Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Ron Johnson Vs. Journal Sentinel

A battle royal between senator and newspaper. Who’s gotten the worst of it?

By - Jul 12th, 2021 03:35 pm
Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ron Johnson. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an op ed entitled “Sen. Ron Johnson says ‘Mainstream media have abused the trust vested in them by the public.’”

It was the second time the newspaper has run an op ed by the Republican U.S. Senator which was filled with attacks on the Journal Sentinel. In January it published a Johnson column blasting the paper’s “unhinged and uninformed editorial,” accusing it of publishing “baseless charges” and a “partisan screed” with “baseless and incendiary allegations against me.”

The paper ran the column in an annotated fashion, with numbered links to footnotes at the bottom taking issue with nearly every claim by Johnson. 

For last week’s op ed the newspaper went without any footnotes, apparently deciding that approach didn’t work. (Does any reader bother with footnotes?) Which left the way even clearer for Johnson’s full-bore attack against the newspaper. “I find myself having to respond to yet another unwarranted hit piece by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its Wisconsin affiliates,” Johnson wrote. “I write this response with no guarantee they will run it but with full assurance that, if they do, they will publish an accompanying smear in response.”

“The measure of their misrepresentations and distortions is so extensive that it is impossible to adequately respond,” Johnson went on, repeatedly accusing the newspaper of “yellow journalism” and publishing a “defamatory hit piece,” and of being part of “a liberal mainstream media” who are are “allies of the Democratic Party.” 

I’m hard pressed to think of a similar instance where the newspaper repeatedly opened itself to such attacks. You might have to go all the way back to the 1970s and Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier to find something similar. 

As a 1987 feature story I wrote for Milwaukee Magazine reported, Maier was a relentless antagonist of the afternoon Milwaukee Journal, then the most dominant news publication in the state. He blasted it as a “monopoly” (it also owned the Milwaukee Sentinel) that ran unfair stories. The mayor refused to talk to the paper’s reporters, froze them out of news conferences and beginning with his 1968 reelection campaign, ran as much against the newspaper as his opponent. The paper once ran a tedious, three-day editorial response to Maier’s complaints, complete with pictures of old news stories Maier said it hadn’t covered. 

After two years of this war, the newspaper decided in 1970 to give Maier a weekly op ed, to prove it was committed to editorial balance. Maier proceeded to attack the paper its own pages, blasting its news stories and eviscerating its reporters by name. After 57 such columns the paper put an end to Maier’s reign of terror.

Maier would repeatedly complain that the media didn’t give him “his lines,” meaning it didn’t quote all of his carefully composed comments on an issue of the day. There was an echo of that in Johnson’s complaint that JS reporter John Fauber’s story, charging the Senator has a “history of promoting views at odds with scientific research,” didn’t include all of Johnson’s answers. Those answers, reproduced by the senator on his website, go on at great length and if quoted in their entirety, would result in a story no one would read. 

What Johnson, Maier and others lose sight of is that the media’s job isn’t to serve the politicians and others they cover, but to serve the readers. That inevitably can put the media and politicians at odds. But once it gets to all-out war, which happened with Maier and is now happening with Johnson, readers tend to tune it out and view both sides negatively. 

Polls done by Maier’s campaign found the majority of Milwaukeeans got sick of his complaints about the newspaper, but either thought he was right about media bias and/or liked his image as a fighter. In today’s far-more partisan era, you can bet most Republicans believe Johnson’s charge that the JS is biased against the right. Which is ironic, as most liberals believe the opposite.

Anyone on the right can point to how the JS handled the latest Johnson op ed, preceding it with a note to readers undermining the point of Johnson’s op ed: “To date, Johnson has not asked for any corrections of fact in any of the news stories or the editorial he cites in his commentary.” And the op ed was interspersed with links to five JS stories and editorials blasting Johnson. 

And anyone who dislikes Johnson will take note of the fact that his two op eds are long on attacks and bereft of any evidence of inaccurate reporting. 

As Maier proved, attacking the press can help your cause. That may be even more true for Johnson, given the increasing animosity of Republican voters towards the mainstream media. As for the Journal Sentinel, it may find that running Johnson’s attacks doesn’t win it many points for fairness. Meanwhile, from a business perspective — and newspapers are a business — publishing such columns inevitably undermines the value of your brand.

3 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Ron Johnson Vs. Journal Sentinel”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Mayor Maier was the last German mayor for German Milwaukee… My German family loved him… Milwaukee has become less German every year since he left the Mayor’s office…

    There were nearly 100 German bakeries in Milwaukee and now there are none. All those German bakers making coffee cakes, chocolate cakes, donuts, rye bread, half rye, white bread, caraway rye bread, hard rolls, and soft rolls every day. And it was all affordable for working class families. We lived in paradise and now it’s all gone.

    I hope that I can have just one more fresh loaf of real German rye bread before I die. I’ll inhale the smell of the rye bread for an hour before I eat the first bite.

  2. kmurphy724 says:

    Or… maybe the JS is standing up for democracy as the free-press should. When anyone, especially a US Senator, is giving aid and comfort to enemies of the Republic, I’m glad that the mainstream media calls them out.

  3. Thomas Martinsen says:

    Ron Johnson whined about press coverage of him, but he offered no substance in his defense. Factual information reveals that R.J. has been jiving along party lines – without factual information. Herb Kohl called himself ” nobody’s senator but yours.” R,J. is nobody’s senator, R,J. is a tool.

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