The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel took aim at several of Wisconsin’s political figures after they supported former President Donald Trump’s allegations of wide-spread voter fraud, even after the Jan. 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol. The paper’s editorial called for the removal or resignation of Sen. Ron Johnson, Rep. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald for giving “aid and comfort to an insurrection.”
The editorial clearly peeved Johnson, who requested space within the paper to respond to this call for his ouster. This painted the paper into a potentially untenable corner. The options appeared to be:
A) Give Johnson space in the paper to write about his views, knowing full well that Johnson will roll out an insane series of conspiracy theories, misstatements and other content unburdened with the need to be accurate. In doing so, the Journal-Sentinel basically elevates his lies via their platform and undermines its initial editorial.
B) Refuse him the space, thus allowing him to go on every right-wing TV show, radio show, podcast, blog and puppet show to complain about the bias of the media and how the paper has violated his First Amendment rights in the most egregious way possible. (In case you were asleep when they taught press freedom, that’s clearly not true, but hey, neither is about 93% of what Johnson says…) In other words, the Journal-Sentinel would give him more attention and a bigger stage by denying him.
So what do you do? Apparently, the people at the paper were watching the movie “Speed” when they made this decision:
(Side note: I would really have rather used a clip from “Pulp Fiction,” where Samuel L. Jackson confronts Brett over his poor decision-making in regard to Marcellus Wallace. Alas, I think I used up all the cussing I’m allowed for the year in yesterday’s post, so Keanu it is. Still, I worked the main line into the headline, so I guess it’s almost like a win…)
Here’s the preamble to Johnson’s diatribe:
Editor’s note: After the Editorial Board called on Sen. Ron Johnson to either resign or be expelled from office for his role in spreading disinformation about the presidential election, the senator asked for space to respond. We are providing him that courtesy today. We also are taking the rare step of footnoting Johnson’s commentary to provide additional context so that readers have a fuller understanding of the senator’s actions.
In other words, “You can say whatever you want, but we’re not going to let you get away with lying to people on our pages without putting up a fight.”
Fact checking a politician isn’t a new thing, as PolitiFact has done this thousands of times over the years. It’s also not a new thing for a publication or website to call out misstatements or general fiction, something Snopes does on everything from whether Trump had a “Diet Coke button” in the Oval Office to whether a drunken man lost his genitals after attempting to have sex with a snowman.
However, in most of these cases, the reality check was presented in a post-hoc approach, giving people the right to say what they wanted and then cleaning up the mess with a later piece. The approach here is like lawyers getting the right to object repeatedly during a deposition, casting doubt on claims immediately upon their statement.
Journalists and academics have debated the approach taken here because it is so extraordinary, something the paper acknowledged right up front. So here are a couple questions that might make for good class conversation (or for the non-school folk who read the blog, a great argument over a beer, provided that takes place in a socially distanced environment while wearing masks):
- What do you think of the approach the paper took with Johnson’s editorial?
- Should the paper have gone with a traditional “Option A” or “Option B” noted above?
- Did the paper have an obligation to tell Johnson about its “extraordinary” approach before running it? (Perhaps thinking of this another way, should the paper have given Johnson a chance to spike his piece rather than let it run as it did?)
- What are some other options you’d like to see the paper take, rather than this one, if you disagree with the approach?