Bruce Murphy Responds: McBride-Flynn Affair/Bice Responds to Murphy
The Bice article strongly suggested a breach of journalistic ethics by McBride, since a reporter can hardly be expected to write a fair story about somebody she’s having sex with.
Murphy, in effect, accuses Bice of journalistic malfeasance, and he has the goods.
The key issue, of course, is whether McBride was having an affair with Flynn when she was writing the story, or whether it developed later.
Murphy discusses the chronology of the Flynn profile, and it’s pretty clear that the story had long since been finished by McBride before any affair began. The most telling data:
I next kicked the story back to McBride for a rewrite, which she turned in Feb. 16. During the editing process, Jessica pushed me to include a couple [of] negative quotes, which I vetoed as unnecessary because others in the story essentially made the same point, and the story – at 5,400 words – was already quite long. Once again, this wasn’t the behavior of someone being protective of her subject.In short, the best evidence is that the affair did not begin until well after the story had been turned in, and Bice ignored that fact.
The problem of journalists getting too close to their subjects typically occurs for beat reporters, or for writers who spend a long period of time interviewing someone. To fall in love in the course of doing one feature story is, frankly, no easy feat.
Jessica had just one face-to-face interview with Flynn, for six hours in December, with a police lieutenant and the department’s communications director, Anne E. Schwartz, present the entire time. After this, McBride had some follow-up e-mail questions for Flynn. That was the full extent of their communication prior to the release of the story.
A few days after our story went to subscribers in mid-April, Jessica e-mailed me to ask if I had heard anything about it from Flynn. I hadn’t. I would imagine if she was then having an affair, she wouldn’t have had to ask.
Since Bice did his story, McBride has admitted the affair and released a copy of an e-mail from Flynn dated April 23, in which he complimented her story and suggested they get together for coffee. That request eventually led to their first meeting since December, and the first time they ever met alone, at the Brocach Irish Pub & Restaurant on May 1st. The e-mail suggesting coffee is a public record, as Flynn sent it from work. I’m told that Bice requested the chief’s e-mails. If he didn’t, he should have, and he would have found reason to doubt the affair started while McBride was working on the story.
Murphy particularly objects to the fact that Bice uses the word “interview” to describe their meeting on May 1. A journalist will “interview” the subject of a story, but by this time the story was long since written, turned in and published. “Tryst” or “assignation” would have been good words to use, but “interview” was not. It’s what you would use if you want to imply journalistic misconduct.
We contacted Dan Bice on vacation in Colorado. He told us he had not read Bruce Murphy’s article in Milwaukee Magazine, but was quite willing to discuss the case in general.
As his articles have made clear, Bice’s only evidence that McBride was carrying on any sort of affair with (or was at least biased toward) Flynn is a passage from a love letter she wrote when their affair got underway months later. She said to Flynn, “Perceived you instantly - knew you were a good person who does things for the right reason. . . . As a result, I began to struggle with the story - having to give time to vitriolic, baseless critics.”
The letter also says “I think there was something from the moment we locked eyes in Anne’s office.” (“Anne,” in this case, is Anne Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Police Department.)
In terms of proving an “improper relationship” at the time McBride was writing the story, that’s about it.
As Murphy points out, love letters aren’t known for a clear-eyed accounting of historical events. Further, at most this is evidence that she was rather smitten by Flynn while she was working on the story. Is this a beach of ethics, or something that journalistic professionalism should overcome? And if journalistic professionalism doesn’t overcome it, is this an ethical breach, or just bad journalism?
Bice argues it’s a breach of ethics. We pointed out to him that, by this standard, about ¾ of the Washington press corp should be fired, since they are clearly smitten with Obama.
We would argue for “bright line” standards where journalistic ethics are concerned. Whether a journalist is smitten by somebody she is writing about (and whether this has distorted the reporting) is very much a judgment call. Whether she and a subject have romped between the sheets is a hard factual issue.
Bice claims that neither Murphy nor McBride, both of whom knew a story on the affair was in the works, gave him the April 23 e-mail, and thinks they should have. Contrary to the assertion in Bruce Murphy’s story, Bice claims the e-mail was private, and that he could not have gotten it with an open records request.
We e-mailed Bruce Murphy about this, and he tells us that the e-mail was from “email@example.com” to McBride’s personal SBC Global account. That, indeed, should be subject to an open records request.
Although Bice rejects the word “blindsided” with regard to the April 23 e-mail, he does say it was “unfair” that it was not given to him, and that McBride wanted to “control” the situation.
Of course, if he actually had evidence that the affair began much earlier while McBride was writing the story, he could have been fairly sure that no such e-mail would turn up. That’s the problem with making assertions without proof: you risk being blown out of the water by hard evidence proving you wrong.
Bice apparently worked quite hard on this story. For example, he went to McBride’s house and rang the doorbell, only to have McBride’s husband Paul Bucher throw him off the property.
Bice disclaims any personal bias against McBride, saying that she has fed him many news tips over the past several years.
Bice also blames Bruce Murphy for not telling readers there was a “problem” with the article on Flynn before the story of the affair broke. Murphy knew about it (Bice was trying to get comments from him and McBride) over two weeks before the Bice column making the whole thing public.
But this rather begs the question. Murphy should have done that if the article on Flynn was tainted. But Murphy insists it was not.
Journalistic Ethics, or Adultery?
So far, we have only dealt with the issue of journalistic ethics.
Frankly, we would rather prefer a world where adultery would cost a police chief, or a journalist, or a professor (McBride teaches at UWM) their job.
But it seems we don’t. Indeed, the 1992 presidential election proved that being a blatant serial adulterer isn’t a disqualification for the presidency.
But both McBride and Flynn are going to have a price to pay for their quite serious moral lapse. This is only fair enough, but we hope both can rebuild and restore their lives.
[updated: 6/23/09, 1:48 p.m.]