By MaryBeth Matzel
It’s time for a pop quiz.
An up-and-coming professional woman — boasting a top-tier education, impressive credentials and a track record of ethical decision making — is appointed to a key position in state government. Two words often associated with her are “leadership” and “accomplishment.”
You’re a journalist (older, white and male) and you’ve been asked to write a story about her. For the record: You don’t live under a rock. You’re aware of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements sweeping the nation, demanding an end to the “toxic masculinity” that has dogged women in all fields.
Do you …
A) Write an objective story, featuring voices of colleagues, peers and people who know her best — both as allies and adversaries — including an acknowledgement of the achievements this woman has accomplished on behalf of the citizens in her state?
B) Gather and highlight the voices of her enemies, questioning her ethics and openly insinuating that she may not be qualified for the position, in part, because she is married to a man who you suggest would exercise undue influence on her professional conduct.Regardless of your opinion about the nation’s emergent gender-equity social movement, this scenario actually happened recently — and a pair of veteran reporters from Wisconsin’s two highest-circulation newspapers failed the test in a publicly stunning fashion.
Self-described “environmental” reporters Lee Berquist of the Milwaukee Journal and Steven Verburg of the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal each chose the “slash-attack-burn approach” in their “coverage” of Anna J. Wildeman.
Here are the objective facts about Ms. Wildeman: She was recently appointed by the Wisconsin attorney general to lead the Department of Justice Environmental Protection Unit. She attended Northeastern University for undergraduate studies and earned her Juris Doctor cum laude from Vermont Law School. She is a nationally recognized expert in environmental and regulatory law and policy. Prior to her work in the Justice Department, Wildeman provided counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., as well as to clients as a partner in the prestigious Midwest law firm of Michael Best.
In her capacity as an assistant attorney general, she has zealously prosecuted violations of state law. In her role as a private attorney, she has — with equal fervor — defended clients against bureaucratic and regulatory overreaches. Even a cursory glance at her track record shows that there has never been a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior or conflict of interest regardless of which role she played in the judicial system.
Given Wildeman’s decades of hard work and accomplishment, however, both Berquist and Verburg digested this information, waved it aside and dismissed Wildeman as nothing more than “a former dairy lobbyist.”
In their respective stories of her appointment, both men sought out leaders of special interest groups or agencies to publicly suggest Wildeman would be in the pocket of OTHER special interest groups or agencies. The irony of that is galling.
“I have no doubt about Ms. Wildeman’s professional ethics,” Kimberlee Wright, director of a law firm that pushes for stricter environmental laws, told Verburg, “but it seems an unnecessary strain of public resources to have to build firewalls around the leader of the EPU when her potential conflicts … are so extensive.”
Wright — and, by extension, Verburg — want it both ways: You can’t say you have “no doubt” about a person’s ethics at the start of a sentence and then turn around and question their ethics at the end of the same sentence. Or, you can, I guess, if one person’s opinion — with no evidence to back it up — is the basis for an attack piece.
Perhaps most galling is the fact that both “journalists” cited “potential conflicts” (Verburg’s words) created by Wildeman’s marriage to fellow attorney David Crass, who has represented agribusiness during his equally impressive legal career.
When was the last time either of these gentlemen published a story about an accomplished professional male garnering an important appointment, and then suggested this individual might not ethically fill that role because of their marriage to a woman?
For the record: Neither Wildeman nor Crass were interviewed for the stories. Verburg’s reporting was so lazy he actually pulled a quote from an online video rather than actually interviewing the source himself.
Midwest Agriculture Almanac is a small quarterly publication, overwhelmingly reported, edited and published by a team of women. We take our work seriously, and we believe in honest, balanced news. We’d love to see an apology from Berquist and Verburg — not because of the disservice they did to as a gender but because of the damage they are doing to the field of journalism.
And if the gentlemen don’t have the self respect to utter the word “sorry” our way, at least have the moral fortitude to make amends to Ms. Wildeman, personally. Regardless of the size of their newspapers, hiding behind the label of “reporter” should not give either gentlemen a license to engage in character (and gender) assassination.