In January a controversy exploded when a Wisconsin newspaper reporter and his managing editor signed recall petitions against the incumbent state senator representing the area of the paper’s circulation. Ryan Whisner regularly covers politics and elected officials for the Ft. Atkinson Daily Union, and before it became apparent that he signed a recall petition, he was found on Facebook personally cheering on the efforts of Lori Compas, the woman who was leading the charge to recall incumbent state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald. Whisner’s editor was among the first to sign the recall petitions targeting Fitzgerald for recall.
After Media Trackers, a state-based conservative media watchdog, and talk radio hosts in southern Wisconsin brought the political activities of the reporter and editor to light, the newspaper’s publisher attempted to do damage control by issuing a statement saying that the paper would reassign particular stories to prevent any appearance of bias or conflict of interest. Just how serious the newspaper was in promising to remove any perception is now in doubt since Whisner is still writing about the recall race.
On February 29 the front page of the Daily Union featured two prominent articles about the looming recall election for the local state Senate seat. Ryan Whisner wrote both stories, one of which was a profile piece of Lori Compas, the recall organizer who is a personal friend of Whisner’s and the present Democrat candidate in the senate recall race. The other story was a report on how the incumbent state Senator that Whisner opposes (Scott Fitzgerald) is intending to fend of the recall challenge.
The feature piece on Compas notes that she is a small business owner, mother, married to a college professor, and someone who has never engaged in the political process until this recall effort. But Compas, who is from Missouri, may be no stranger to political fights. The Wisconsin Reporter has discovered that while in Montana in 1997, Compas was charged with two counts of disturbing the peace while she carried out a campaign to protest a new RV park. She lost the case in trial and on appeal. Ryan Whisner, in his profile of Compas for the Daily Union, failed to cover her past as a protester and her subsequent disturbance of the peace trial.
Whisner’s ongoing coverage of the recall race is suspect, and it casts a cloud of bias and conflict of interest over the pages of his newspaper. The amateuris
h attempt to “balance” out the bias by assigning Whisner to do one story on the state Senator and one on his personal friend the Democrat candidate does nothing to substantively prevent bias from creeping up in the articles. A wiser course of action would be for the newspaper to keep its promise and completely remove Whisner from covering the recall election.
This is not to say that the Daily Union should refuse to cover the recall election – it should because it is news and it is likely of great interest to readers. But it should cover the story in a way that reflects the claimed impartiality of the paper. Otherwise as a local paper it will join the ranks of larger media outlets and newspapers that are rightfully scorned for claiming the mantel of impartiality while promoting an ideological and political agenda.
Originally published by Media Trackers, a state-based conservative watchdog organization that holds the media, candidates, and elected officials accountable.