Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Going Easy on Drunk Drivers?

Journal Sentinel wouldn’t report a CEO’s drunk driving, but Patch.com did. Who’s right?

By - Jan 3rd, 2013 11:23 am
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The headline was darkly funny: “Tosa police: Drunken driver thought he was in Whitefish Bay.”

Yep, the driver was so intoxicated he thought he was “close to Wilshire” boulevard in “Whitefish Bay,” as he told the Wauwatosa Police officer, when apprehended on the 2200 block of Wauwatosa Avenue.

“Police caught the man,” reporter Michael Runyon wrote, “after a driver reported a vehicle striking multiple curbs and weaving in and out of traffic.”

“The man alluded to his status as CEO of a company twice on the trip to the police station,” the story went on. “While he was being booked, he mentioned knowing the Milwaukee County executive… When going over the paperwork, he asked if there could be any leniency on the documents. He also asked the officer if there was any “professional discretion” that could be used.”

That’s about the extent of the story published by the Journal Sentinel’s Wauwatosa NOW website and also run on the jsonline.com “Newswatch” ticker. The driver’s name is never disclosed, nor the company he runs, nor anything about his alleged relationship with a top politician.

The story seems to cry out for coverage, which was provided by the online Wauwatosa Patch.com. The driver was John D. Emory, Jr., 41, President and CEO of Emory & Co., an investment banking company started by his father. Emory was very involved in Chris Abele’s campaigns for county executive, co-hosting at least one fundraiser and serving on the “Job Creators” steering committee supporting Abele.

The Patch story also offers more details supporting its conclusion that Emory “appeared to make a number of attempts to use his position to get out of the ticket.”

The fact that that Journal Sentinel protected Emory frosted at least one state Capitol insider, who called me to complain about the “hypocrisy” of a newspaper that has campaigned against drunk driving and done editorials chiding state legislators for not passing tough enough legislation.

The newspaper has also done a series outing Milwaukee Police officers arrested for drunken driving. As one reader commented in response to Tosa NOW story, “If this was an MPD officer I’m sure JS would have his name, rank, work history, past disciplinary actions, picture, and personal information posted BEFORE HE WAS CONVICTED!”

I emailed Scott Peterson, editor-in-chief of the NOW publications, and he explained why Emory’s name was not disclosed: “our standing policy is to not identify someone in NOW newspapers who has been accused of an infraction like this unless they are formally charged by the DA or convicted,” he wrote. “Like any news organization, we would break this rule if there were extenuating circumstances, such as being a public figure or in cases where there are matters of greater public interest at stake.”

You can bet if Emory was a politician or a pro ballplayer or someone similarly notable, the name and details would be published. And the paper has done a series on discipline of police, making an issue of those who’ve driven drunk. But the Journal Sentinel has generally not wanted to drag the names of business execs through the mud.

Indeed, going through the archive of JS stories on drunk driving, they are typically about drunk driving accidents or those who’ve been picked up for the 15th or 20th time for drunken driving. So Emory was treated in the normal fashion.

So why did Patch.com publish the details on him? “That was a close call,” says Mark Maley, the regional editor of 15 Patch.com publications (who formerly ran the JS NOW publications). “Typically, we don’t name drunken drivers…but because this person was a CEO and because, if you read our story, he kind of flaunted his position after being stopped, we thought we should name him. Typically, we don’t, however.”

The fact that Emory served as a key campaign supporter for Abele might be cited as further reason to report his name.

Still, I find it hard to take issue with the Journal Sentinel policy. The reality is that the upstart publication, like Patch, is likely to be more aggressive, and report something like this. It’s just another example of why it’s good to have competition between media entities.

The Tosa Patch publication also beat the Journal Sentinel on the story of slain Wauwatosa police officer Jennifer Sebena. Patch was quicker to report the original story of the murder and also beat the JS in reporting her husband had been arrested and taken into custody for the offense.

Patch.com offers a classic example of hyperlocal journalism. It was created by former Google Executive Tim Armstrong, who went on to become the CEO of AOL.Inc and then oversaw its acquisition of Patch. As Erik Gunn reported for Milwaukee Magazine in March 2011,  AOL invested $50 million in these sites nationally and had hired some 900 journalists, a figure which has probably grown.

Patch has devoted itself to smaller communities in America, mostly suburbs. The Milwaukee chain serves only suburbs, from Caledonia and Oak Creek on the south to Greenfield and Waukesha on the west to Whitefish Bay and Port Washington going north.

That provides some competition for the JS in the suburbs, which is great. But meanwhile, the JS has for years been doing less coverage of the city, and there are many neighborhoods in Milwaukee with a population larger than some of the suburbs that have both a Patch site and NOW publication devoted to it. It was with that in mind that UrbanMilwaukee.com was created, to offer more coverage of the city.

Short Takes

-My last column, which detailed the ways that county board members delayed an attempted reform of the infamous pension backdrop, was quickly followed by the board voting to adopt the reform.

-Is Gov. Scott Walker open to changes requiring more transparency in campaign funding? That’s what he tells reporter Bill Lueders.

Categories: Murphy's Law

6 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Going Easy on Drunk Drivers?”

  1. Steven Blackwood says:

    Score one for Tosa Patch, actually two if you count the Sebena case. Being arrested for a 1st time OWI is not the same as being indicted or charged. It’s more like a ticket with fines and points off (this situation may change in future if 1st time OWI becomes a felony, as some want). The added facts that he tried to use his position and connections to try to remain anonymous just adds to the negative Karma. Naming him is a no-brainer, IMO.

  2. Wis. Conservative Digest says:

    I am sure that the Journal would ahve covered up for you too, Bruce as a loyal leftwinger. Lucky I do not drink or I would be front page.

  3. Dan Pfeifer says:

    As with any of these types of stories, I think a huge key is to follow the money.

    As a fairly new and Web-only publisher, Patch probably pulls a lot of its revenue from more-automated advertising, such as Google ad placement and whatnot. I’m willing to bet it doesn’t have as large of a direct ad sales force as Journal Comm and probably doesn’t make the same kind of direct contact with businesses. And, for a journalistic organization, that’s probably a good thing because they’ve separated themselves from the business owners and can be a little more critical of them.

    Journal Comm probably still relies much more heavily on direct, local advertising sales. That means that it needs the business community to be a friend and an ally moreso than Patch. You don’t make your friends and allies (and sponsors) look bad, then expect them to give you ad money to keep you afloat.

    I’d be interested in knowing if Emory & Co. are, or ever have been, a Journal Comm advertiser. As a large supporter of the Abele campaign, though, I can almost certainly verify that the company has direct ties to a fairly important advertiser, as all political campaign advertise heavily during election season (media outlets often love election season because all the ads are great for their bottom line). It wouldn’t at all be surprising if Journal Comm made a point to “editorially protect” advertisers or those associated with them. A tad unethical, perhaps, but in no way surprising in this era in which mainstream media outlet budgets are tight enough to make potential dollars trump ethics 10 times out of 10.

    Kudos to Patch for finding a way to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire while likely not strongly influencing their revenue.

  4. Markety Mark McMarcusark says:

    You’re spot-on Pfeifer. Your whole comment reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, that was written in the 70′s to expose and discuss how ad revenue along with a couple other pressures creates inherent censorship in the mass-media. Some of you may know the book: “Manufacturing Consent” by Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman [if you havent the time to read the book, and it is long and tedious, but immensely insightful, a documentary by the same name was created more recently. It's undoubtedly available on youtube, and I know the whole thing is available on Hulu for free, without ads :) ]. It’s amazing how a book that’s pushing 40 years old has maintained relevancy with the advent of the internet & 24-hr news networks, even with the relative collapse of the medium they used to collect the mountains of evidence supporting their theory: newspapers. It’s very true that the JS along with nearly every other major news outlet is subject to these pressures that utterly dissolves transparency and leaves citizens uninformed or often worse, misinformed.

  5. Jim Crow's unLaw says:

    It’s rather disconcerting knowing that Wisconsin had 601 traffic deaths last year, while our neighbor to the South, Illinois, had — if I remember correctly — 951. We’re ~45% of the size of Illinois by population but we raked in 63% as many traffic deaths. Yes, we can consider the effect things like Chicago’s light-rail plays in keeping drivers off the roadways, but even when considering our respective mass-transit options, there are so many more drivers in Illinois, and the bars in Chicago are open til hours Wisconsinites might see on two special nights a year.

  6. Beth K. says:

    I heard Rob Swearington on an interview making the point that drinking and then driving was legal, and that driving while drunk is not legal. I’m sure all drinkers out there know, understand, and are capable of making that distinction after having a couple of cocktails.

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