Why the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed Gov. Scott Walker in recall

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sunday editorial endorsing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the upcoming recall election has been in the works for months, the paper’s editorial page editor said by email.

“We began to think about what we wanted to say as soon as it became clear that Gov. Walker would be recalled,” said David Haynes on Sunday night. “We began to discuss it informally in meetings when it became apparent earlier this year that the petition would succeed ... We formally discussed it once, the week before last.”

The endorsement was teased from a front page feature about the matchup that highlighted a 23-minute documentary produced by the paper. (Front page courtesy of the Newseum)

Sunday’s editorial supporting one of the country’s more controversial governors echoed an editorial written over a year ago by Haynes, in which he defended the paper’s initial endorsement of Walker: “One issue -- even a policy disagreement as large as this one -- shouldn't lead to recall.”

Sunday’s editorial emphasized the same point: “a disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor.” Further, it read, “the yearlong tantrum over Walker has been harmful.”

Though the paper did not endorse any candidates during last summer’s recall elections “to make the point that we considered them an overreaction to what had happened,” Haynes said, “we always kept our options open in case the governor was recalled.”

“And we decided to state our case now (we usually wait until later in campaigns) because this isn't a typical election.”

The editorial, which was the consensus of the 6-person board, drew immediate and sharp criticism -- from voters who considered the recall endorsement a hypocritical reversal of last summer’s position and from the Wisconsin Democratic Party, whose chairman Mike Tate’s public statement attacked the paper’s news coverage of Walker, too:

"Scott Walker not only owns the back editorial pages of the paper — he also owns the front pages of the paper with what is is supposed to remain a neutral forum for actual news. In this case, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has practiced repeated journalistic lapses, underplaying the shocking criminal corruption scandal in Walker's midst, downplaying the enormity of the division and dishonesty emanating from this administration and hyping up and adopting a shocking re-engineering of the truth by Walker on everything from jobs numbers to government transparency.”

Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser, a member of the paper’s editorial board and of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, responded to these charges:

Interesting that this is the first time I have heard complaints from the Democratic Party about where we have played our stories on the John Doe investigation related to Scott Walker's time as Milwaukee County Executive. The stories have appeared on the home page of JSOnline and the front page of the Journal Sentinel. Not sure how this could be called buried? Most of the stories have been exclusively reported by the Journal Sentinel. When we broke those stories and reported other stories on the investigation, we heard complaints from Republican Party supporters.

On the job numbers, we have dispassionately reported and explained numbers as accurately as possible -- often to the disappointment of the party that saw political advantage in whatever numbers were being reported.

On government transparency we have led the fight with our reporting and editorial board support.

It is not surprising that during possibly the most heated and divisive election campaign in the history of Wisconsin that we hear complaints from both sides about our news coverage and our editorials.

PolitiFact Wisconsin, a partnership between the Journal Sentinel and PolitiFact, also hears complaints from both sides. (PolitiFact is a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times.)

“Our reaction has ranged from critics on both ends of the political spectrum who do not like specific ratings to -- more commonly -- readers who are confused by the blitz of charges and looking for help in sorting them out,” says Greg Borowski, editor of PolitiFact Wisconsin and a Journal Sentinel senior editor.

That help comes from a new “Behind the Rhetoric” series, a Walk-o-Meter that tracks the governor’s promises, and a roundup of recall charges and counter-charges that Borowski said they would do at least one more time before the election.

“PolitiFact Wisconsin often has the highest traffic of any PolitiFact state site because the Journal Sentinel staff does excellent work and readers in the state are so interested in politics,” PolitiFact Bill Adair said by email.

And sometimes that interest has its price. This Walker endorsement “may be the first time I have heard people from both sides of the political spectrum threaten to boycott the newspaper, the website and its advertisers,” Kaiser said.

Haynes is tracking response as well. There are about 2,000 online comments about the editorial, “which is high for a non-Walker editorial but not unusual considering the subject. Many stories on Walker and the recall have had 2,000 or more comments,” said Haynes.

By Monday morning the paper had received about 300 letters on the Walker endorsement -- “pretty close to what we'd receive in a normal week,” said Haynes, who plans to run some letters this week and “carve out extra space in this Sunday's paper” for responses.

Haynes said the paper plans to let both sides have their say the Sunday before the election. “We'll deputize two columnists to make the case for both candidates” on June 3. The special recall election will be held on Tuesday, June 5. The latest polls show Walker leading.


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