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Walker’s Pre-Election Pension Pass: Journal Sentinel Misfires

by Gretchen Schuldt

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s belated, post-election reporting on County Executive Scott Walker’s broken promise to stop huge pension payouts for county managers left the paper trying to explain away the obvious: the JS blew it. The April 18 story by Bruce Murphy was a strong follow-up to candidate David Riemer’s release a month earlier of the names of 62 managers who Walker had not asked to sign pension waivers. But the election was already over. Riemer lost; Walker was re-elected. The story ran too late to make any difference. Riemer campaign manager Bill Christofferson said the story was written and ready run by April 2, four days before the election. Murphy interviewed Riemer for the story in late March, Christofferson said. “The thing about them sitting on this is that the story goes right to theheart of Walker’s claim that he’s a reformer,” Christofferson said. “That was Riemer’s point — Walker’s a phony who didn’t keep his promises; he’s just another politician.” Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley, asked about the timing of the story, at first said the story was about Tom Ament, not Scott Walker. “Murphy’s story revealed that there are still huge lump sums and pensions remaining from the Ament fiasco — not that there were 62 non-signers, which had already been reported and which David Riemer focused on during the last days of the campaign,” Stanley said in an e-mail. The paper did report the existence of Riemer’s list — on March 18, buried in a p. 3 Metro story; and in a March 25 “he said/ he said” campaign story. But not even the newspaper’s own editorial board believed that Murphy’s story was about Ament. It criticized Walker for not keeping his campaign pledge to get the waivers. Asked again about the paper’s timing, Stanley said Murphy proposed the story to him just “a few days before the election.” “I would have loved to have published that story before the election, but we couldn’t do it,” he wrote. While Christofferson rejected any idea that the paper was trying to shore up Walker, its endorsed candidate, he said he thinks the paper simply wrote off the Riemer challenge early in the campaign. “I believe they decided long before the primary that the exec race would not be competitive and therefore did not deserve much coverage. All along the way, they were simply disinterested. I think that, as much as anything, kept this story out of the paper.” Christofferson said he wrote to editor Marty Kaiser during the campaign urging the paper to pay more attention to the county exec’s race. “I never got a response, and coverage did not change much if at all,” he said. A quick check of coverage confirms that the paper paid more attention to the mayor’s race. Pratt and challenger Tom Barrett were mentioned in the same story about 150 times from late January through April 6; Riemer and Walker were mentioned in the same story about 50 times over the same time period, according to NewsBank Inc., a database service. Still, Stanley said, nothing would be handled differently if the pension issue were part of the mayor’s campaign. “If the story had come together in the same way about the Pratt or Barrett campaigns it would have been published on the same day as the Walker story was published,” he said. Said Christofferson: “I don’t know that getting this in the paper would have won the election (for Riemer), but it would have had an impact and maybe changed the dynamic of the race.” The Christofferson / Stanley exchange: (Stanley, JS managing editor, and Christofferson, Riemer’s campaign manager, respond to media inquiries into the JS’ handling of the April 18 pension story. Riverwest Currents contacted Christofferson about the issue, not the other way around.) From: George Stanley To: Bill Christofferson Sent: Monday, April 26, 2004 6:24 PM Subject: Re: County executive race coverage Bill, Frankly, the story you are peddling strikes me as nothing but the typical and predictable sour grapes of a losing campaign. I remember very well when you took the exact opposite position just before the last mayor’s race as the paper closed in on the Figueroa story. We haven’t changed our standards one bit since then and you know that. If your candidate or his opponent had the same troubles with finances, double-charging for trips, etc. as in the mayor’s race, they would have generated as much ink and received the same play. You know that, too. But you’re worried your future business could be hurt after backing a losing candidate, so you’re trying to pass the blame and point fingers. Sorry, you won’t get any sympathy here. From: Bill Christofferson To: George Stanley Sent: Monday, April 26, 2004 6:47 PM Subject: Re: County executive race coverage George, I’m surprised and disappointed that you have made this personal. You are still in denial. I contacted Marty Kaiser about coverage concerns in mid-February. That was long before the paper went on its wall-to-wall coverage of financial problems and campaign finance reports. When I raised the issue, I was talking about the fact that you had daily coverage of issues and exchanges between the mayoral candidates, and seemed to be covering every nuance of that race, while virtually ignoring the county exec race. I am not “peddling” any story. I am simply stating the facts — you had the information and had a story written before the election on Walker’s pension problems, but chose not to run it. I have not speculated about why or claimed that you were trying to influence the election. I have simply stated the facts. It is true that I weighed in with you when you intended to run a story about the Figueroa story on the Friday before the election in 2000. There was a difference, however — your story was not true. It was about a suit you said would be filed on Friday. My argument was that if it was not true it would do irreparable harm, and that you should wait a day to see if the lawsuit was actually filed. It was not, as you know. I think you made the right decision and saved the newspaper a lot of embarrassment. The Walker story, of course, was true. That is a big difference. . . I am not blaming you for the outcome of the election or “pointing fingers.” Again, I am letting the facts speak for themselves. And you have offered no explanation for your decision to hold the story. If there is one, that could certainly clear the air. Gretchen Schuldt worked for the Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for over 20 years and runs the Story Hill neighborhood website. She supported Riemer in the recent election.
by Gretchen Schuldt