March 23, 2008

McIlheran: So, so busted

Yesterday morning I pasted a copy of this post into Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board member Patrick McIlheran's blog comments. McIlheran, knowing full well — as I didn't — that his blog does not accept even the simplest HTML code, not even for italics, published the comment anyway, without taking the 30 seconds it might have cost him to at least delete the code for the links.

The result is basically unreadable. Then McIlheran "replied," if you can call it that, with a bizarre stream of contradictions and paranoiac fantasy. Perhaps McIlheran didn't appreciate my deliberate language, all of which is supported by previous posts at this here blog and elsewhere (those were the links in my comment to McIlheran's blog).

But if that's the case, then McIlheran doesn't come across too many letters to the editor, which is odd, because he's a member of the Journal-Sentinel's editorial board. Nor did his reply, incidentally, even remotely attempt to engage any of the substantive points I made and supported. Whatever.

This morning I noticed that, in his capacity as editorial board member, he had joined his colleagues for a fairly extensive interview with Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler which, according to the time stamps on the video, took place on Tuesday, March 13.

Since that time and over the last few days, a mini-controversy has erupted over Jessica McBride's inept scheme to portray Justice Butler as a liar (the inept scheme is even ineptly executed, but she calls him a liar anyway). Then, on Friday, McIlheran posted a triumphalist link to McBride's laughable hit piece, quoting freely from it as if it was somehow related to the data she was failing to debunk.

Having posted on the question a number of times, I finally decided to check into the numbers that the Butler campaign was giving out, and determine exactly what criteria the Butler campaign was using, and how the campaign's figure of 70% (75% has also been mentioned) matched up with those criteria, or that criterion, as it turns out.

As I noted last evening, the percentage is based on criminal convictions, and whether decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court had reversed those convictions. This, one would think, would be precisely the first order of business for any journalist with a mind to question the final figure: find out what it means. Yet neither McBride nor McIlheran did any such thing, in their obvious eagerness to defame Justice Butler.

But McIlheran has himself to thank, ultimately, because to tell the truth, it was McIlheran's annoying treatment of and response to my comment yesterday that motivated me to take the (not a whole hell of a lot of) time to see what the final number meant, and that it's based on convictions, and that the 70% figure checks out to within less than a percentage point. (McBride spotted a typo.)

Well, guess what? I'll let Justice Butler speak, from during his March 13 interview* with the Journal-Sentinel editorial board, which includes, as I said, none other than Patrick McIlheran:
When we got those figures that were being thrown out there that 60% of the time we are siding with criminal defendants ... okay ... I wasn't sure where that comes from, I'm still not sure where that comes from. But rather than react, we went back and we did an analysis of the cases. ... Now, one analysis was real easy. If you factor in all the cases including cases involving petitions for review that come before the court, I voted to uphold convictions 97% of the time. It was 3% ruling against convictions in [those cases].

But we'll step back ... and talk about the cases actually accepted by the court. If you go through — and we've done this, and I challenge everyone to do this — look at the cases count by count [conviction by conviction], count by count [conviction by conviction] we'll look at all the counts [convictions] that have come before the court, we'll look at all the cases that have come before the court. And what it shows is that I voted to uphold the convictions 75% of the time.
Yes, that's right, Patrick McIlheran sat across a boardroom table from Louis Butler and, complete with the prefatory remarks quoted above (and then some) listened to Butler say the word "conviction" or its synonym, "count," eight times in the course of explaining the percentage figure. Eight times. With emphasis (watch the video).

Now, setting aside all the other myriad skepticisms that should immediately spring to mind when reading an alleged work of journalism — especially one produced by the outlandishly partisan Jessica McBride — containing the deliberately inflammatory language that McBride's does, and seeing that it was questioning Butler's quoted percentage, and noticing that nowhere in either of McBride's two pieces does she explain how the Butler campaign came about its number and, only days after having sat across a table listening to Butler himself explain how the figure came about ...

Well, you can figure out the rest. So, so busted. Yet McIlheran took umbrage at my charges of sloppy journalism. How's that for a laugh.

A damn good laugh, I reckon.

* Link opens a video player.

eta: This comment was left on McIlheran's blog Sunday evening (containing no HTML commands):
I played your numbers game for you, Mr. McIlheran. It also turns out that Justice Butler had previously explained the basis for the percentage in advance to you, when you were literally sitting across a table from him.

It's all on my blog. Go have a look.

My only question at this point, Mr. McIlheran, is: Are you going to give your apology to Justice Butler at least the same prominence that you gave McBride's hatchet job?


Anonymous said...

IT, you've read McIlheran's postings on occasion. Are you really surprised in any way that he was incapable of grasping a simple point repeated eight times?

The only surprise in here is that this guy is actually on the editorial board of an allegedly serious newspaper. That really is mind-boggling.

illusory tenant said...

I'm not so much surprised as appalled.

William Tyroler said...

A mild dissent (in the form of a matter of personal opinion, of course): McIlheran is a competent essayist with interesting things to say (such as today, relative to Hussein's misunderstood relationship to Terror International). But he sees Butler-Gableman through ideological lenses and comes off the fool. More's the pity for that. Perhaps it ultimately reflects on McBride (again: a competent investigative journalist) who took us all, even iT for a spell, on a wild ride through a choppy pool of data. It'll be a long, long time before I ever take her pronouncements at face value again.

But to the point: this entire debate has gone on outside the tender clutches of the mainstream media. McBride is a blogger; The masterful response of iT also came, of course, from the blogosphere. As Michael Plaisted somewhat bemusedly observes, none of this robust debate made it onto the radar screen of our local paper of record. (I'm not sure about our supposed "alternative" weekly, the S-E, an echo chamber for the politically correct; I stopped reading it a long time ago.)

The talent is now as much in the blogosphere as the MSM. And whether the latter realize it or not, the agenda will increasingly be set by the former.

illusory tenant said...

McIlheran is a competent essayist with interesting things to say ...

He certainly can be, when he wants.

Another amusing thing is that also during the interview, Butler cautions against approaching individual cases with particular results in mind at the outset, but rather following where the facts and the law lead.

Fairly obvious stuff, coming from a judge, of course. But Paddy missed that too, apparently, although it applies just as much to journalism (including advocacy journalism).

What McBride and McIlheran got up (or down, as it were) to here is simply beyond the pale.

Other Side said...

I've been as nasty as others regarding Mr. McIlheran. But Mr. Tyroler has a point. McIlheran occasionally has something legitimate to say and usually writes well (if not a little gooey at times).

If he would do away with the smugness, and stop using WorldNet Daily, the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times as legitimate sources, I might even agree with him more often. A little.

For McBride, though, I have nothing but comtempt. My degree is in journalism and I continue to hold the ideal that the journalist should at all costs maintain objectivity.

In this "modern" age, the plight of objective journalism is plain to see. However, McBride is partisan to a vulgar degree. She blatanty and proudly proclaims her unobjectivity, wears it as a badge of honor. She truly cannot see the horror and the dangers inherent in being a partisan mouthpiece. Like Fox News, she distorts the reason for a free press ... in the former USSR, she would have been an outstanding reporter for Pravda; here she disappoints.

illusory tenant said...

McIlheran is a very good writer, no question.

Anonymous said...

Eye of the beholder and all. I have not seen these signs of impressive writing in PM to which you variously allude.

Nor is it clear to me how McBride's lack of objectivity earns contempt in some way that spares McIlheran the same judgement; how she is partisan to a vulgar degree "like Fox News", while McIlheran's recycling of "WorldNet Daily, the Heritage Foundation and the Washington Times" moves one to defend him as a a good journalist or essayist.

As something of an aside: McIlheran's article on Saddam and terrorism was neither written on March 23, nor competently argued, nor (eye of the beholder, but) interesting. It was a particularly contrived sieving of the data to find one or two points that might somehow justify the war on Iraq. To insinuate by contrast with Butler-Gableman that PM's dim light on Hussein was not cast "through ideological lenses" is barely intelligible, and seems clearly false.

illusory tenant said...

For the record, I wasn't comparing him to Mencken or Robertson Davies or anything. Just saying he's a decent writer. The content, not so much.

Other Side said...

Agreed regarding Paddy. Concerning McBride, she also teaches, which adds to my disgust (and my alma mater UWM).

Unknown said...

I wouldn't say P-Mac is a good writer, so much as he is a manipulative one. I mean sure, he can put words together in a way that makes grammatical sense, but whenever he uses those words to make a claim, he's wrong-headed, obtuse, and frequently vapid. Often he's mean-spirited, or at least oblivious, as well.