Milwaukee School Board President Calls for New Beat Reporter

By Mark Walsh — October 30, 2014 6 min read
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A conflict over news coverage of the Milwaukee Public Schools broke out into the open this week over a request by the school board president that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assign a different reporter to cover the school system.

Michael Bonds, the board president, made public a letter he wrote to the editor of the city’s only major daily newspaper on Oct. 1 outlining his concerns with the work of the education beat reporter, Erin Richards.

“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,” Bonds said in the letter to Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser. “It is my opinion we have reached a critical point and I am asking you to assign someone other than Ms. Richards to the education beat.”

However, Kaiser said in an interview that he never received the letter and had no other communication from Bonds raising concerns about the paper’s coverage.

The board president’s concerns came to Richards’ attention through an item listed on the agenda for this week’s monthly meeting of the Milwaukee school board.

The agenda included the monthly report of the board president, with Bonds listing such recent activities as participation in the bell ringing on the first day of school, meeting with a group of black ministers about partnership opportunities, and “requesting that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assign a new reporter who is not biased against MPS to cover MPS.”

When the agenda was released on Oct. 29, Richards tweeted the news: “Well, this is unusual. It appears I’m an item on tomorrow’s Milwaukee School Board agenda.”

Reached by phone Thursday morning, Richards said the move was somewhat surprising to her because she wasn’t aware of any formal concerns raised with the paper.

“What is true over the last four years is that the relations between the Milwaukee media and the school board have been tense,” Richards said, citing a tightening of access to schools and educators that she said prevailed under former Superintendent Gregory Thornton, who left this year to lead the Baltimore schools.

“I’m probably affected by [the tense relations] more because I’m the only full-time reporter covering the beat,” Richards added. “I’m in their hair more.”

She acknowledged that Bonds had raised some concerns with her about particular stories, but was surprised he was prepared to request her removal from the beat.

An Undelivered Letter?

When Bonds was reached by phone moments later, he said he, in turn, was surprised that Richards was unaware of the Oct. 1 letter to her boss.

On that point, the letter seems to have gotten lost in the mail, or something. “I never got a letter from” Bonds, editor Kaiser said later on Thursday. “I have never had a phone call or email from him.”

Regardless of whether it was misdirected, Bonds released a copy of his letter to the Journal Sentinel editor, which outlines four areas of concern, “virtually all of which involve Ms. Richards: factual errors, failure to fairly report or assess data/information, failure to cover critical meetings and events, and typographical errors.”

The letter discusses 23 specific beefs with stories by Richards. Some involved typos, such as a misspelling of Kinnickinnic Avenue in Milwaukee, or relatively minor factual errors, such as misstating the title of a college-prep curriculum.

For several of the examples, Bonds indicates that the newspaper made timely corrections to the errors.

But Bonds alleges several instances of the reporter’s failure to “fairly report/assess data or information.” And he says Richards fails to cover Milwaukee school board meetings and other critical events.

“We’re tired of her lopsided, inaccurate reporting,” which “portrays a negative image to the public,” Bonds said in the interview. “I’m still not convinced she is right and competent for the job.”

I forwarded Bonds’ letter to Richards and asked her to respond—not to every example cited, but to the concern about covering meetings in person. The reporter acknowledged that she does not attend some meetings because of the demands of her job, but tunes in to live radio coverage.

“In this day and age, with one reporter on the education beat who also has to cover everything during the day, it is impossible for me to attend every Milwaukee School Board meeting,” Richards said via email. “Nor is it a good use of my time. Increasingly, I advance stories involving issues coming up on the agenda, and follow-up on items after the vote has happened.”

In response to criticism in Bonds’ letter that she failed to cover the meeting in which the appointment of acting Superintendent Darienne Driver was announced, Richards said, “I worked on a story during the day, filed it, then pre-wrote another story about Darienne because I suspected her appointment was coming. That night, I had the news online faster than MPS even had it posted after the vote happened. Why? Because I was listening to the radio. But I wasn’t going to go sit there in person, because they were in closed session.”

Kaiser said he and other Journal Sentinel editors are fine with Richards’ approach to covering the board’s meetings.

“We look at the agenda,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be at every meeting.”

Referring to what he said was the school system’s “standard operating procedure” to make things difficult for reporters, Kaiser said, “This is all about [the district] controlling the message. To me, it’s disappointing [Bonds] feels that way.”

Media Concerns Raised With District

Richards on Thursday sent a letter to Driver, who became the full-fledged superintendent on Oct. 1, signed by several Milwaukee reporters and others expressing hope that Driver will help the school system “embark on a course that will make it easier for reporters to adequately cover education issues in Milwaukee.”

“We think it’s important for you to be aware of media practices that are not worthy of a major urban school district,” the letter continues, citing a lack of access to teachers and administrators, an inability to interview most administrators or educators without a member of the district’s “community engagement” staff present, and last-minute email responses to queries that make it difficult for reporters to follow up, among other concerns.

Tony Tagliavia, a spokesman for the school district, said, “We are in receipt of her letter and are reviewing her concerns.”

Alan Borsuk, a former longtime Journal Sentinel reporter who is now a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the episode “was simultaneously both a serious matter and something to laugh at.”

Every reporter who has sought to cover the Milwaukee Public Schools in recent years has faced noncooperation and resistance, said Borsuk, who writes a weekly column on education for the paper and is a friend of Richards.

“I’m not going to tell you Erin or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are perfect,” he said. “Some things in Bonds’ letter are trivial, some are a little more serious. I do put a lot of the blame on the MPS folks for creating a really tense and difficult environment.”

And he acknowledged that pressures facing the news industry may be partly to blame. The Journal Sentinel had seven full-time education reporters a few years ago, but because of cuts and buyouts, that is down to one-and-one-half at best, he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.