February 2, 2009

Without newspaper oversight, who's watching?

For a while now, I've been meaning to write a different kind of piece about newspapers.

One that says, in no uncertain terms, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has become one hell of a newspaper.

Oh, sure, we've all seen its staff cuts, its ad linage decrease, the demise of the never-very-good Racine section. But in all that bad news have we missed what a fine watchdog the Journal Sentinel has become?

I've not kept track of all the good investigative journalism coming down from Milwaukee, but last week's series on Wisconsin Shares brought it home again. Remember right after the inauguration? The Journal Sentinel pointed out that two Milwuakee County supervisors went to the party on the taxpayers' dime (more like $4,000, if I remember correctly). Ding! They gave the money back.

The paper won a local reporting Pulitzer last year for its exposé on Milwaukee County officials rigging the pension system to pad their own benefits. There was another story early this year -- a throwaway, almost -- in which the Journal Sentinel revealed a deal some legislators had figured out, to avoid their pension meltdown. Theirs, not ours.

Also in 2008, the paper revealed the carcinogenic chemicals in plastic used for baby bottles.

And then two weeks ago they ventured down into Racine County, and in two days showed us the hundreds of thousands of dollars being stolen, in part thanks to sloppily written legislation and total lack of oversight, by four Racine sisters who charged the state $540,000 over three years for babysitting each other's children. And thousands more by another Racine woman who appears to have pretended to have a job she worked at seven days a week for almost a year -- even on the day she gave birth -- to collect more than $3,000 a month in child care while she allegedly worked for less than minimum wage.

In all, the Journal Sentinel found more than $700,000 worth of fraud traced to Racine County alone, and millions elsewhere. The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

How could they find this? The state spends $340 million a year on Wisconsin Shares child care, but hasn't audited it since 2001. Racine County's own fraud discovery unit was disbanded years ago -- to save us money. (How's that workin' for ya?) Instead, we pay $50,000 a year to a private investigation firm in Germantown. State money, doncha know, not local money, so it's a great deal for the county. Except the reality is that no fraud is being investigated -- in a program that spent $55 million here in the last five years to help low-income working families pay for child care..

There's enough blame to go around: County Executive Bill McReynolds eliminated the fraud investigation unit. Equally damning, he appeared to deny the Journal Sentinel's findings entirely when they first came out. The Journal Times' headline after the first County Board meeting at which McReynolds discussed the matter, read: "No county inadequacy over child care system, McReynolds claims." The story then said McReynolds "defended allegations that county workers failed to stop fraudulent child care payments."

But then Mac appeared to come around to the reality of the situation: the county will not tolerate fraud, he said, and will cooperate with any state investigation. Oh, sure, he also wants to investigate how the Journal Sentinel got its information -- the kill the messenger syndrome -- but that's always one of government's first responses.

Now everyone is on board. Legislators are clamoring to be part of the promised state audit, and are "in full agreement ... that Wisconsin Shares requires close scrutiny. The people of Racine County and all of Wisconsin deserve no less." That's from a letter jointly signed by McReynolds and Rep. Robin Vos. We've heard from the Democrats, too. The first hearing of the legislative committe looking into the program is scheduled for Feb. 18.

And how did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dig out this mess? Reporter Raquel Rutledge dug through 2,500 records and documents over four-months, looking for whatever seemed suspicious. She did this in the face of the usual difficulties thrown up against investigative reporters: limited access, denials, people unwilling to talk. Ah, what she might have found with subpoena power or access to all the relevant paperwork! And yet, she still found "a trail of phony companies, fake reports and shoddy oversight."

All this from a newspaper industry that's been far too narcissistic lately, chronicling its own demise, to a public that, frankly, my dear, doesn't appear to give a damn. Reporters and editors are being laid off right and left; newshole cut; foreign news bureaus closed; state capital reporters called home; entire newspaper staffs ordered to take one week, unpaid furloughs this spring. (All 31,000 employees at Gannett newspapers, for example. Furloughs are coming to the Journal Times as well... even as we heard of four more local layoffs last week.)

My point, though, is that without newspaper oversight, there's often no oversight. Editor and Publisher magazine, the newspaper industry's trade paper, today named Martin Kaiser, editor of the Journal Sentinel, its Editor of the Year. From our perspective, the award is well deserved. Sadly, we need many more Marty Kaisers, at a time when the industry and the economy are giving us far fewer.


  1. I agree. I've been very "proud" of the Journal Sentinel recently. Daniel Bice's "No Quarter" columns are exactly what we need in Racine: exposés of waste and corruption in local government.

    My jaw dropped when Mac categorically denied anything was wrong and tried to turn it into a witch-hunt for whistleblowers. The dream is over in Racine politics - the Becker fiasco, coupled with the economy, have finally gotten the voters' attention. I hope that we can maintain the momentum. Local investigative reporting would help immensely. If the Racine Post gets the financial support, will you be up to the task?

  2. It just struck me how ironic it is that I had to ask that last question in my previous post. We have a "newspaper of record" in Racine. It's been around for over a hundred years, hasn't it? Things have deteriorated there to the point that they don't even come to mind when a term like "investigative reporting" is brought up. How sad.

  3. Great article, Pete! I've noticed the quality at JSonline. See my recent blog:


    Of course I still come here to poke around too! :)