By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Milwaukee Board of School Directors President Michael Bonds doesn’t like what he calls “biased” coverage by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Erin Richards.
So he’s asking the state’s largest newspaper to take Richards off the beat and assign a different journalist to write about Milwaukee Public Schools — or else.
“I just requested that we have somebody who’s objective, who’s going to give the readers the truth and everything about what’s going on … we want a new reporter or else we’re going to cut off all ties with the Journal in terms of communication with them,” Bonds told Wisconsin Reporter on Wednesday.
Bonds suggested he wants to have a different reporter cover MPS because Richards is incompetent. But several examples of what he called inaccurate reporting, included in Bonds’ Oct. 1 letter to Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser, indicate what Bonds really dislikes is critical coverage.
Bonds, a union supporter, was especially critical of a June 2013 story that highlighted savings due to Act 10, Republican Gov. Scott Walker‘s signature collective-bargaining reform law. Richards based that article on a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which Bonds describes as a “right-wing think tank.” Bonds said Richards didn’t include a statement from MPS until after two follow-up emails.
Richards also drew the ire of Bonds in Februrary when, he said, she didn’t contact MPS for comment on a Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty complaint against MPS. WILL, a free-market organization, had asked for access to public records involving the vacant Malcolm X Academy. WILL found through other records that MPS was blocking choice schools from buying the empty facility and several others.
Bonds also took exception with Richards when she wrote two stories last month about MPS and the developer of the Malcolm X project parting ways. Bonds said he provided documentation MPS was willing to pay about $500,000 for work that was already done, but he got upset when Richards noted the developer was seeking $1 million.
Bonds will update his fellow board members on his inquiry at Thursday’s school board meeting. The report being presented to the board says Bonds is “requesting that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assign a new reporter who isn’t biased against MPS to cover MPS.”
However, Bonds told Wisconsin Reporter he isn’t trying to control media coverage or the content in the Journal Sentinel’s stories.
“I’m not telling (Richards) what to report,” said Bonds, who called himself a firm backer of the First Amendment. “We’re just asking that they provide the public with fair and objective information.”
In the Oct. 1 letter addressed to Kaiser, Bonds lists more than 20 stories and tweets by Richards he said contain either factual or typographical errors or fail to fairly report and assess data and information. Bonds also claims Richards wrote stories about critical meetings and events she never attended.
Kaiser couldn’t be reached for comment.
Richards, when contacted by Wisconsin Reporter on Thursday, called the issues detailed in Bonds’ letter petty.
“I think many of the concerns raised here, given the quantity of the stories we write and the complexity of the stories I write, are really minor,” Richards said. “And I also think that it’s eyebrow-raising for a large government institution to ask editors to move someone off of a beat.”
Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett was practically speechless when Wisconsin Reporter told her about the request. She doesn’t think Bonds’ inquiry will go far, and she’s confident other government officials won’t follow suit because she said it “doesn’t make any sense.”
“Quite frankly, I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Bennett said. “I mean, how can a public official think that they can make the Journal Sentinel send somebody different to a public meeting?”
Bonds contends his concerns are “certainly noticed” by MPS personnel. He also said several staff members have had so many negative experiences with Richards they will no longer talk to her.
“This combination of significant issues causes substantial problems for the Journal Sentinel and MPS,” Bonds said in the letter to Kaiser. “We certainly cannot continue, on a regular basis, to correct errors and identify problem situations. I don’t believe the Journal Sentinel, which has a special responsibility as the only daily newspaper in Milwaukee, can continue down a path where those who are covered by a reporter have declining confidence in her ability to get the story right.”
Richards, as well as other Milwaukee media members, sent a letter to MPS on Thursday morning asking school district officials to get together to talk about press policies and larger media access issues.