Journal-Sentinel Spins Narrative

Journal-Sentinel | 9-27-2017

On September 27, 2017, the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel  (along with other Gannett Media newspapers) featured the following story:

Wisconsin Supreme Court cuts stipends for judges who asked for tougher conflict standards

The story, found here calls into question the “conservative” justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who voted in favor of eliminating the payment of daily stipends to retired judges who attend conferences or seminars as part of continuing education requirements.

This story features two types of bias.

First, we see bias by spin. Here, the writer takes up the narrative promulgated by liberal justice, Shirley Abrahamson, and ultra-liberal Supreme Court justice candidate, Tim Burns, that the majority voting in favor of this decision did so to “retaliate” against retired judges because those judges recently urged the Supreme Court to adopt stricter conflict of interest rules, which were ultimately rejected by the Court. Ultimately, this “theory” has zero basis because, as the story states, the issue of cutting stipends has been debated since 2010, and in “2014, a committee of chief judges unanimously recommended ending the practice.”  

Thus, in reality, the Supreme Court acted on an issue that has been debated for years, and ultimately adopted a recommendation that existed prior to the conflict of interest issue was voted upon in April. Nevertheless, seeing an opportunity to pounce on the conservative justices, the Journal-Sentinel chose to push the “punishment” narrative. This is bias by spin.

Additionally, this story provides a perfect example of bias by headline. Here, the headline implies that the Supreme Court’s action only affected those individuals who advocated for a rule change that the conservative majority disagreed with. This is simply not the case, as the Court’s decision affects all reserve judges, not just those who disagreed with the majority. Certainly, there were many reserve judges who were not part of the “50 retired judges” who advocated in favor of conflict of interest rule changes, yet, the headline creates a very different impression. To be accurate and unbalanced, the headline should have instead read:

Wisconsin Supreme Court cuts stipends for reserve judges, some of whom asked for tougher conflict standards

Of course, with a headline like this, the “punishment” narrative is completely undermined . . .

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