Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Disappearance of Dan Bice

 The state’s top political reporter has disappeared. Is the Journal Sentinel killing his column?

By - May 14th, 2015 11:02 am
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Dan Bice

Dan Bice. Photo from twitter.

Dan Bice loves dirt. That’s what’s made him the state’s most important political reporter. As conservative commentator George Mitchell has written, no one in Wisconsin journalism “occupies center stage more than the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice. It’s really not even a close call.”

So it’s rather noteworthy how little Bice has written of late. He normally does his No Quarter column at least once a week, but in the last two months, going back to March 14, he’s written just two columns. (For two of those weeks, he was on vacation.) Even before that drop-off, his production had been more sporadic and mostly consisted of updates on how Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin botched her handling of complaints about the Tomah VA Medical Center.  Meanwhile, Bice has been contributing to some stories of pure reporting, which suggests he’s being moved away from his column.

All this has come during a time when longtime Journal Sentinel editor Marty Kaiser resigned and was succeeded by former managing editor George Stanley, and the newspaper became part of the new Journal Media Group, whose new ownership is dominated by shareholders of the Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co.

Stanley, as I’ve written, “is clearly a conservative. There was always some tension between the two, with Kaiser overriding some of Stanley’s decisions. Now Stanley will have a freer hand, and that’s likely to mean the paper moves further to the right.”

But why should that mean getting rid of Bice? Bice is a strangely apolitical political writer, whose column functions more as pure muckraking, digging for any misdeeds of politicians and government officials, regardless of their political party. And Bice himself is the West Virginia-born son of fundamentalist Christians and now member at St. Matthew’s Lutheran, an ELCA church in Wauwatosa, he says. As the No Quarter name suggests, he seems to take equal glee in slapping at officials from either party.

But Republicans and conservatives have periodically complained that Bice is biased against the GOP. So wrote the conservative Media Trackers in 2012. As a Wall Street Journal editorial declared in November 2013, channeling complaints from conservatives in Wisconsin, “Mr. Bice is well known for his Democratic sources.”

In fact, a column like No Quarter depends on using dirt from both parties against each other, or else the tips will stop coming. As Mitchell wrote, Bice’s “list of sources is so large because no print journalist in Wisconsin has a greater impact.”

But many conservatives are angry about leaks of information regarding the John Doe probe of alleged collusion between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and independent conservative advocacy groups, and they blame Bice for publishing stories based on them. Given that the first Doe probe resulted in the successful prosecution of six people and that the second probe has yielded all kinds of dirt, Bice was simply doing his job.

The reality is that Republicans have a stranglehold on all state power, which means that Democrats are largely irrelevant in the Capital. It’s a lot harder to find stories of note on the party out of power. Yet in the governor’s race, it was Bice who took a Buzzfeed story about Mary Burke “plagiarizing” some sentences in her business plan and amplified it in his column, which caused great damage to the Democrat’s campaign for governor. It struck me as overplaying a minor story, but exemplified Bice’s style.

Beyond the fact that some conservatives don’t like Bice (except when they are peddling him dirt) is his aggressive style, which you rarely see elsewhere in the newspaper. That too, might be a reason to can the column. As Stanley wrote in a recent “Editor’s Note” to readers: “Most readers tell us they want their news straight, with arguments from all sides, so they can make up their own minds.” Bice’s punchy, gotcha style of journalism really doesn’t fit that mold.

Ironically, Stanley went on to note how the newspaper covered issues like former Mayor John Norquist’s affair with an aide, Marilyn Figueroa, who accused him of sexual harassment, and the potential costs for taxpayers. In fact, most of the newspaper’s reporting on this was done by Bice and Cary Spivak, in the column that was the forerunner to No Quarter. It was classic muckraking that helped make the column’s reputation.

Stanley also notes that “the most thorough study of newspaper bias to date” found the “Journal Sentinel news coverage was smack in the middle politically.” But that study, as he notes, was done in 2006. That was nine years ago and in newspaper history, nearly an entirely different era. Since then the newspaper has shed at least half of its old staff, and lost many strong voices. To note just a few changes: liberal editorial page editor O. Ricardo Pimentel was replaced by the more moderate David Haynes, liberal columnist Eugene Kane was let go and conservative columnist Christian Schneider (who previously served for years a Republican legislative aide and then as an ideological writer for the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) was hired.

During that time the readership of the newspaper has probably shifted more to the three WOW counties surrounding Milwaukee, which are heavily Republican, so it’s perhaps inevitable that the newspaper will move toward the right. Bice may not fit that mold and may not fit Stanley’s vision for the paper.

Meanwhile, neither Bice nor Stanley responded to my emailed questions regarding the status of his column. Generally, the newspaper lets reporters go, and makes changes in content, without any explanation. Stanley’s column makes much of the newspaper’s “independence” (a curious term to apply to a mainstream corporate entity), but another important question for a newspaper is its transparency, something that’s always been a weakness for the paper.

Yesterday the JS reported on a problem with a video system used by the Milwaukee Police Department. But the newspaper was badly scooped on the story by the conservative Wisconsin Watchdog.org. To give the story some freshness, the newspaper quoted Police Chief Ed Flynn, who said the screw-up would only affect a total of seven criminal cases. But it did not note the internal department memo that said the recovery costs could be “fairly staggering.”

This is a story that was undoubtedly shopped by someone connected to the Milwaukee Police Union, to embarrass Flynn and longtime Democrat, Mayor Tom Barrett. In the past the sources would have handed this on a silver platter to Bice, who would have gleefully stuck it to Flynn and Barrett. Bice’s column may not be officially gone, but the tipsters out there can see the change, and the Journal Sentinel will lose more such stories in the future. Bice is already being missed, and his column may die a slow death as his tips disappear.

Update 2:20 p.m.: Bice, as you’ll note in comments, says he’s working on a mini-project on Gov. Walker. I hope that means the column will continue in full force at some point.

27 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Disappearance of Dan Bice”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    Sign him up then. Urban Milwaukee with both Murphy and Bice columns would absolutely crush it. You’ve quickly become in my opinion the best news outlet in the metro area. Such a move would take it to a whole ‘nother level.

  2. alba says:

    I would love to see Bice writing for Urban Milwaukee in the same capacity.

  3. PMD says:

    The GOP thinks there’s liberal bias in every single story a newspaper writes (save maybe the Washington Times and Wall Street Journal). Their displeasure with Bice is to be expected.

    That said, do people find a lot of value in Bice’s columns? Sometimes they’re entertaining, but mostly it’s a lot of gossip as well as a space for political operatives to issue generic attacks against the opposition. I for one wouldn’t really miss his columns.

  4. JoeW says:

    Echoing Beer Baron and alba. Love to see him at U.M., whose trajectory is the inverse of the declining J-S and its stacked “editorial board”.

  5. PMD says:

    So Bice has a lot of fans here. What’s the appeal? I’m curious.

  6. Daniel Bice says:

    Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated — and even false. Here’s where I’ve been: a mini-project on Gov. Walker and a European vacation. Good to know that I was missed. As for re-embracing Christian fundamentalism, nope. Didn’t happen. Not going to happen.

  7. Labitokov says:

    Daniel Bice says:
    May 14, 2015 at 1:57 pm
    Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated — and even false. Here’s where I’ve been: a mini-project on Gov. Walker and a European vacation. Good to know that I was missed. As for re-embracing Christian fundamentalism, nope. Didn’t happen. Not going to happen.

    Looks like BM could have done some deep investigative journalism: like sending Bice an email.

  8. Allison says:

    Dan I enjoy your column. Good to hear that you have not ‘disappeared’.

  9. M says:

    Daniel Bice: I’m glad you’re alive and well and reading UM (or getting tips about its content). Care to comment why you did not respond to email Qs for this story? OK, you’ve been on assignment.

    I wish you’d cover more political stories that are not just gossipy, but about meaty issues. Wisconsin is headed on a rapid down-hill trajectory and politicians are driving it. Are any politicians saying, even behind closed doors, enough is enough?

    And what about the cozy Fitzgeralds, with one former state rep now lobbying on behalf of the Bucks while his bro is in charge of cooking up an arena deal. Inquiring minds want to know how that all works…

  10. PMD says:

    That’s how I feel M. Most stories aren’t real substantive. They are opportunities for a party spokesperson or a candidate’s PR flak to issue denials or attacks. More meat would be a welcome change.

  11. Daniel Bice says:

    I can’t find any emails from Bruce. I respond to Bruce when he contacts me. We’ve just changed from Google to Outlook, so his email may have been lost in the transition. But a search turns up nothing. Zilch.

  12. Allison says:

    Kind of amazing if true that Bruce would not even reach out if he was going to write about Dan Bice. He claims to know about his church habits for some weird reason

  13. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I would really miss Dan, it is so much fun to tear apart his columns though not as much fun as ripping up Murphy’s easiest target is world. They are such rookies.

  14. edward says:

    Sykes must either be jumping for joy at Bice’s disappearance or shaking in his boots waiting for the next blockbuster from Bice. I’d love to read the next blockbuster story.

  15. Gee says:

    Allison, Bruce Murphy states that he did email Dan Bice — and George Stanley.

    Bice says he cannot find such an email. There is no word on this here from Stanley. Bice says that an email may have been lost in transition to Outlook. Stanley would have switched too, of course. But if a major news organization did not have a smooth transition to Outlook (my workplace, which is even larger, made this same transition a year ago, so I know that it can go smoothly) to the point that emails to a newsroom were lost, well, the JS ought to fire IT folks and look again at its contract with Outlook, as that has seriously harmed ability to gather information. And if this is the first-discovered instance of a lost email, all at the JS ought to be searching their spam files and more for what they also missed.

    All of that deflection from Murphy’s main point aside, we don’t see an assertion of different data on the frequency of the column.

  16. M says:

    Re: JS’s George Stanley’s remarks about breaking a story about an affair and alleged sexual harassment, the harassment part is always worth reporting, and payoffs too. But affairs in general, even by politicians? Meh!

    However, I do want to know about when politicians are trying to finagle special gifts for cronies (with or without sexual favors in return). I’m curious about why valuable public land is often given away, and some folks and businesses get super-sweet deals, like those handed out by WEDC.

    And how some state parks will reportedly close (according to a reliable source in state government…) because they don’t bring in enough revenue to justify their existence, since all state parks funding is being cut. Some now think of state parks purely as businesses, and that may be what happens when the DNR is run by a developer…

  17. Caffeine says:

    Dear Wisconsin Conservative Digest guy. You act as if all of these political topics are some kind of fucking game for you to joke around with. Do you get some kind of perverse joy from our climate of political gridlock?

    Please do me a favor and continue to marginalize yourself and your little group and soon you will end up sitting in a bathroom stall with Donovan on one side and Clarke on the other. You won’t be lonely for long.

  18. tim haering says:

    Dan BIce on Chance the Gardener. I’m looking forward to that. Bruce, you can take the Leonard Zelig angle. If he’s smart, he’ll take a pass this time. But politics isn;t about smart. ONly one question: If you’re Sarah Palin for President, who do YOU pick for veep? Better be someone in blue jeans and Converse who can stand on the moon.

  19. mike drew says:

    A solution to finding people who don’t respond to e-mails. Try the phone and snail mail.
    E-mail, alas, has become 98% junk and busy people don’t always make time to stay current.

    BTW: Murphy and Bice are indispensable reads.

  20. JL says:

    Yes- thanks to UM. Really getting tired of the MilWalker Journal.

  21. PMD says:

    If liberals believe the JS is far too pro-Walker, and conservatives believe it’s part of the “lamestream” liberal media, does that mean they are doing something right?

  22. Stan says:

    The Bice of the last 5 years is a poor change from the Bice of the Norquist scandal. I wish he would return to actual investigative journalism and not tabloid style of issues that are minor and do not matter. I feel like I am reading a print version of Fox News and MSNBC.

  23. Bea says:

    Sadly, Bice is mostly about clickbait and, like nearly all his brethren and sisthren in the press, is horribly afraid of being called liberal. The way they fell on the fainting couches because Burke bought a progressive jobs plan did in her campaign. They are SO afraid of the Club for Growth bullies, so quick to assume the mantel of victimhood.

  24. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The disappearance of Dan Bice is not national calamity like the city of Milwaukee blowing hundreds of millions on a trolley and Arena while we become the 4th most violent city in our class and the worst in segregation, poverty, and youth unemployment or MPS. Therefore, we need to find some new leaders as the male, white, liberal racist ones that head up Milwaukee are clueless.

  25. PMD says:

    Wow great points WCD. You’ve never made any of them before. In particular, “male white liberal racists” is really rational and compelling. Thank you for taking the time to post that.

  26. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    I just figured Bice was another JS righty who was the hit man for gossip pieces, but you bring up a good point Bruce. Maybe it’s Stanley, Haynes and their bosses at JournalComm/Scripps that are calling the shots, and Bice doesn’t have the pull or the guts to ignore them.

    That would explain why Bice ran more stories on who wrote the Mary Burke jobs plan than he has ever done on the debacle known as WEDC. Or why he hasn’t mentioned that John Doe 2 involves at least 2 Supreme Court justices (check out the docs from last week). He’s apparently just follows orders well.

    Free the man, Bruce. This is already a more legit site than the corporate rag known as the J-S. Make the big move and DOMINATE.

  27. Tony Muhammad says:

    The JS is known as UnS (Urinal Sentinel) by political aware common people that live north of the vidock bridges separating North and South sides Milwaukee.

    I was introduced to Daniel Bice reporting the Norquist / Figueroa scandal. Norquist left a lasting legacy reminder at the 6th Street vidock, which I personally coined The John Norquist Marilyn Figueroa Twin Bridges…

    It might appear to Milwaukee surrounding suburbia residences, and Wisconsin rural residents that all Northside residents are blinded by Milwaukee White male, and Black helpers (see note*) liberal / democratic leadership that have transformed this city social health ratings into every negative social indicator measure in our society. And its simple apolitical politics in my view.

    I am not a loyal supporter of either party but any honest political observer realizes Milwaukee Liberal political leadership has failed in its administration of city affairs! By providing limited job creation, but instead providing unbalance welfare hand-outs to inner city residences the past 35 years.

    As a matter a fact Southeastern Wisconsin welfare system attracted ten of thousands out-of- state poor people to relocate to the SE cities, especially north and south side Milwaukee, during the same 35 year time period.

    The city liberal leadership the last 15 to 20 years have had no political vision to grow the City of Milwaukee through livable job creations that would perhaps train and employ its unemployed residents, nor improve overall ill social conditions. Other than plea with surrounding municipalities to make away for Milwaukee jobless, and build HUD housing to accommodate Milwaukee bulging poor residents.

    Mayor Tom Barrett administration solutions added to the city dire social atmosphere. He proposed to eliminate the city so-called minority hiring quote. Announcing Milwaukee is open for Business. Black elected helper Willie hinds was right at his side as the UnS reported.

    Mayor Tom second solution was to incarcerate as many of the Black and Brown male employable North and South side residents with expediency. By hiring an outsider Chief of Police (Flynn) to design a criminal arrest social trap, which they employed on both sides of town in inner city neighborhoods.

    The first eight to ten years policing under Chief Fynn with Tom Barrett administrative support made 5000 arrest per year that led to incarceration in county and state penal systems. The two city administrator running slogan was and still is “Crime Creates Poverty.”…

    How twisted a response is that to cover up the City of Milwaukee Administration lack of vision to solve social ills and create livable jobs for its residents.

    Bice I see the handwriting on the wall shadowing your column recently as stated here by Bruce Murphy. I more than likely you will get more ink once Governor Scott Walker presidential campaign experiment fails, as it is presently on course to end. Perhaps Walker will be all used up by his GOP big money backers then the wolves of justice (DA Chisolm) will be free to continue criminal concerns about Walker’s political career.

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