The Journal Sentinel's PolitiFact is guaranteed to make a lot of political types, including me much of the time, unhappy with its attempt to be the final arbiter of what's true and what's not. That goes with the territory.
But the newspaper took the unusual step this week of running an op ed column from Sen. Ron Johnson (aka here as RoJo the Clown), disagreeing with a PolitiFact piece about him.
He should have been happy; he got a Half True rating. Most people wouldn't complain unless they got a "Pants on Fire," or at least a "Mostly False" rating.
Johnson's 400-word rebuttal wasn't even linked in jsonline to the original PolitiFact piece, so readers could easily see what he was talking about and reach their own conclusions.
Johnson's access to the newspaper's opinion page to challenge PolitiFact raised some questions, including whether Patrick McIlheran, a former conservative Journal Sentinel columnist now on Johnson's payroll, had written the piece for him.
I didn't ask that, but I did ask David Haynes, the paper's editorial page editor, a few questions in an email: Is that (Johsnon's rebuttal) a first?
Are you afraid that will set a precedent?
Will others be welcome to air their grievances with PolitiFact on your page?
Or does he get special treatment because of his office? I warned Haynes I might write about in on this blog, so he gets credit for being forthright in his response, including taking responsibility and saying it was a screwup.
Here's what happened:
After Senator Johnson's aide passed along his comments, we talked it over and decided to let the senator have his say.
I based that decision on my recollection that we had done the same for Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign after he felt wronged by PolitFact earlier this year. But I should have checked our archives. In fact, we never published a lengthy letter Mike sent us (actually one of his blog posts). Mike and I had several email exchanges - he later came in to chat with us - but I couldn't find his letter in our archives.
We'll have some discussions after everyone is back from the holidays about how to handle such commentary. Our guideline has been that someone with a complaint about an article appearing in the news pages can comment in a letter to the editor. Sometimes we've broken that rule when the subject is complicated and hard to explain in 200 words. That was part of my thinking about the Johnson op-ed. Of course, we always reserve the right to edit the pieces - or to say no if the commentary doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
I thank you for your questions because it forced me to belatedly check the archives and will prompt a bit more discussion on our end about such matters.
I appreciate that honest answer and Haynes not getting defensive. Personally, I can only hope PoliiFact gets even with RoJo in the future.