Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Did Journal Sentinel Censor Story?

Conservative columnist Christian Schneider hides his erroneous story, hurting his -- and the paper’s -- credibility.

By - Nov 1st, 2012 09:30 am
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Conservative columnist Christian Schneider has egg on his face after writing a column published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel perpetrating the idea that Madison resident Kyle Wood was the victim of a violent political attack. “Was Kyle Wood beaten for being a gay Republican?” Schneider tweeted, touting his column. “My exclusive interview with Wood here.”

Wood has since recanted the entire story, which including him falsely suggesting he had been threatened by Democratic congressional candidate Mark Pocan’s gay partner Phil Frank. In short, it’s a completely fake and truly sickening story.

So Schneider got snookered. That’s not good. But the more troubling question is how Schneider and the Journal Sentinel have handled the situation.

In an email, Schneider told me he interviewed Wood on Saturday afternoon, posted his story with the interview on Sunday morning, and after Wood recanted on Monday, Schneider left his posting up for a day with a disclaimer that his charges had been recanted. But late Tuesday, Schneider says, he decided to take the Wood interview down. “I didn’t see any benefit to anyone in keeping his baseless charges online.”

From a journalistic standpoint, that makes no sense. Schneider’s column is part of the historical record. Moreover, if there is any chance of a legal action (a charge by police against Wood, a libel suit by Frank against Wood), this column is quite relevant as it has many quotes from Wood that we now know perpetrated a fantasy.

But from the standpoint of protecting Schneider’s reputation, it certainly makes sense to take it down. Schneider now claims he was skeptical: “I was always aware that there was still a question as to whether the incident actually happened, which is why I titled the post in the form of a question.”

Honestly, I can’t find an ounce of skepticism in the original story he wrote, which was a rather long, 20-paragraph story as told to him by Wood, complete with a photo Wood provided to show the signs of this mythical beating. Be your own judge: here is the original column, which can be unearthed through the magic of the Google archives.

Schneider has a large presence at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is a featured columnist whose columns run twice weekly in the newspaper and is also a community blogger for the paper’s “Purple Wisconsin” section online. Schneider’s interview with Wood ran in Purple Wisconsin.

Editorial page editor David Haynes says the Purple Wisconsin columnists are not paid and are not edited or fact-checked by the paper. (By contrast, it pays Schneider a fee for his newspaper columns which are edited by the paper.) Yet Schneider in the past took down a Purple Wisconsin post he did, saying he needed to check the facts, and at the bottom it was notated “-Management.” Schneider did not reply to my email asking about this; Haynes says he suspects Schneider “was referring to himself.” That’s strange.

Haynes also says that had Schneider not taken down his erroneous story about Wood, “I would have done so. I see no value in continuing to circulate information that we have reason to believe is untrue. Christian’s follow-up post gave a sense of the original, which should satisfy curious readers.” But since when does the newspaper expunge erroneous stories? And if Haynes is not editing Purple Wisconsin columns, why would he be making decisions about whether to take one down?

I have raised questions before about the newspaper making Schneider a regular columnist, given that most of the work he does to create the columns is paid for by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and given that his columns at times simply repeat Republican talking points. Would the newspaper ever do the same for a columnist on a liberal group’s payroll?

The issue gets more troubling when you consider how the Kyle Wood story was concocted, well reported by Judith Davidoff and the Madison weekly Isthmus. The conservative group Media Trackers wrote a post entitled “Mark Pocan’s Husband Told Beaten GOP Operative ‘You’re a Marked Man,’ Threatened and Harrassed via Text Message.” The group published the entire alleged text message — which ran three pages — without checking its veracity with Frank or Pocan.

Brian Sikma of Media Trackers was then interviewed by conservative radio talker Charlie Sykes, who read some of the bogus text messages aloud and then said this: “What makes this rather extraordinary is that the victim in this case is a gay man — a gay man — working for a straight Republican candidate who apparently was threatened in the vilest and most vulgar terms by the gay partner of the openly gay candidate for Congress.”

Sykes, by the way, leads the chorus of those lambasting the Journal Sentinel as a liberal paper, which undoubtedly helped push the paper to bring on Schneider as a columnist, and run ads touting him as the man who “makes liberals see red.” Sykes also has has a sideline job for the WPRI editing the publication Wisconsin Interest, and Schneider writes for him.

Yes, they’re a cozy twosome. What is striking about the whole group –  Media Trackers, Sykes and Schneider –  is their eagerness to believe a story that turns out to be a hoax and then echo and re-echo the particulars. By contrast, mainstream news organizations waited to publish a story until there was verification, which never came. (The only real journalistic organization that fell for the story was the online Capitol Times.)

Schneider’s gullibility doesn’t disqualify him as a columnist, but it does raise questions about his credibility. And his attempt to bury the evidence raises these questions all the more. It’s one thing for a blogger to do this (who knows what the rules are for bloggers) but Schneider is also a sponsored and advertised columnist for the newspaper, which is left looking like it has something to hide.

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Did Journal Sentinel Censor Story?”

  1. julilly kohler says:

    Thanks — good analysis of a complex story.
    It needed to be teased out like this so it’s clear where the benefits to the various actors lie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to come much from the corner of high standard journalism.

  2. D says:

    Outrage over this but not over the fact that the Journal Sentinel, generally, is a biased, left-wing rag?

  3. Renfield says:

    You can always count on a wingnut to repeat some silly talking point whatever the question may be.

  4. Comrade Carter says:

    “Outrage over this but not over the fact that the Journal Sentinel, generally, is a biased, left-wing rag?”

    Really? I’m a left-winger, I’m a Socialist, (though not biased, which is just a general hate thing from the right); you believe the Journal-Sentinel is a “biased, left-wing rag”?

    Geez. I’ve missed that for the past twenty years.

  5. Stacy Moss says:

    DNovember take it one day at a time….. One outrage at a time. It’s better that way. When it come to “outrage” it is better

    to be BI

    partisan.

  6. Denny Caneff says:

    I think this is as much a statement about the state of journalism than it is a peek into right-wing goofiness (though there’s a dose of that). This is how “news” and information travels these days — the perpetrator knew damn well a fake story like this would get widely circulated, without question, by partisans. Those partisans don’t have to have a column in a major daily paper (i.e. Schneider) to get themselves circulated.

    It makes me lament even more the demise of good journalism. For all our critiques of the “dinosaurs” that we believe newspapers have become, running a totally false story like this one in the “old days” was pretty unlikely.

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