Former Commonwealth Publisher Tim Lyke, left, on a Ripon College panel in 2016 argues against reporters refuting or even clarifying their sources’ false or incomplete claims. With him are, from left, Michael Wagner, associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication; moderator and Ripon College Professor Henrich Schatzinger; and WTMJ radio talk show host  and MSNBC commentator Charlie Sykes from Milwaukee.

“No culture can exist on a crooked relationship to truth.” — Robert Musil, “The Man Without Qualities” (1930-1943)

During a September 2016 Ripon College symposium on “Media and the 2016 Election,” I served on a panel in which Ripon resident and former newspaper journalist David Sakrison asked whether we would consider correcting — in print and in the same story — inaccurate statements made by sources.

While one of my fellow panelists agreed that at least some auto-correct might be necessary or truth-monitoring by a third party, I answered no. As journalists, I stated, our job is to accurately report what sources say but not to offer real-time judgements on the veracity of their quotes.

“I’m a little nervous about the mainstream media suddenly fact checking stories,” I sanctimoniously offered. “We do not do that because we don’t want to put spin on it and because” we don’t want to be selective fact checkers. “That’s not our job. Our job is to chronicle what is said and what is done and let you the reader decide … it’s your responsibility as informed Americans, who have Google, to fact check on your own.”

Two months later, America elected a president whose guiding principle of truth was, “It’s so because I said it’s so.”

“No one is less racist (or anti-semitic) than me… Mexico will pay for the wall…The sentence [before Putin in Helsinki] should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia’… [Covid 19] is going to disappear; it’s disappearing… they say the [windmill] noise causes cancer… I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as [the World Trade Center] was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering ... We’re going to walk down [to the U.S. Capitol] and I’ll be right there with you.”

Sociopathic lying to the American people became the SOP for the former president. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker documented 4,229 wrong or misleading claims from Trump, averaging nearly 7.6 a day.

So what’s a journalist to do?

The Commonwealth recently received a thoughtful letter from Ripon resident Dave Gray calling into question the way reporter Joe Schulz wrote a May 12 story about Rep. Glenn Grothman’s talk to the Green Lake Rotary Club.

Gray took Schulz to task for following several of the Glenbeulah Republican’s comments with his own responses. Schulz “dedicates four inches discussing the related topics of abortion and maternal mortality, seemingly in his effort to discredit Grothman’s comments,” Gray wrote, suggesting that a news story is no place for reporters to insert their opinions.

Before 2016 I would have sympathized with Gray, and to this day I agree with him that there’s no room for a reporter’s view on any page of the newspaper that doesn’t sport an “Opinions” header.

But should a reporter correct a lie? Or contextualize a partial truth? Or provide background to better flesh out the truth?

I’d argue that a source’s misstatement or partial truth should be followed by a secondary-sourced clarification or correction, not to humiliate the primary source, but to provide the reader with the truth.

So was Schulz opining, or simply mopping up after an accuracy spill? Turns out he was doing neither. He was providing context.

Some statements beg for refutation.

If Sen. Smith says she believes the holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by Jews, a reporter would be irresponsible not to follow-up that specious claim with a paragraph explaining that Allied forces liberating concentration camps freed Jewish prisoners and uncovered mass graves filled with Jewish bodies.

Still, journalism purists like this pre-2016 writer would recommend caveat lector — let the reader beware.

But when a government lies to the governed, or tells a half truth, a referee is needed to dispassionately call facts and fakes.

In the instance of Schulz’s story on Grothman, the congressman said U.S. churches need to do a better job persuading the public to make abortion illegal. Nothing factually wrong with that observation.

But Schulz followed that up with data confirming Grothman’s observation that much of the country is pro-choice, citing a 2022 Pew Research Center report claiming that 61% of American adults believe abortion should be legal. Now that wasn’t an opinion; it was context, though arguably Schulz could have chosen other statistics to cite. Schulz then explained Wisconsin’s current law, dating back to the 1800s, which would make abortion illegal with no exceptions should the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion become law. Again, opinion-less context that provides a better bed for Grothman’s opinion to lie in.

Grothman is quoted as saying childbirth is safer today than it was when the court handed down the Roe decision in 1973.

Schulz followed the congressman’s observation quoting a 2020 report by the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund stating that the U.S. maternal mortality rate is “last overall among industrialized countries.” That doesn’t refute what Grothman said, but it seems sort of a “yes, but” comment that didn’t belong in the story.

Finally, Schulz reported that Grothman told Green Lake Rotarians that inflation was due to government overspending that caused the Federal Reserve to print more money.

The reporter then cited “economists” attributing inflation to supply-chain issues, increased consumer demand, higher production costs and federal COVID-19 relief funds. Schulz also noted that inflation is not unique to America, with Europe experiencing higher prices bud to increased energy costs and raw material shortages.

Gray suggested that paragraph “might be best described as Biden talking points,” adding that the current administration’s energy and environmental policies are fundamental to America’s highly inflated costs of gasoline and natural gas.

Because the reader is no less an expert on inflation causes than Schulz’s unnamed “economists,” his observation, unwittingly perhaps, makes the valid point: reporters providing context need to buttress their reporting with sources’ names. He did that with a link online but failed to provide an attribution in print.

So there you have it.

In its effort to provide readers with context, the Commonwealth had the enterprise to provide additional information to further elucidate issues.

But by failing in at least one instance to quote sources by name, the newspaper ran the risk of molding that context in a way that made the primary source look shallow or opportunistic or partisan.

Now the congressman may be all or none of those, but Gray correctly observed that unattributed “Biden talking points” have no place in a news story. The notion that inflation is a global phenomenon should have been included, but ascribed to someone other than “economists.”

Gray’s thoughtful letter — which ended with “I have enjoyed much of the quality content [Schulz] brings readers week after week” — was a welcome shot across the Commonwealth’s bow.

Particularly during these polarized times, journalists have to be hyper-vigilant to excise from their reporting anything that smacks of partisanship or one upmanship.

They must leave opinions, even embedded in facts, to their sources — and to their editorial writers.

— Tim Lyke

(15) comments

Mark Alexander

Sallies ONLY comment to any of this should be Thank You commonwealth for not fact checking all of my crazy incoherent ramblings and sources that are beyond garbage. w mm Websites run by grifters and angry insane people that should be seeing a psychiatrist. trump lost Sallie. He is a criminal that tried to over throw our government based on only selfish greed, pride and and arrogance. We need to hold him accountable for his atrocities and lock him up

Sallie Helmer

LIVE: President Donald J. Trump in Memphis, Tennessee --The greatest President America has had in a long time.

Bill Bumby

Why is that, Sallie? Because he hates the same people you do?

Sallie Helmer

Why would I hate anyone? My love for Keeping America Great and for #45’s ability to Save America I am happy to be a winner. After only 18 months the government you voted for is falling apart. It was all predicted.

Dale Failor

Sally you missed the boat, Trump said he is the greatest president ever. I am surprised at you, Trump will hold you accountable for that statement.

Jill Geer

Media outlets have a duty to report truth, understanding that we seem to live in a world where truth is now entirely subjective. If the subject of a story makes an irrefutably false statement, there are two options: don't include the statement in the story, or follow the statement with objective facts. In the case of the church/abortion issue, the subject wasn't making a factual statement, he was stating an opinion. On the subject of inflation ... it is quite factually complicated. I subscribe to supply chain/Ukraine/etc causes, but reasonable people can disagree.

Holocaust deniers are at best wrong; at worst, they are evil.

I tire of "gotcha" journalism where outlets of various stripes rush to call quoted people liars. But the press is the Fourth Estate, and as such is part of the checks and balances that are important to an effective democracy. So ... don't scold, call names or provide context for the sake of being snarky, but do provide objective truth and contrary facts, especially if faced with objectively false information.

Sallie Helmer

What about acting President Biden? Nothing about Biden? He has been acting as president for nearly two years now and you have never written an editorial about him. Please explain.

Jim Hess

Should a journalist fix this statement ? “I don’t want to hear any more of these lies about reckless spending,” Biden declared angrily on Tuesday, citing recent deficit reductions. “We’re changing people’s lives!”

Arthur Baseler

Biden is acting like the President because he is the President. Wishing he wasn't doesn't make it so Sallie.

Sallie Helmer

Wait for it.

Bill Bumby

Will you be releasing the Kraken again, Sallie? Don’t you ever get tired of appearing the fool?

Arthur Baseler

Just got four big bags of popcorn at Costco for the rest of the hearings. tRump for prison!

Sallie Helmer

Important information.

Bill Bumby

Why would anyone want to listen to anything this grifting, whiny, pathetic loser has to say? Now, send him another $20.00, Sallie…

Arthur Baseler

As long as we're copying and pasting:

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