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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

The Exoneration of Ed Flynn

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(A warning is probably warranted here: in this column, there will be strange bedfellows. Dogs and cats living together.)

A new independent audit exonerates Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and his department of any suggestion that crime stats were in any way intentionally cooked.

The report also delivers a stinging blow to the journalistic jihad waged against the chief by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which has devoted thousands of words and slain whole forests in their attempt to suggest that Flynn has been fudging the crime numbers.

In that sense, it becomes a case study in the flaws of prize-hunting, agenda-driven vendetta journalism (also seen in the paper’s coverage of, Bisphenol A,Scott Walker, David Clarke...  but I digress.)

Vendetta journalism is characterized by selective reporting that advances the paper’s thesis, more like a criminal indictment than a even-handed recounting of facts. Information that calls into question the data, methodology, or conclusions is downplayed or omitted altogether and critics are discredited or ignored altgoether. And the paper never apologizes. (Wouldn't look good to prize judges, would it?) A target of vendetta journalism never catches a break.

As Shakespeare's Mark Antony  once observed:

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
 
Or at least goes unreported, if the Journal Sentinel has its way. 
 

(Today’s story reporting on the audit  is pretty much par for the course in disparaging a source who challenges the newspaper's narrative:  “A consultant that for months publicly backed Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and his department's handling of flawed crime numbers has issued a report supporting the department….”)

The report, which was commissioned by the city and conducted by the PRI Management Group, found that “while it is correct there were inaccuracies in the crime statistics, the allegations inferring the Milwaukee Police Department had intentionally altered them are baseless."

“The Milwaukee Police Department is not hiding crimes, erasing statistics or undertaking other efforts to present a false picture of crime in the city.”

The new report endorses an earlier internal MPD audit, which it called “reliable and valid and has identified in sufficient detail the errors in crime coding in the assault category for each year since 2006.”

The audit notes that  despite that internal review, “The Journal Sentinel articles continued to allege nefarious activities had caused the erroneous statistics …”

But the audit’s bottom-line is unambiguous:

“No efforts were undertaken to intentionally alter or manipulate crime statistics by the Milwaukee Police Department. To the contrary, all of the evidence examined confirms that the errors were caused by what the Department has asserted.”

Flynn’s exoneration here is shared by Mayor Barrett and Milwaukee aldermen who had backed the chief and sharply criticized the Journal Sentinel’s coverage. After the internal review, Ald. Nik Kovac charged: “The Journal Sentinel took an ounce of truth and used it to spread a pound of lies. They’ve strongly implied in every article that there weren’t mistakes but deliberate actions to cook the books. Their goal is to attack the chief.”

Alderman Jim Bohl jibed that the newspaper’s “smoking gun has just turned into a pop gun.” Former JS reporter Bruce Murphy noted at the time, that Bohl’s comments never made the newspaper.

Nine aldermen signed a joint letter that was sharply critical of the newspaper’s handling of the story.  As Murphy later noted, “The newspaper did report this, but did not link readers to the statement, didn’t publish it in its entirety and didn’t quote some of the strongest charges.”

The aldermen laid out their indictment of the paper's journalistic malpractice: “The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s recent investigations into the police department have misled the public about important facts relevant to the safety of our community. That misleading information – whether deliberate or just sloppy – needs to be corrected by someone. And because there is no other daily paper in town, we have no choice but to explain these mistakes directly to the public. “It should be noted, that before issuing this statement many of us pleaded with the reporters and editors at the Journal Sentinel to correct their own mistakes. They refused.”

“[The paper] went beyond facts, and it used poor methodology to get there. In statistical jargon, it ‘failed to set a baseline for comparison’ when it asserted that crime was up, not down. This was immediately obvious to anyone with any statistical background who reviewed its coverage. This was pointed out to the paper repeatedly — but it stuck with its story….

“We will not speculate as to why the paper of record… has spent weeks misleading the public. But the facts are that it has and the public should know.

As Murphy noted: “The JS ignored all this…”

Actually, the newspaper’s editors doubled down on their attack on Flynn.

In November 2012, the Journal Sentinel ran a lengthy story suggesting they did, after all, have evidence that the books had been intentionally fiddled with. 

The subhead declared: “Police department insiders tell of failure to act, pressure to underreport findings”

The reporting sounded duly ominous:  “Interviews with more than a dozen department members, from beat cops to their supervisors, describe a culture throughout the department that pressures staff to keep crime numbers low, leading to downgraded incidents.”

But it was Mayor Barrett who noted that “They waited until paragraph 40 — and yes, I counted it — to tell readers that no one accused higher-ups of telling them to do something wrong.”

Only in that 40th paragraph were readers told:  “No one interviewed said he or she received direct orders to downgrade crime. Rather, they described indirect pressure. For example, supervisors at a district station often sought rationales to report a crime as a lesser offense.”

Murphy noted that the story which implied serious wrongdoing was largely based on interviews with anonymous sources.

“How many employees made this accusation? “ he asked. “The story doesn’t say. But it offers just one quote describing this alleged pressure. Apparently there wasn’t much usable material from these naysayers.”

In fact, the independent audit found no evidence of any such pressure:

 "Every person assertively stated that neither they nor anyone they had heard of had ever been directed to falsify or alter crime reports or statistics," the report concluded.

**

So where does that leave us? 

The Journal Sentinel's reporting on Flynn has been so over-the-top that it has drawn the attention of other media critics. The liberal-leaning Erik Gunn, himself a former JS reporter, wrote that the paper’s coverage of the police department is “colored by years of bad blood between the paper and the department, particularly Chief Ed Flynn – tensions brought on by flawed investigative projects at the paper.”

Gunn contrasted what he called the Journal Sentinel’s “defensive doubling down on its position,” with the more forthcoming and flexible handling of a similar controversy by the Washington Post.

In the Post’s case, reported the Poynter Institute:

“The Washington Post has added a lengthy editor’s note to an investigative story that suggested D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department manipulates data to present a more favorable picture of homicide closure rates. In fact, the department uses a statistical model that is accepted and used within the law enforcement community.”...

Post Ombudsman Patrick Pexton examined the paper’s story and the resulting editor’s note in his March 2 column. “Rather than suggesting that Lanier was fudging numbers, I think the story would have worked far better as a straightforward explanation of how the Metropolitan Police Department, other major police departments and the FBI keep homicide statistics — and of some of the pitfalls in that method,” he said.

No such editor’s note has appeared in the JS and the paper has no ombudsmen. 

Ed Flynn may have gotten his reputation back, but he shouldn't hold his breath waiting for an apology.

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