BURYING THE LEAD: All political animals are equal, but some are more equal than others | WisCommunity

BURYING THE LEAD: All political animals are equal, but some are more equal than others

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's political-gossip specialist, columnist Dan Bice, seems to take an even hand in his latest installment, a column in this morning's edition noting that a pair of rival candidates for a Milwaukee-area Assembly seat both have had financial problems. But linger just a few seconds and you'll see that "even" is in this case a matter that a Journalism 101 instructor could build a lecture around.

On Nov. 1, Bice blogged on-line about the bankruptcy of Jessie Rodriguez, Republican Party candidate for the Assembly seat vacated by the GOP's Mark Honadel. The district covers the city of South Milwaukee; the election is Nov. 19.

The lead two sentences in that blog: "Don't expect Republican legislative candidate Jessie Rodriguez to go on the attack about her opponent's money woes. That's because Rodriguez has had financial troubles of her own." The opponent in question is Democratic legislative candidate Elizabeth Coppola, whom Bice had blogged about a day earlier. Coppola "knows just how hard it is to balance a budget," that Oct. 31 blog began. "Coppola has been struggling with her own for years."

Okay. So one blog post focusing on a Democrat's money problems, followed by a second blog post focusing on her GOP opponent's money problems (anyone wanna bet who ratted out Rodriguez?). Finally, we are treated to today's Bice column, which revisits the entire matter in print, with a big headline for the hundreds of thousands who get the printed paper but don't in all likelihood read the blogs. The print column (also onilne) discusses the financial woes of both candidates. It also introduces a journalistic flaw: The Democrat's problems take up most of the column and you don't begin to read about the Republican's problems until 15 paragraphs into the article, after (in the physical edition) the column has jumped to the bottom of an inside page.

You also don't discover, unless you read deep into the article, that Republican candidate Rodriguez's husband, with whom she filed for bankruptcy in 2006, is a conservative blogger for the Journal Sentinel's Purple Wisconsin page. Democratic candidate Copppola, according to the column, has had less dire but still embarrassing financial problems. But, like we said, you'd have to read the whole article to be able to compare the two situations.

Why didn't Bice fully employ that time-honored journalistic device, the inverted pyramid, and give the second and third grafs of his column to summarize the money woes of each candidate in turn? Instead, his lead merely alludes to the woes of both candidates, unnamed, and then immediately spends the first half of the column on the named Democrat, onlyi bringing up Rodriguez by name afterward.

Poor editing? Bias? Sloppy writing on deadline? A botched attempt to balance the two earlier blog posts? The effect, in any case, is clear: Casual readers will not make it past the jump and will learn all about Coppola's negatives, but not Rodriguez's, except by way of a brief, non-specific, unnamed reference at the top. 

Now, in terms of content and reporting, Bice's final piece otherwise reads okay, even putting into context how the national economic meltdown apparently drove Coppola's personal financial woes while huge, unexpected medical costs (pre-"Obamacare" of course) drove Rodriguez and her husband into Chapter 7. Many middle- and low-income voters could identify with those kinds of problems. But poor editing and organization doom the Democrat to greater and arguably unfair scrutiny. And when it comes to writing about Assembly-level elections in the metro Milwaukee area, remember: the Journal Sentinel is really the only game in town.

The links are below. Judge for yourself.


November 4, 2013 - 10:45am