Friday, October 31, 2014

Why the Journal Sentinel editorial board is wrong about Burke firing story

How are we to assess claims that Mary Burke was forced out of her own family's business in 1993?

The Journal Sentinel editorial board dismisses it all by telling us to "consider the source." I have applauded the editorial board for seeking to promote a diversity of opinion on their page. Here is, as they say, another view.

First, the board trashes the Wisconsin Reporter, a nonprofit news organization, because it has a conservative bent and is funded by the Bradley Foundation. (Yes, yes, so is the nonprofit I run. So are half the charities in Milwaukee.)

The attack on the Wisconsin Reporter is completely unfair.  First, I have not noticed the editorial board dismissing the work of other nonprofits - say the Brennan Center, the Center for Media & Democracy, the League of Women Voters  - simply because these groups have an ideological bent. It shouldn't. The fact that these groups have a perspective may effect the issues they emphasize and what they have to say about them. It doesn't mean that they make things up.

I know Matt Kittle, who runs the Wisconsin Reporter and have spent countless hours discussing a variety of stories with him. Matt does not run things that he has not confirmed in accordance with standard journalistic practice. He is as much a professional as the reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The fact that the Wisconsin Reporter is a conservative outlet is relevant in assessing its work, but it is hardly a basis for dismissing what it has to say. It's report stands on its own merits.

In assessing the report, the editorial board attacks people rather than evaluating facts.

I would have been skeptical of the report about Burke if the only source was Gary Ellerman, a human relations person who was himself discharged from Trek and who now chairs the Jefferson County Republican Party. In addition, there have been allegations that he is no more measured and careful in his political expression than some of the people that have been added as bloggers at Purple Wisconsin in the past year.

This is not to say that Ellerman should be dismissed out of hand. Nothing about his background brands him as a liar. But if he was the only source, I would have conceded that the question is so unsettled as to be a minor story. I don't deny having a dog in the fight but I try very hard not to jump on allegations from my side that are undersupported.

But Ellerman wasn't the only source. Others confirmed what he said and the report became more plausible when it was corroborated by the company's former COO. Even allowing for the fact that Tom Albers gave the princely sum of $ 50 to Scott Walker, his confirmation of Ellerman's story makes it much more credible. The editorial board's ad hominem dismissal of Trek's former COO  - "consider the source" - reads more like campaign literature than fair analysis.

But, for the editorial board, Albers is, as David Haynes tweeted, "discredited" because he is "vested" in the race. By that he means no more than Albers - who gave Walker's campaign the price of dinner for two and a couple of margaritas at La Perla - presumably wants Walker to win. But, by that standard,  everyone who has had anything - good or bad - to say about Burke's tenure at Trek is "vested" in the race. No one can be believed. Yet the editorial board accepts Burke's claims of success in business - even though they are unsubstantiated by anyone who is not "vested in the race."

There is no end to this "consider the source" calumny. Burke's family stands by her - although they provide no detail of what actually did happen and won't provide documentation of her claims regarding her successes at Trek. Shouldn't we "consider the source?" Are they any less "vested in the race" than Ellerman or Albers? Members of the Burke family understandably don't want to hurt a relative and, to be honest, stand to gain quite a bit by having one elected Governor. There is, to be frank, less reason to believe them than there is to disbelieve Albers. As far as we know, he has no family or financial interest in the matter.

Having said all that, I might be less inclined to credit the story if Burke's own version of the events didn't tend to confirm it. Here's where we get into facts rather than people.

Burke now says that her position was "eliminated" because of "downsizing."  You don't "eliminate" the job of someone who has, as Burke claims, been a phenomenal success, particularly if she's a member of the family that owns the company.  You promote her. But that didn't happen. Of course, it's possible that she walked away from a company that still wanted her - even as it eliminated her job - but that is hard to believe.

Finally, the editorial board stoops to sexual politics to dismiss, rather than engage, Burke's critics. Certain sources from within Trek say that she acted like "a pit bull on crack."  The editorial board plays the gender card to rule this criticism out of bounds. To them, it sounds "strikingly similar to the way other strong women have been portrayed once they reach positions of authority."

But it is not just women who are criticized for being overly authoritarian and demanding. In our fallen world, the sad fact is that there are bad managers and one of ways in which people manage poorly is to exalt themselves and be dismissive of their subordinates. One of the ways in which people manage poorly is to demand that their subordinates do what cannot be done, relieving the manager of the obligation to figure out how an organization's objectives can actually be achieved. There is no reason to think that women are incapable of making these mistakes. (Indeed, wouldn't it be sexist to believe they are not?) In dismissing this criticism, the editorial board is just as guilty of stereotyping as the "sexists" who they purport to oppose.

I don't know if this criticism of Mary Burke is accurate. I am sure that a dime store sexual politics won't help us answer the question.

Normally, I'd prefer a campaign limited to issues. But the Democrats have chosen to run someone for Governor whose resume, regardless of whether she was forced out in 1993, is astonishingly thin. To bolster the absence of a record , she has made claims about her long ago tenure at Trek that cannot be verified. Under those circumstances, this story matters and it can't be dismissed by attacking those who tell it.

So what's the truth? My own sense - trying to reconcile what Albers says with what Burke and her camp does and does not say - is that no one said "you're fired," but it was "agreed" that she should go and do something else.

But, as I'll explain in my next post, even the most favorable reading of her version of events undermines the case for Burke as Governor.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.


Terrence Berres said...

At least we didn't have to hear that she left to spend more time with her family.

Anonymous said...

Matt Kittle is widely-regarded as a hack. No one takes him seriously, in journalism or otherwise, unless they are using him and his "stories" to forward their own agenda, i.e., this blog.

Anonymous said...

you and kittle deserve each other.

blind leading the blind