Monday, June 22, 2009

Bruce Murphy Responds: McBride-Flynn Affair/Bice Responds to Murphy

Online under Murphy’s Law, Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy discussing an article by Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The article discussed an affair between police chief Ed Flynn, and Jessica McBride (a journalist who wrote a profile about Flynn for Milwaukee Magazine).

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.

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.
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.

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.

Bice Responds

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.

E-mail Withheld?

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 “eflynn@milwaukee.gov” 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.]

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9 Comments:

Blogger Amy said...

Further, at most this is evidence that she was rather smitten by Flynn while she was working on the story.

In which case, lots of reporters who write glowing articles about Obama - or talk about how he gives them "tingles" up his leg - would be guilty of violating journalistic ethics, no?

8:13 AM  
Blogger Michael Horne said...

I think it is time for this story to go away, particularly if Jessica McBride does so too. I'll keep the chief.
Michael Horne

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"COOL" - Flynn
"NO LONGER COOL (if ever)" - McBride

5:48 PM  
Anonymous The Family Guy said...

This story has more to do with McBride's politics and very little to do with journalistic ethics, on either side of the pen.

If being "rather smitten" disqualifies a journalist from covering a story then I shall expect President Obamas next press conference to be rather devoid of reporters...

11:47 AM  
Anonymous George Mitchell said...

If one tried, they would lose count trying to list the many examples over the years of MJS and MS and MJ reporters who were/are ideologically smitten with sources and report accordingly. Dan Bice did not have the evidence necessary to suggest that Jessica McBride did more than commit a personal mistake. Good for McAdams to have contacted him.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Murphy offers mainly indignation. The rest hardly cuts the legs out from under the story.

Ok, so they waited to have sex until the profile was done. As Flynn's email indicates, they had previously discussed getting together "socially" and decided first to finish the profile. Hardly a defense, slight aroma of a cover-up.

Most bizarre about Murphy's screed is that its based on disbelieving McBride; her letter about her struggle to profile such a spectacular fellow when she knew how evil his critics were. This of course is the heart of the ethics issue -- and he dismisses it a lovebird's affectionate re-write of (very recent) history.

If the fact that they waited to have sex until after the story was written changes the story ----- why in the hell didn't McBride or Murphy trot it out until AFTER the JS published its story. Only answer can be; its damage control and spin. Bice tried to get information from both repeatedly -- but oops, it doesn't pop out until the story takes off.

As for the comparison between McBride and reporters who express admiration, etc., for a subject, there are 2 critical differences at least. Most important -- we have the comparison because those other reporters cooed to their audience, leaving no one in the dark about biases. And those biases were hardly romantic and sexual. No one was every supposed to know about McBride's feelings towards her subject -- that came to light only after the JS published. And Murphy seems pissed that his readers were given a context in which to understand the Flynn story.

Flynn's problem is between him, his family, his mayor and his god. Murphy made McBride's problems his -- and her completely fraudlent journalism appears to meet MM's standards.

Bruce -- sometimes acknowledging a problem and dealing with it is the best way to go.

6:26 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

Ok, so they waited to have sex until the profile was done. As Flynn's email indicates, they had previously discussed getting together "socially" and decided first to finish the profile. Hardly a defense, slight aroma of a cover-up.

Anon, this is just spin on your part.

"Waited to have sex until after the profile was done?" You are implying that they intended to have sex before the profile is done, but held off. But you have no evidence of that.

The "meeting socially" thing (your words) did not come until months after the profile was complete and turned in.

Bruce -- sometimes acknowledging a problem and dealing with it is the best way to go.

The Journal-Sentinel needs to take this to heart. What we see there is the arrogance typical of monopoly news outlets. But it's grossly inappropriate for an outlet that (like dead tree generally) is in decline.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John,

Both the email from Flynn specifically indicates that while the article was being written they talked about getting together afterward.

And her letter explicitly discusses the feelings she claims to have had while writing and how they affected her work.

What's complicated here? And the fact that this "defense" was given before the story Murphy whines about was published (despite requests for statements) confirms that this is smoke, mirrors, and indignation and nothing more.

11:04 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

Both the email from Flynn specifically indicates that while the article was being written they talked about getting together afterward.

No, the e-mail that suggests "getting together" was written on April 23.

And her letter explicitly discusses the feelings she claims to have had while writing and how they affected her work.

Actually, she discusses how she hated having to include negative things about Flynn. But she did. That's journalistic professionalism.

The love letter was way later. And, as I said, love letters aren't to be taken as strictly historically accurate. They are biased, almost by definition.

Let me make a simple suggestion, reiterating a point I made in the article.

An "affair" is an "affair." Being smitten by somebody is not an affair.

9:37 PM  

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