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Opinion: Columnists

Sean Higgins: The journos and the Scott Walker indictment that wasn't

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By late Friday, Graeme Zielinski could hold it in no longer. He had to let the world know the truth about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"@GovWalker had better lawyers than Jeffrey Dahmer in beating the rap. Clear that he committed crimes," Zielinski tweeted. He made two other tweets along the same lines, including: "What do @GovWalker and Jeffrey Dahmer have in common?"

He never got a chance to expand on that last thought. You see, Zielinski was not just another disgruntled Badger State voter, but the official spokesman for the state Democratic Party. Comparing the governor to the state's most notorious murderer and cannibal was too much even for his bosses.

Zielinski was forced to delete the quotes and apologize. By Monday, he was removed as spokesman, though he apparently still has a job with the party.

His outburst was the ironic coda to the biggest fake news story of the last year: The imminent indictment of Walker on corruption charges.

Democrats eagerly trumpeted this throughout the state's recall election and afterwards. It never happened. On Friday, the investigation of some ex-Walker aides that had provided Zielinski his thin reed of hope closed officially without touching the governor at all.

That was what had set Zielinski off.

When I say "fake news story", I don't just mean it was wishful thinking that random Democrats were putting on the Internet. Numerous supposedly serious news outlets including the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, the Nation and Salon.com all reported, based on idle speculation, that Walker might be the subject of a criminal probe.

"Scott Walker could very well be indicted in the coming days," MSNBC host Ed Schultz said the night of the recall election.

It is, or at least ought to be, a major journalistic embarrassment for all of them.

To back up a bit, in 2009, Walker was the Milwaukee county executive. He had his office contact the state district attorney regarding apparent misuse of money for a veterans group by members of his own staff. The probe would eventually lead to criminal convictions against three former Walker aides, an appointee and a campaign donor.

Ordinarily, this would have been embarrassing enough for the governor, even though it was his office that first blew the whistle. But Walker's critics -- still seething over his push to reform public sector unions -- refused to leave it at that. By early 2012, with the recall election now looming, Democrats began aggressively pushing the claim that Walker was now the subject of the probe. When he took a lead in the polls, they went into overdrive.

Democratic recall candidate Tom Barrett made the investigation of the ex-aides the focus of his final debate with Walker. Zielinksi told me flat-out in an interview at the time that Walker's indictment was "imminent." Numerous left-leaning outlets ran with stories, including speculation about possible charges.

The basis for this claim was ... well, it was never clear exactly. The main point proponents brought up was that Walker had set up a legal defense fund. That is sort of like saying, "He must be guilty: he hired a lawyer to defend himself." Except it has even less basis.

The investigators themselves never dropped any hint that Walker was the subject of the probe, which remained secret. No one else involved publicly fingered Walker either.

Stories like this present a quandary for political reporters: How do you report on a rumor that may not be true and cannot be proved one way or another? Most stories reported it as "speculation" and left it at that.

Which was good enough to serve the purposes of the Wisconsin Democrats. As long as there were headlines with the "Walker" and "indictment" they were presumably very, very happy.

About the best thing that can be said for this sorry episode is that, as the Zielinksi episode shows, Wisconsin Democrats did appear to believe genuinely that an indictment was coming. There are many five year-olds who believe the Easter Bunny is coming later this month, too. But wishing for something doesn't make it so.

What is the excuse of the news outlets that spread the bogus story?

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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