The Disappearance of Dan Bice
The state’s top political reporter has disappeared. Is the Journal Sentinel killing his column?
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.”
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.