It’s clear that Gannett newspapers, at least the one in Milwaukee, have a progressive mindset

(Note: This first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Diggings, the magazine of the Badger Institute.)

By Mike Nichols 

In 1997, back in another life, I was a reporter covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Like many of my colleagues, I prided myself on keeping my political opinions out of my stories and tried my best to keep them out of the newsroom.

The truth was, though, that covering local government in Milwaukee had solidified my conservative leanings. I’ve never understood why most reporters — front-row witnesses to the fallibility of government officials and big government programs — remain stalwart liberals.

But they do.

Which is why the then-editor of the paper about fell off her chair when I told her, in the course of an interview for a job as a columnist in conservative Waukesha County, that I had voted for Bob Dole.

The confession, which I didn’t make lightly, didn’t work. I didn’t get the job, although later, her successor, a very even-handed and wise editor by the name of Marty Kaiser, let me write a different column. Marty has left the Journal Sentinel and so, it seems, has any real effort for the paper, now owned by Gannett, to remain objective, focus on anything much of real interest to readers in the center or on the right or even be transparent about the source of the money for many of its stories.

Dan Benson’s article about Gannett’s reliance on stories from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism proves that. The University of Wisconsin-Madison should not be donating space in its journalism program to this group, and “mainstream” papers should disclose the group’s major funders and left-leaning bias every time they publish a WCIJ story.

As an old newspaper hack who worked in a newsroom where we never would have considered handing over news space to an outside group — especially one with a history of questionable funding sources — I find the lack of transparency surprising to say the least.

Though, I concede, probably not to everyone.

It’s clear that the Gannett newspapers, at least the one in Milwaukee, have a progressive mindset. Story choices seem largely driven by identity politics and racial and gender score-keeping.

I happen to be writing this on a Friday morning and have the Journal Sentinel on my desk. In addition to an even-handed treatment of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing the day before and a column by Jim Stingl, the front page was burdened by a story on “greater gender equity” in films at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Page 2 was taken up with a PolitiFact story pointing out that U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic nominee for vice president who said that Donald Trump “would be a disaster for the economy,” was “no doubt” right when he also said that the “national economy was strong in its largest expansion of private-sector jobs before President Trump came into office.”

Page 3 included a story about “implicit bias” that causes people to categorize by race and gender.

That’s just one day.

None of this will change. Papers no longer have the revenue to pay veteran staff to produce an array of stories that editors can choose from or bury, kill or play up. Journalism mostly attracts young, underpaid liberals who likely get little direction from overworked editors. When they come in at the end of the day with stories that don’t break any real news but do fill a hole, the hole must be filled.

But here I am complaining about old news and writing about it at the same time. The question is how to move forward in a world where the old, basically objective platforms have moved left while social media is too disjointed and cluttered and unreliable to fill much of the void.

At the national level, The Wall Street Journal asks the questions and tells the stories that The New York Times can’t see or get.

We badly need something like that, something sustainable in digital form, here in Wisconsin. We’re proud of what we’re doing here with Diggings. But it’s just a start.

Mike Nichols is president of the Badger Institute and editor of Diggings.