Thursday, October 29, 2009

Trusting Your Sources

Jerry Bader and I go back a long way. He made a horrible mistake on the air this week at WTAQ radio in Green Bay, where he’s been a very popular talk-show host for several years. He’s the guy who “broke” the story - which turned out to be completely inaccurate and false - about the “real reason” Barbara Lawton dropped out of the race for governor.

I’m not going to repeat the story here. If you’ve heard it, you’ll know why. It is simply so astonishing and shocking, that to repeat it would be, I think, unethical and wrong. Suffice it to say it was sensational and lurid. And it appears there was not a scintilla of truth in it. He's been suspended for two weeks, and after that, the station will decide if he still has a job.

Those of us in the biz…as I was for 30-some years…have plenty of battle scars and emotional bruises from mistakes we’ve made on the air - things we said or should have said and didn’t - that ended up doing real harm, and hurting people.
What Jerry said about Barbara Lawton was deeply personal, entirely false, and hurt her horribly. I think Jerry got “spun” by some Republican operatives, who fed him a line of BS and he unfortunately believed them, and aired it. I can’t believe he would have gone on the air with the story if he didn’t have confidence that his sources were telling him the truth.

I gave Jerry his very first job in broadcasting in the Fox Valley over 30 years ago. He was finishing up at UW-Oshkosh and his professors told me he was a very smart kid who worked hard. I hired him to come in to work at 4 AM and make the police and fire beat calls and gather news from sources around the Fox Valley.

I wrote my own newscasts for my morning radio news anchor shift back then, as I always have, but Jerry understood that if HE made a mistake, I made a mistake - but it was me that would “take the fall”. I came to completely trust his thoroughness, judgment, and instincts. What I wrote was based on his notes, and he understood he had to be 100% accurate. He always was.

I would be stunned to learn that he’d abandoned those principles in the Barbara Lawton story he aired earlier this week. I think he believed his sources, and they burned him.

And in so doing, caused great emotional pain to the Lieutenant Governor and her family, embarrassed his radio station, lost his credibility, and may have ultimately ended his career. I trust he has personally apologized to Lawton.

I cannot believe that Jerry aired that story just to be sensational or to “hype ratings”. I taught him, just as I have all the young people I’ve worked with through the years, that there are some mistakes you can recover from - and some you can’t.

When you are dealing with ANY person’s reputation - whether it’s just some guy working third shift at a manufacturing plant, or a candidate for the highest elected office in the state - you have to be extremely careful and completely certain that what you’re going to say about them is true.

Talk show hosts are given wide latitude in saying outrageous things. News people have always had different, and I’d like to think higher standards. But the lines are so blurred these days. The braying ass calls himself “America’s Anchorman” as if he were reporting news on his show. A lot of people think it’s “news” and don’t understand that it’s entertainment. Rush pretends he’s “the news” and denigrates the “state-controlled drive-by media”.

Jerry Bader’s mistake earlier this week should be a cautionary tale for anybody who sits behind a microphone or talks to a TV camera. Your sources have to be airtight and 100% accurate, and you need a healthy dose of skepticism when listening to them. And, you have to understand clearly that in a case like the one this week, if you’re wrong, you’re toast.


  1. Decades in the business should have sharpened his instincts better than that. Every news person learns early on that every source has an ax to grind.

    Other sites are reporting that Jerry issued a brief ALL CAPS "apology" in which he blamed his sources but took no responsibility. If so, that adds an extra level of FAIL. This was no mere gaffe and recovery, intact, may not be possible.

  2. I think Jerry got “spun” by some Republican operatives

    What makes you think they are Republican?

    (yes, I was caught up in that whole mess, too. So maybe I shouldn't be so impertinent.)

  3. You worked with him a long time ago. The current climate of news as entertainment may have changed him a lot and not for the better.

  4. Your blog is a fun-to-read item, too.

    But you're not NEARLY cranky enough. It's that rural living you do.

  5. When I suggested that every source has an axe to grind over at Wigderson's place, Dad29 said I was full of hot air.

  6. Colonel,

    For what it's worth, the Green Bay Press-Gazette story on-line ( has generated 221 comments as of 8:55am on the 30th.

    I presume that you hired Bader while you were at WYTL/WOSH? Or was it WMKC? Must have been outside of my time there as I don't remember him. I've listened to his show on WTAQ, of course, and I was surprised yesterday that the station had filled his slot with a syndicated show out of Atlantat...some guy I'd never heard of. At that moment I hadn't heard about the Lawton imbroglio. comments on this affair. I've been out of touch for a couple of days and hadn't heard anything until this morning.


    Steve Erbach

  7. I've been in the business almost as long as Jerry Bader, and he made a rookie mistake no one with his level of experience--and certainly no one who is an experienced Program Director--should have made. A story that lurid and sensational (as you so aptly described it) should have been confirmed not just by people who probably had political axes to grind, but by someone with personal knowledge of the situation. Running with a story based on hearsay was irresponsible and stupid, no matter who sources were or who peruasively they spun things.

    I also have to ask the question that no one seems to be asking (I think you came close, but didn't quite tackle it); what news organization could possibly think this situation was "news" in the first place? If someone comes forward in a situation like this, someone gets arrested, or somehow or other a story like this becomes a matter for law enforcement or the courts, it's legitimate news (although not something worth the kind of attention it usually gets).

    Bader wasn't reporting on events, but on what he believed to be the seamy (although perfectly legal) underside of a personal decision by a public figure. To me that smacks of someone so driven either by ambition or aniousity that he's lost sight of what he's supposed to be doing. I think he and WTAQ may have both miscalculated the public's interest in what goes on in Madison. Unfortunately, I think Barbara Lawton had a point; this DOES make Green Bay look like a provincial backwater. It was a clumsy, amateur attempt to smear a public official with "news" that wouldn't have been news even if it were true.

    If I were in managment at WTAQ, I'd leave Glenn Beck rigth where he is, and leave Jerry Bader right where he is. This wasn't an oversight or a botched attempt at sourcing a story. I think Bader hoped it would be a career-defining moment for him. It was, but unfortunately not in the way he had hoped. I have a lot of compassion for what he's going through right now, but I also think he needs to accept the consequences of a decision he alone made. If WTAQ has a shred of journalistic integrity left, they can't let this man back on the air.

  8. Tim, you're too kind to Jerry. He isn't the same person he was back in the day. I also believe he was spun by Repbulican operatives. They are on the payroll of his company just like he is, and are routinely called upon to identify stories that fuel the hate machine Jerry steers through the mud the airwaves have become through shows of his genre. He's just the right guy to cover whatever tune he's told to sing. He's a lounge act and self-admitted entertainer. Jerry hasn't been a journalist for some time now and likely never will be again. The rules of journalism don't apply to him.