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Chris Rickert: Burke's 'firing' and cleaning up another partisan-made mess
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Chris Rickert: Burke's 'firing' and cleaning up another partisan-made mess

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I don’t usually feel sorry for my colleagues in the mainstream media. No, we don’t make a lot of money, have the best hours or get much respect from the political left or right, who routinely accuse us of being shills for the political right and left, respectively.

But news gathering is a great way to keep the mind sharp, it’s fun to ask powerful people uncomfortable questions, and who doesn’t like to see his or her name (or face) in print? 

Still, I felt for the reporters who had to clean up after the mess one right-wing-funded Internet “news” site made this week. Gathering the news should be about adding accurate information to the conversation, not correcting the ridiculous turn the conversation has taken.

In the conversation over who should be the next governor — incumbent Republican Scott Walker or Democrat Mary Burke — the Wisconsin Reporter dropped a bomb by detailing allegations from a former Burke co-worker at Trek, Gary Ellerman, and several unnamed sources that Burke had been fired from the company 21 years ago.

Turns out that further reporting by this newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and others proved Ellerman wasn’t the most even-handed of critics. He ran as a fake Democrat in the recall elections two years ago and had a penchant for making offensive posts on his Facebook page, and Trek said he was fired for “poor performance.”

Moreover, another former Trek executive and Republican donor who verified Ellerman’s story had complimentary things to say about Burke and declined to say whether her time at Trek made her a bad choice for governor. Other former Trek executives flatly rejected the Wisconsin Reporter story, as did the Trek CEO, Mary’s brother John Burke. In any case, Mary Burke couldn’t have been that bad as she was rehired two years later and worked there seven more years.

Michael Wagner, an assistant professor of journalism at UW-Madison, said he was “surprised at how thin” the Wisconsin Reporter story was.

“There was no evidence corroborating the sources’ claims of how much Burke allegedly failed to grow the business in Europe; it was just a source’s claim,” he said.

Usually, it’s better to ignore poorly reported, partisan drivel — from either side, and there has certainly been no shortage of ridiculous assertions about Walker over the past four years.

One problem with ignoring the Wisconsin Reporter story, though, is that it dropped a week before the election and concerned Burke’s main argument for why she should be elected — that she knows how to grow business and add jobs.

Any paper of record that ignores it gets accused by the right of covering up for Burke and by the left for not setting the record straight.

The other problem can be summed up in a June Pew Research Center poll that found Americans have grown more politically divided over the past 20 years and that the most politically engaged also tend to be the most partisan.

There’s a big audience for the Wisconsin Reporters of the world, in other words, and for their mirror opposites on the left.

That’s probably not a good thing, but it can’t be ignored.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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