Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Where Have You Gone, Ken Lamke?

By - Oct 1st, 2001 07:06 pm
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Ken Lamke still has vivid memories of the atmosphere in the old Milwaukee Sentinel newsroom. “When you came to work that day, the idea was to beat the Milwaukee Journal. It was very competitive.”

For two decades Lamke covered politics for the Sentinel, and from 1985 until the merger of the two papers in 1995, Lamke wrote a weekly column that was must reading for anyone interested in politics. His counterpart at the Journal was Craig Gilbert, whose liberal slant contrasted to Lamke’s conservatism. It also created competition for stories. “I always felt like any story they had, I should have had,” Lamke says.

That’s quite a contrast to the merged Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of today. “If you asked me who their political reporter was, I couldn’t answer that,” WISN radio talk show host Mark Belling says. “They certainly don’t have a political columnist. So they don’t have a political reporter or political columnist. That’s very unusual.”

“I don’t know of any paper where there’s no political reporter covering campaigns,” Lamke notes. “We do not have anyone to keep track of that.”

“I think it’s a disgrace,” says Mordecai Lee, a government affairs professor and former state legislator. “I think James Madison would roll over in his grave that he fought for freedom of the press and this is what he’s getting.”

When the two papers merged, readers were promised they would get more rather than less coverage, but that certainly hasn’t applied to politics. “I can’t think of the last political story that they broke,” says Belling. “If something is being speculated about in politics, it seems to appear in nine different forums before it appears in the Journal Sentinel.”

“The first story on Ron Kind not running [for governor] was in the Eau Claire Leader- Telegram,” Lamke notes. “The first piece on [state Sen. Robert] Welch considering a run for governor was in John Nichols‘ column in the Capitol Times. These are stories that are part of the ongoing dialogue and we ought to have them first.”

“If you want to learn about Kathleen Falk or Ron Kind or other political candidates, you’re not going to learn much from the Journal Sentinel,” says WTMJ radio talk show host Charles Sykes.

Lamke believes the dearth of coverage at his paper has been a boon to Sykes and Belling. “I think it allows them to capture an added segment of the audience who may not even agree with them, but feel they will get some political news.”

“That’s why I have no objections to them not having a political reporter,” Sykes quips.

Belling is not so sure his radio show benefits, but he thinks the television shows hosted by Sykes and him “are really the only place where you can find out about local politics. So to that extent we really benefit.”

Lamke believes the problem at his paper extends broadly, to include not just political reporting and commentary, but background analysis of issues. “Look at Tim Krause‘s proposal for a soccer stadium. The most important explanatory writing I’ve seen is in your on-line column [at milwaukeeworld.com] and Belling’s column [in the Waukesha Freeman].”

Lee says the Journal Sentinel is simply part of a nationwide trend affecting the print and broadcast media. “The conventional wisdom is that all politics is boring. All media consultants advise that government coverage drives their audience away.”

But Lamke thinks the Journal Sentinel is leading the trend rather than following it. “I think we may have taken this farther than any paper.”

Certainly, in cities that still have two newspapers the attitude toward political coverage is very different. “You always get more intense political coverage if there are two competing papers,” notes Philip Seib, a Marquette journalism professor.

“There’s always been this ambivalence that politics is boring,” Sykes notes. “And yet when politically oriented talk shows become popular they have no explanation for it.”

”There’s no reason that covering politics and covering government should be boring,” Lee says. “If newspapers want freedom of the press then they have an obligation to use it for the reason it was given, so we can have an informed electorate.”

When Gilbert was transferred to the Journal Sentinel’s Washington D.C. base, this appeared to leave an opening for a reporter/columnist covering state and local politics. Lamke says he e-mailed his editor to apply for the position. “I never heard back.”

Lamke can still tick off his competitors at the old Milwaukee Journal. “Before Gilbert, it was Jeff Katz. He’s now in D.C. [covering politics]. Before him it was Donald Pfarrer [who now writes novels]. Before him it was Leon Hughes. He wound up as an editorial writer. He’s retired now.”

And that competition resulted in intense scrutiny of politicians. “If you compare the amount of coverage I got in the legislature with what the average legislator gets now, the difference is astounding,” Lee says.

Today, Lamke has no particular beat and tends to cover stories in the suburbs. It seems like a waste of a reporter with more than two decades knowledge of state and local politics. “With the rich political tradition we have in Wisconsin, I honestly don’t understand it,” he ruefully reflects. “I think our political coverage is something we need to improve on.”

Short Takes

The recent announcement that the Bradley Center board has decided to reject Tim Krause’s proposal to build a professional soccer stadium is no surprise. As reported here, the Bradley Center board meeting minutes of March 20, 2001, state that after the proposal was first made, “The Board agreed that this was not in the best interests of the Bradley Center, and was in conflict with the Bradley Center’s own master planning efforts.”

Krause’s proposal would have created a jointly managed entity running both the Bradley Center and the soccer stadium. He had predicted the soccer stadium could spin off $5 million in additional annual revenue to the Bradley Center. But the Bucks are looking for $10 to $12 million in additional annual revenue, and the Bradley Center clearly thinks it has a better shot at gaining this by controlling all of the land around its facility.

Will Chief Jones Fade Away? Given the condemnation of Chief Arthur Jones by Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission chairman Woody Welch, you might imagine the commission’s other four members agree with him. On the contrary, three members told me they still support Jones.

Welch steps down from the commission in July 2002, and it’s a cinch Mayor Norquist will appoint a successor who will be anti-Jones. But when Jones’ term ends in 2003, will some commission members support him for another term? Jones will be 57 in 2003 and is certainly young enough to serve another seven years.

“We just have not discussed this,” says one commission member.

“I believe he will not be seeking to be reappointed,” says another member. But if Jones decides to ask for a reappointment, it appears that at least two of the five commission members are likely to support the current chief.

The Pfarrer Country. For those wondering what happened to former Milwaukee Journal political reporter Donald Pfarrer, his 1999 novel, “Temple and Shipman,” may have some resonance to Milwaukee’s racial politics. The book’s protagonists are Jeffrey Temple, a white police patrolman, and John Shipman, a black tavern keeper and irregular inner-city entrepreneur. They live their lives “on the race-blighted margins of a contemporary Midwestern gritty city,” one reviewer notes. Could that city be modeled on Milwaukee?

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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