claimed it was falling, they would care plenty.

And the newspaper didn't stop there. Besides raising the specter of rising crime—which it couldn't really prove based on its limited investigation—it took another huge leap by suggesting the misreporting might be intentional to fraudulently improve Flynn's image.

Notice how words like “perhaps” and “maybe” keep cropping up. A smart editor once told me any story using the word “May” in the headline would evaporate if you substituted the words “May Not.”

To make an unsubstantiated accusation sound more authoritative, the Journal Sentinel went far afield to find outside experts willing to comment on what the newspaper claimed it had found.

"Misreporting is cheating the public," said Michael Maltz, a criminology professor at Ohio State University. He gratuitously speculated the newspaper's findings could be just "the tip of the iceberg."

Sam Walker, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said of the department and chief he probably knew little about personally: "That clearly indicates a systemic problem in the department. There has to be a failure of leadership."

Those are pretty harsh judgments to make based on secondhand information.

Especially since Flynn himself previously questioned the reliability of Milwaukee's crime statistics, asked for an FBI audit of the department's numbers and criticized crime-coding errors by the Tiburon software system that manages records for Milwaukee and hundreds of other police departments.

But the newspaper raised enough questions that Flynn had to present the results of his own investigation to a Common Council committee.

That's when the Journal Sentinel's suggestions of intentional misreporting under Flynn completely fell apart. But you would never know it from reading the newspaper.

According to the Journal Sentinel, Flynn supported the findings of the newspaper by acknowledging more than 5,300 violent assaults (major crimes) had been misreported as simple assaults (lesser crimes).

You had to read well into the story to learn he also found nearly 1,200 errors in the other direction—reporting lesser assaults as major violent assaults, exaggerating violent crime rather than minimizing it.

You had to get really deep into the story before you found out Flynn actually reduced the error rate from 23% under his predecessor, Nan Hegerty, to 19% since he took over in 2008.

And nowhere in the Journal Sentinel report did you explicitly find that the original premise of the newspaper's investigation—that Milwaukee's violent crime rate was going up instead of down—wasn't true.

According to Flynn's corrected figures, the violent crime rate, originally reported as falling 2.3% from 2010 to 2011, actually fell 2.4%.

Nine of the city's 15 aldermen issued a joint statement criticizing the Journal Sentinel's failure to correct its own false premise and erroneous assumptions.

As a young reporter, I learned the strongest defense when your reporting is under attack is to do solid, honest journalism in the first place.