Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Flynn/McBride Affair and Journalistic Malpractice at the Journal-Sentinel

The illicit affair between Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and local journalist Jessica McBride is a fiasco any way you look at it. It badly tarnishes the reputations of both.

Presumably, we can all agree that adultery is wrong (although a lot of people, frankly, don’t seem to take it too seriously). Thus the really contentious issue surrounding the whole affair is one of journalistic ethics: did McBride commit a serious ethical breach by having sex with a fellow who was the subject of a story she wrote for Milwaukee Magazine?

The column that broke the story, written by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, clearly asserted that McBride had engaged in a breach of journalistic ethics. But Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy has forcefully pointed out the problem with this argument: there is no evidence that McBride had sex with Flynn until weeks after the story was turned in, and indeed two months after the rewrite that Murphy had requested was turned in.

But in a more recent article, Murphy appears to throw McBride under the bus, saying that “In the eyes of the public, McBride has compromised herself – and this magazine.” It would have been more accurate to say that in the eyes of liberal bloggers who don’t like McBride because of her politics, McBride is compromised and so is Milwaukee Magazine.

Interestingly, Murphy reports no evidence that McBride was having any sort of affair with Flynn before the story was turned in. He describes the e-mails between them as getting “chatty and friendly . . . as soon as McBride finished reporting her story on Jan. 5.” That’s about it. Murphy has nothing else to suggest any kind of erotic connection.

The McBride/Flynn E-mails

We have a collection of e-mails exchanged by Flynn and McBride. We are certain of the provenance of the e-mails, but cannot (as Bruce Murphy admitted he cannot) be certain that we have the entire record. Perhaps some missing e-mails show a torrid affair between McBride and Flynn weeks before the story was submitted. But that’s vastly unlikely, since it would flatly contradict the substance of e-mails we have.

McBride and Flynn were clearly on friendly terms before McBride turned the story in on January 5. Most of the e-mails from that period deal with the clarification of certain issues in McBride’s story.

On January 1, for example, McBride gave Flynn the passage from the profile about Flynn’s experience in Jersey City, and noted “. . . I realized it seemed a little vague. What specifically did you think the police department needed to change? And, what specific negative effect did you see politics having on the department?” Flynn responded (on January 2) with a detailed explanation.

Earlier, on December 29, McBride asked Flynn a series of questions.
  1. In Jersey City, I read in an article that you had supported a mayor who didn’t live up to promises and left you a bit disillusioned. What happened with that?
  2. What influence did “Crime in a Free Society” have on you, and do you think its message of rehabilitation, etc. is still apt today? I read that you were drawn to its painting of policing as a noble, purposeful profession
  3. When’s the first time you met Kelling? I know you read his 1982 article but when did you first actually meet him?
  4. How did 9/11 change you if at all?
Two days later, Flynn responded with a somewhat lengthy series of answers.

It is clear from the very early exchanges that both McBride and Flynn are (figuratively) “buttering each other up.” McBride, having interviewed members of Flynn’s family tells him in a December 31 e-mail “Your kids were great. Your son idolizes you. You would have probably found his comments very touching – ‘knight in shining armor’ the little boy looking up to the father in the uniform, and all of that!” In another exchange, McBride explains that she has had to put some negative material about Springfield [Mass.] into the story, but says she has some positive material from that city too and then Flynn, on January 3 replies “I think you ‘get it’ about Springfield.”

Indeed, with regard to Flynn’s enemies in Springfield, McBride quoted Churchill to him: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Flynn replied “Thanks for the Churchill quote. Now that’s REAL perspective!” Both e-mails were dated January 4.

Sometimes McBride commiserates with Flynn. In a January 1 e-mail she says to him “So, I pick up my Journal Sentinel this morning and read the story about homicides plummeting to their lowest levels since 1985. . . and black male homicides plummeting more than 64%...which are really startling figures. . . and then I turn to the JS editorial page and the lead editorial is negative and lamenting an increase in black male homicides.”

Even this early, many of the exchanges are pleasant but trivial badinage. For example, McBride tells Flynn “my maiden name is McBride and my stepmother emigrated from Ireland and is named O’Hara . . .plus, my great-grandmother was Julia Flynn LOL.” Flynn replies “We’re cousins!” McBride comes back with “Probably, 15 times removed!” All this in an exchange on December 31, 2008. This, however, was part of a very informative exchange about Irishness in which Flynn said “We were ‘lace curtain’ not ‘shanty’ Irish. And after [my father] passed we still came up with enough money to send me to the best high school in the region.” (This on December 31.)

What is missing from these early e-mails? Anything remotely erotic. It’s true that the exchange is quite cordial. Given that Flynn is the subject of a journalistic profile, he has every incentive to be cordial. And McBride has every incentive to establish a cordial relationship with her source. It’s not everybody’s style (it’s not Dan Bice’s, for example), but it’s a defensible style.

After January 5.

After January 5, McBride had turned the story in to editor Bruce Murphy of Milwaukee Magazine. Murphy asked for a rewrite (although McBride had no way of knowing he was going to do so). The cordial e-mails continued.

One exchange started when Bruce Murphy asked McBride to find out whether the drop in murders in Milwaukee was merely due to a change in the definition of “murder.” Flynn, on January 18, replied with a detailed explanation of why it was not.

Numerous other e-mails dealt with various intellectual interests. Flynn and McBride discussed the movie “Doubt,” the movie “Valkyrie,” a trip Flynn made to Washington, DC, Clint Eastwood and the movie “Gran Torino,” Milwaukee talk show host Mark Belling, law enforcement and criminal justice, concealed carry legislation, and Milwaukee mayors (past and present). And a lot of other stuff.

Flynn said he liked “Penelope Cruz in ‘Elegy’ based on the Philip Roth book, ‘The Dying Animal’” and that he is generally amused by Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

On January 27, Flynn informs McBride he has bought “Public School Administration for Dummies.” McBride’s response: “So are you going to be MPS superintendent?”

In these e-mails, the two come across as people who like a good discussion, and maybe even as intellectual soul mates.

So what is missing? Anything even remotely erotic.

The Decisive E-mails

On the very day McBride turned the story in, she wrote Flynn with the suggestion “I could tell you interesting background on Milwaukee, its chiefs, and various characters you are encountering (inside and outside the dept.). I think you’re right about Milwaukee. The environment is receptive right now. People are sick of things not working. The city’s been very tough on past chiefs. . . .” Flynn replied with “You’re on. One of these days a debrief would be helpful.” A longer e-mail from Flynn on the same day says:
Thank you. Once the article is declared done, with the expectation that you won’t be “covering” me in your professional capacity, I guess we wouldn’t be violating journalistic ethics (notice I didn’t make a smart remark) if we stayed connected and I received some of the benefit of your particular perspective.
Was this the beginning of an adulterous relationship?

Not anytime soon.

On January 27, Flynn wrote to McBride an e-mail discussing a variety of topics, which concluded with “Good to hear from you. Maybe we can connect sometime in next couple of weeks.”

On March 30, McBride suggests to the Chief “Let me know when you want to catch a cup of coffee after you get back, now that the story has been put to bed.” On April 1, Flynn responds saying “When I return let’s get together for that cup. I look forward to it.”

On April 23, after McBride’s profile had appeared on the newsstands, Flynn sent the following e-mail to McBride:
As I navigate in a sea of controversy, I wanted to take a moment and tell you the consensus among my family, friends, and the mayor is that “The Cop Who Can’t Stop” is well written, thoughtful, balanced, empathetic to its subject, broad in perspective, humorous where appropriate and a good read.

From my perspective, I’m grateful that you put so much effort into really trying to understand your subject and to place it (me) in context which is both private and public, personal and professional. I thank you also the generosity of spirit that informed your writing.

Now that that’s done, let’s schedule that coffee! If you’re really nice, you might even get a guest speaker out of the deal!
This sure doesn’t sound like two people who are carrying on an affair.

McBride responded later the same day with “It was really nice to hear from you, and I must say that your email meant a lot to me. I knew you wouldn’t like every line in that piece, but I had hopes that you would see it as being fair. . . .” Then after a discussion of how her husband Paul Bucher has often been treated unfairly, she concluded with:
Coffee would be great. Let me know what days work for you. For me, Mondays are wide open, Fridays sometimes have time available, Tues-Thurs are out due to class schedule until May 7, when classes end. A Saturday is theoretically possible albeit tougher, and Sundays are out.
Flynn then replied to her with an April 26 e-mail (if he had the hots so badly, why did it take three days to respond?):
Give me some numbers you can be reached. Scheduling something as simple as a coffee break is remarkably complicated! I get your Tuesday-Thursday conflicts. Tomorrow is wacky for me until 5, for example. Think we’ll need to be flexible. There’s stuff I’d like to get your perspective on. Maybe coffee could be lunch one day. We’ll work on it.
McBride wrote back to Flynn on April 27.
Hi chief,

It just occurred to me that you asked for my contact info and, in the entire lengthy opus that I wrote you about guns before, I forgot to provide it.
McBride then gave Flynn what appear to be her work and home phone numbers.

So we are supposed to believe that Flynn didn’t know how to contact his “on the side” lover (other than via e-mail)?

Could Flynn have been intent on getting McBride in the sack? Could McBride have been thinking that that would be nice? We can’t rule that out, but if they had the hots for each other back in December and early January when McBride was actually writing the story, they certainly showed a lot of restraint.

And it’s certainly plausible that Flynn, a public figure in an inherently contentious position, would find the opportunity to hear a briefing from a prominent local journalist to be a dandy professional opportunity. And it’s equally plausible that McBride would find a good relationship with an important figure to be a professional boon.

The Love Letter

The only evidence that can even be spun to show an affair (or even an infatuation) before McBride turned in the profile is a love letter she wrote to Flynn in May. Yet Bice and the Journal-Sentinel quoted it very selectively and tendentiously. Consider, for example, this passage:
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was something from the moment we locked eyes in Anne’s office. It grew when you let me inside you with the tavern story and it slowly developed through intellectual repartee. At the time, I didn’t think romantically, not consciously, at least.
Bice only quotes “I think there was something from the moment we locked eyes in Anne’s office,” and ignores the “looking back with the benefit of hindsight” phrase, the “it grew when you let me inside you with the tavern story” phrase and the “developed through intellectual repartee” phrase. And of course, Bice left out “I didn’t think romantically, not consciously, at least.”

Properly quoting the entire passage would have made it clear that there was no affair, and not even any genuine romantic feelings when McBride interviewed Flynn in Anne E. Schwartz office in December.

In the same letter, written for Flynn to read when McBride was in France in May, there is the phrase “Where to begin? How can words properly express the last few weeks?”

Huh? “Past few weeks?”

Bice, of course, doesn’t quote this.

Finally, McBride wrote in the same letter “I wasn’t looking for this; it came to me. It surprised me, sort of crashed into my life.”

Journalistic Misconduct

Quite simply, accusations that McBride was guilty of a breach of journalistic ethics are dependent on reciting a few salacious details of the affair, and omitting the chronology of how it unfolded. Bice admits the Journal-Sentinel lacked a key April 23 e-mail showing that only after that date did Flynn and McBride get together. If the Journal-Sentinel did not have this e-mail, it would appear they were manipulated by a source that leaked a bunch of e-mails and selectively omitted the April 23 missive, and indeed other e-mails showing the same thing.

If the paper did have these e-mails, they simply chose to ignore them in order to support the theme of journalistic misconduct.

McBride, in sum, has been the victim of shoddy journalism on the part of the Journal-Sentinel and the ideological bias of local liberal bloggers. Her sins (like those of Flynn) have been considerable, but a breach of journalistic ethics is not one of them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

In lawyer & judge codes of professional conduct, there's a duty to not only avoid impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety. I think that question is just as apt for journalistic ethics, so I don't find this parsing of a specific timeline all that useful.

8:11 AM  
Blogger RAG said...

I think the ethics anaylsys was well-done but at the end of the day I will tip my scales slightly in favor of the chief.

That's because when the news came out the chief apologized to his wife and to his officers for failing to exercise appropriate leadership.

Jess' response was more CYA.

The chief wins that one.

10:15 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

In lawyer & judge codes of professional conduct, there's a duty to not only avoid impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety.

But the appearance of impropriety can't be controlled by the actions of the journalist (or lawyer or judge).

You seem to be saying that if very biased people perceive impropriety, that's as bad as actually having done something unethical.

Your standard makes everybody subject to the biased standards of their ideological enemies.

There was not even any appearance of impropriety until long after the story was turned in.

By the way, your response seems to concede the lack of real impropriety.

12:31 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

at the end of the day I will tip my scales slightly in favor of the chief.

Fine, but that's not the subject of my post. Judged on moral grounds, neither Flynn nor McBride look good.

But the subject of my post was journalistic ethics.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

John I say nothing about "very biased people". You seem to assume that everyone who disagrees with you must fit in that category. I could just as easily assume that you're "very biased" for defending this journalism.

And I don't concede lack of impropriety. I adopt it for the sake of argument here.

Briefly, would you consider that a journalist's integrity could be skewed by something less than a full sexual relationship? A growing infatuation could skew a journalist's objectivity as well.

8:47 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

would you consider that a journalist's integrity could be skewed by something less than a full sexual relationship?

How about Chris Matthews who said that he gets a "thrill up his leg" when he hears Barack Obama?

Journalists have all kinds of feelings toward their subjects, some positive and some negative.

It's the job of journalists to control their biases. Bruce Murphy maintains that McBride submitted a fair article, with much more negative material in it than is the norm dealing with Flynn.

The fact that they later got sexually involved is irrelevant.

And I stand by my statement that the people demanding McBride's scalp are biased against her because she is conservative.

You would never think of applying the same standard to a liberal journalist.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous George Mitchell said...

Excellent work, John.

Many reporters, including a number in the Journal Sentinel newsroom, have ideological/intellectual love affairs with those they cover.

The willingness to draw conclusions about McBride's journalistic ethics without conclusive evidence is, as you say, journalistic malpractice.

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sad part is that mcbride learned that his son idolizes him and then engaged in a course of conduct she could foresee would damage that relationship. and speaking as an administrative law judge, OF COURSE it is within one's control to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is the outrage over Noble Wray losing his wallet and badge in a hooker's apartment on Teutonia ?

He don't count, he's black I guess.

7:15 PM  

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