Many friends of mine are upset with the legal battle the Wisconsin State Journal waged to obtain the 1,000 sick notes Madison teachers used to get off work during the union protests in February. My own radio host and boss, Kurt Baron, referred to the paper as the "Wisconsin State Urinal" in describing his decision to no longer have the paper as his home page online. Some called into the show and promised to cancel their subscriptions.
Teachers should have a right to individual privacy over their medical records. We shouldn't know whether John Q. cited herpes or hemorrhoids on his doctor's note.
I am less sympathetic, however, to the teachers' right to collective privacy. As long as their names are redacted, the public has the right to know if 273 teachers cited malaria and 345 claimed to suffer from ebola.
Unfortunately the recent ruling will violate individual privacy by allowing the State Journal to see the names of the teachers on the sick notes.
If the names were redacted, however, the case would be relatively easy from a personal privacy perspective, since it is virtually impossible to link an individual to a specific case out of 1,000 total sick notes. If there were far fewer -- say 3 -- then the privacy implications would be much murkier.
What I find truly disappointing, however, is how quick people are to condemn media for doing its job -- investigating news. Frankly, if anything, the case has increased my esteem for that skinny, starving rag. The lawsuit is similar to the one the Cap Times launched two years ago against the Doyle administration, which had failed to release public records in a timely manner. At the time, Doyle's spokesman, Lee Sensenbrenner, a former Cap Times reporter himself, made light of the administration's apparent strategy to wait out the impoverished newspaper:
When asked for comment about an open records suit The Capital Times filed against the governor, Doyle spokesperson Lee Sensenbrenner sarcastically remarked he was "surprised" that The Capital Times had the "resources" to file a lawsuit.
It's bad enough when politicians try to keep out the press, but it's even worse when the people become convinced that they don't need it either. Increasingly, people are puzzled by local news outlets whose coverage doesn't cater to a specific political ideology. If it doesn't specifically appeal to theirs, they assume its bias leans the other way, especially if its news coverage ever focuses on negative aspects of politicians or groups they support.
The massive sick-out by Madison teachers is a good story. For better or worse, public employees in Wisconsin are not allowed to strike, and investigating the sick-out is what any good local paper would do to help people understand how work-stoppages work in Wisconsin.
Paradoxically, while we expect national media to be aggressive, even cruel in its coverage of public figures and people, we find vigorous objective reporting in our own backyards unsettling. For instance: We don't like seeing alders we know and like face tough questions over unethical or criminal conduct.
On a separate issue, it's depressing how many people don't seem to understand that the editorial page is independent from the news coverage. At least it's supposed to be. All journalists have their own political opinions and biases, but the news section does not serve to carry out the agenda of the paper's editorial board.
Just look at The Capital Times. Although that paper really has made a concerted effort to brand itself as the "progressive" news source, the guys writing the editorials -- John Nichols, John Nichols, John Nichols and Dave Zweifel -- have nothing to do with what the reporters are writing. In fact, Nichols seems to work mostly from Ancora.
Don't give up on local news just because the local paper's editorials are lame. And don't hold it against journalists when they dig places that make you uncomfortable. Take comfort in the fact that we have a press that is doing its job.