‘I’ll hold your hair’: An open letter to the Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice


DAN BICE CRUSHED HER DREAMS: Wisconsin Reporter answered questions about Burke first raised in the Journal Sentinel.

By Will Swaim | Watchdog.org

Dear Dan: Go ahead, man. Lean over the toilet and let it out.

It must have been hard to include Wisconsin Reporter – even backhanded – among the winners in your post-election “Winners and Losers” column.

Don’t fight it, Dan. I’ll hold your hair.

In crediting Michael Grebe with Gov. Scott Walker’s Election Day win over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, you note that Grebe – Walker’s campaign chairman and head of (what you call) “the conservative Bradley Foundation” – “has poured money into online outlets that dig up dirt on Democrats and liberals.” One of those groups, you say, is our own Wisconsin Reporter, “the first,” you note, “to write up the allegations that Burke had been forced out as head of European operations at Trek Bicycle in 1993.”

But here’s where you’ve got it wrong – PR-wise, I mean. Don’t try to diminish the accomplishments of Wisconsin Reporter. Claim them as your own.

You, Daniel Bice, deserve some credit here. We got this idea from you.

Wisconsin Reporter’s Matt Kittle did indeed break the news that Burke was fired from the family-owned firm. She was fired by her brother – and can we all just say, “Yikes!” because, you know, we’ve all kind of been there with family.

This contradicted Burke’s campaign-trail assertions – that she was a pyrotechnical success while overseeing Trek Bicycle Corporation’s European operations. And you, Dan Bice, were the first to see it.

Let me wipe your nose and explain how you ought to spin this.

On Sept. 8, Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel observed that Burke’s “résumé includes an odd and little-explained two-year gap between management positions at Trek, her family-owned business, in the mid-1990s.” You noted there were differences in the explanation for what you said “has been dubbed a ‘snowboarding sabbatical.’”

“I do want to fill in the blanks or resolve any inconsistencies,” Burke reportedly told you. “There are different things out there, and I want people to know the truth.”

Did Daniel Bice let that go? He did not.

Feeling better? I thought so. Check this out.

In that same article, you observe that Burke said she left her family’s company because she was tired. You give her the benefit of the doubt – though it was clear to smart readers even then that you doubted. You report her assertions: Burke told you she’d spent “several years setting up five Trek offices in Europe and overseeing two others. She lived in Germany, Holland and Spain during this span. She has said Trek’s European sales jumped from $3 million a year to $50 million annually.”

And here’s the key, Dan. At that point in her narrative you tell readers those are sale “numbers that have not been independently verified” – and you link readers to a story from January (January, Dan!) in which the Journal Sentinel’s own PolitiFact reported that Burke and Trek couldn’t/wouldn’t back up those numbers with documents. Writing on Jan. 8, your colleague Tom Kertscher reported that “Burke and Trek – a company founded by her father and run by her brother – have repeatedly refused PolitiFact Wisconsin’s requests to document her claim.”

You see where I’m going with this. Drink this Sprite; it’s supposed to be good for the tummy.

You stopped because you couldn’t find documents. But that didn’t stop Mary Burke from making the claim.

So Matt Kittle tracked down executives who worked with her – people willing to tell Wisconsinites what really happened to Mary Burke at Trek in 1993. With one exception, those people feared going public with their accounts – feared that Trek or other Burke supporters would make their lives miserable.

Kittle got one person on the record along with four – four! – other Trek employees to speak anonymously about their direct knowledge of Burke’s termination. And when that story appeared, it took you, Dan Bice, just a few hours and two colleagues to confirm it independently.

And then it got a little weird, didn’t it, Dan?

Because it took one of your Wisconsin Journal Sentinel colleagues just a few more hours to dismiss Kittle’s findings (and, by extension, your findings, Dan) as “20-year-old twaddle.” He called the revelations about Burke – published now by Wisconsin Reporter and the Journal Sentinel! – “a classic political trick, an October surprise of innuendo and half-truths.”

I’m not sure which part of Burke’s firing he regards as true, but I can tell you (offline) the whole truth about what I’d say to one of my colleagues for knee-capping me like that in public.

All this internal sturm und drang – a colleague writing in your paper’s “Our View” section to suggest that the appropriate thing to do with unpleasant news is to sit on it – all of this, I say, may account for the fact that you’re (what’s the word?) vomiting a little maybe as you congratulate Grebe for his “investment” in Wisconsin Reporter.

But saying that, Dan – saying that Wisconsin Reporter’s Mary Burke expose produced “big returns for Wisconsin Republicans” – gives you too little credit.

The truth about Mary Burke isn’t a Republican win. It’s a big win for all of Wisconsin. And your telling of it so far gives you no credit for that big “return.”

Feeling better?

Will Swaim is editor of Watchdog.org and vice president of journalism for Wisconsin Reporter’s parent organization, the Franklin Center.