When veteran journalist Dan Bice got his now-infamous “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” reply from ex-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, it wasn’t even close to the ugliest response he received over his career in journalism.
“I would say I get a lot of harsh emails and calls from the public, including three death threats,” Bice said in an email Thursday. “Someone posted on Facebook last night that they are hoping I get mugged.”
Bice is well-known in the Milwaukee area as an investigative journalist and columnist who covers all corners of public officials behaving badly as well as odd situations that deserve public scrutiny. He not only covered Clarke’s escapades, but he has looked into the high salary paid to an official running a town of 4,000, concerns regarding a non-profit organization of a possible Democrat challenger for governor and the financial troubles of a conservative website. Bice also wrote about the ethical journalistic issues associated with a journalist having an affair with the city’s police chief while writing a long feature on him.
In this case, Bice managed to raise the ire of Clarke with an email requesting a few basic answers to questions pertaining to his county-funded, around-the-clock security detail being halted after he resigned his post. Bice also asked Clarke for his thoughts on the $225,000 cost associated with it. When Clarke responded with the terse, two-sentence email, Bice did what all good journalists do: He looked before he leaped.
“I did think it was a little stronger than normal,” he said. “But then I wondered if someone else might have written it for him. So I wrote back to try to confirm that Clarke did, in fact, write the response. I didn’t get an immediate reply, so I didn’t include his response in my story. Later, I was told by one of his advisers that the ex-sheriff was expecting a stronger reaction from me to his email. Then I felt comfortable posting it.”
I asked Bice for some of his thoughts about interviewing, specifically how he does it and what tips he could offer students to help them get better at it. Bice, home recovering from pneumonia this week, was nice enough to provide some thoughts on the topic. Of all the things he said, two stuck out to me as crucial for student journalists:
- Practice makes you better at this and even a pro like Bice still occasionally gets interview jitters: “Your students need to learn how to talk to people, even about difficult subjects. You get better at this only by actually doing it. I still get nervous before some interviews, but many of the best stories come from learning to manage conflict when talking to sources.”
- Email should not be the first option for doing interviews: “Many students and young reporters love to do interviews exclusively by email. I make email my last resort. Far and away, the best quotes from face-to-face interactions followed by phone interviews and texts. Email responses are often lifeless or stilted. Which is how your story will sound.” (Side note: Yes, we both know that not only were we both doing email interviews to get this post rolling, but it was an email to Clarke that got this whole things started in the first place. I acknowledge the irony, but would defend this instance of email, given Bice wasn’t at work, he’s recovering from pneumonia and this interview wasn’t going to be like Jack Bauer interrogating Santa.)
Here are some other important thoughts Bice provided:
ON SOME UGLY EXCHANGES HE HAS HAD OVER THE YEARS:
“Public officials are a little more restrained on email. But I’ve had some real rows with prominent officials over the phone or in person over the years. For example, I was very upset with US Rep. Ron Kind for not telling me he was coming to my office to meet with my editors to complain about a column I had written about him. I caught him before he got in his staffer’s car in front of the Journal Sentinel and made sure he couldn’t get in. It allowed us to air our differences. Fortunately, I’m not a shouter, so that keeps things from escalating too much.”
ON HOW HE LEARNED TO DEAL WITH DIFFICULT INTERVIEWEES AND ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS:
“I enjoy doorstepping officials who are ducking me. Cary Spivak and I did this routinely when we were writing the column together, and I still do it on major stories in which I think someone is avoiding me. In 2014, I had to talk to a guy who was the focus of a story. I knew he had PTSD and drank heavily. I called two of my friends to let them know I was going to his house at 9 p.m. and that I would check back at 9:20 pm. The interview ended up being tense, but it all worked out. I also visited the run-down apartments run by a prominent local official a few years back. The official had used some vague language suggesting I might encounter some harm from one of his armed guards if I trespassed on his properties. But one of his tenants helped me out, so I was able to skulk around without any problems. Also, I frequently catch candidates while they are out campaigning. That way the responses are unrehearsed and/or not filtered through a bevy of staffers and consultants.
ON BEING HONEST WITH INTERVIEW SUBJECTS:
“I hate it when journalists, even veteran ones, do interviews and dupe individuals into thinking a story won’t be as harsh as it will actually be. We owe it to people to be honest with them. It actually prevents even bigger problems once the story is published. But it’s also the decent thing to do. If you’re doing a series of interviews, I don’t think you should show all your cards at the start. But before a story goes online or in print, the people you’re quoting should have a pretty good idea what’s coming.”