Ted Bobrow

Caesar’s Wife and Jessica McBride

By - Jun 22nd, 2009 02:44 pm
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It didn’t take Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy long to respond to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dan Bice’s story about Jessica McBride’s affair with Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Murphy does a fine job of detailing why the quality of the story should not be questioned. Not a single fact has been challenged and, by all accounts, the physical relationship between Flynn and McBride didn’t begin until after the story went to press.

My response to Murphy’s comments pretty much says all I want to say on the topic.

Calling the overblown coverage of this incident and its effect on McBride’s reputation a “tragedy for journalism” certainly overstates the matter. Ms. McBride and Chief Flynn deserve most of the responsibility for the disrepute this brings to them both.

Then again, Bice’s comment that “Reporters are forbidden from writing about individuals to whom they have strong personal ties” struck me as simplistic and wrong. All journalists develop relationships with the people they cover. The vague term “strong personal ties” calls to mind a debate over definitions made famous by Bill Clinton.

The “New Journalism” of the last 40 years recognizes the fact that writers become emotionally involved with their subjects and suggests that the idea of objectivity is a lie or, at least, unrealistic.

Of course, writers are expected to disclose the nature of their relationships with their subjects. Obviously, the chronology of this incident made disclosure, the ultimate defense for the interested writer, a mere afterthought.

Murphy’s defense of McBride, while understandable, doesn’t take into consideration the importance of reputation for public officials, journalists and the organizations that employ them.

Murphy invites readers to comment on whether or not he should consider McBride as a future contributor. Murphy clearly believes McBride is a talented writer and does not seem to feel her subsequent behavior calls her work or her ethics into question. He says he would expect her to disclose a relationship if she was asked to write about Flynn in the future.

But would he assign her a piece on crime or law enforcement? Would it be sufficient to disclose her relationship or does the disclosure rule out certain topics?

He’ll need to work out a policy that not only applies to McBride but staff writers and other freelancers.

Most things in life aren’t black and white which is one of the reasons I named this column Gray Matter.

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