When part of the façade of the O’Donnell Park parking garage fell away Thursday afternoon, killing one person and injuring two others, some speculated how long it would take before the tragedy was used for political gain by tying it to Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. However, political cynicism paled compared to the exploitation of the tragedy by WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee and Milwaukee County Board Chairman Lee Holloway.
By Thursday evening, WTMJ-TV news aired a news report from their “I-Team,” the investigative journalism unit of their broadcast. Aaron Diamint took to the air and, waving a handful of papers, said in an excited voice the “I-Team” had found evidence of nearly $600,000 of deferred “critical” maintenance to the structure.
“The bottom line is this. The entire O’Donnell garage operated by Milwaukee County Parks is in really bad shape. County leaders have known the specifics for at least six months and (waves papers) this is the evidence to prove it.”
The report then cut away to video of the accident scene with Diamint narrating.
“When a thirty foot piece of concrete fell off the O’Donnell Parking Garage and killed a fifteen-year-old boy Thursday, it put a big fat exclamation point on a very long list of known problems uncovered by the I-Team. Nearly six hundred thousand dollars in deferred maintenance to the garage, important repairs found by Department of Public Works inspectors last December as part of a county audit.”
Diamint listed some of the items found in the report without linking any of them to the concrete slab that fell. Diamint then said to his audience that “County leaders” would go through the list “line by line” to see if any of the issues in the maintenance report related to the accident Thursday, something the investigative reporter failed to do himself. Had he done so, he would have learned that none of the items listed had anything to do with the tragedy.
Diamint added for dramatic effect, “Problems the county knew about but put off to save money.” But not for long. Had Diamint looked into the matter further before rushing to air with his sensational report, he might have learned that the required maintenance items listed in the papers he waved were repaired. Perhaps Diamint’s source for the report failed to mention this salient fact.
The report cut back to Diamint in the studio to inform viewers that the total deferred maintenance for the parks system “including this garage” was a “staggering” $200 million. Of course, Diamint cannot pin point anywhere this deferred maintenance across the entire parks system had anything to do with the concrete slab falling.
Diamint helpfully added for his audience the story of the piece of concrete that fell off the County Courthouse that did not injure anyone or have anything to do with his report except something fell. It’s a wonder he did not mention the apple striking Sir Isaac Newton in his report.
Even if at the time of the Thursday report Diamint was completely ignorant of the non-relationship between the required repairs and the accident, or if he was ignorant that the required repairs had been completed, when he did a follow-up report Friday he could no longer plead such ignorance.
The County Executive’s office issued a two-page statement detailing that the necessary repair work was done on Friday and stated that none of the required repairs had anything to do with the fallen façade.
However, Diamint’s follow-up report on Friday started with how the I-Team “broke the news” regarding nearly $600,000 in deferred maintenance, “specific structural and safety issues.” With that, the camera zoomed in on the scene of the accident implying deferred maintenance had something to do with the accident.
So despite knowing that the repairs had been made and that none of the issues mentioned in the I-Team report had anything to do with the accident, Diamint and the camera still tried to establish a visual relationship between the deferred maintenance and the accident. Apparently it was a storyline too good to let go.
Diamint continued, “The County only recently had them fixed. We don’t know what caused the collapse, but County Executive Scott Walker told me he knows what didn’t.”
At this point the report cut away, showing more footage from the accident and a picture of the victim, and then showing video of Walker saying, “Obviously our structural engineers are going to look and try to get to the bottom of it.”
The report then cut away before Walker could explain that none of what was reported by Diamint had anything to do with the accident. The video changed to more footage of the accident and repeated the I-Team report from the previous day regarding deferred maintenance without, again, making any connection between the maintenance report and the accident.
“The I-Team dug, too, and found a long list of deferred maintenance on the parking garage.” After going through the list again, finally Diamint said in the voice-over, “On Friday, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker reported that the parks department, which runs the garage, had recently made the repairs and is convinced that none of them caused the collapse.”
Diamint asked Walker, “How can you be so sure that none of these deferred maintenance items on that list didn’t play a role in it?”
“Right. Because the bottom line is that none of them have anything to do with the façade,” said Walker.
Walker was allowed to explain that engineers would be focusing on how the façade was originally attached. “Right now, the point of focus is on how this was attached and if there was any question as to when it was attached originally, whether that was done properly or not.”
At this point Diamint finally mentioned that the original architect was fired from the project. Then the report cut to an interview with County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, a Walker critic with a history of a few building violations as a landlord himself.
“I want him to know that I’ll be a hound dog, checking every, uh, spot to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Holloway said.
It was as if Holloway has no responsibility for what happens in the county as the County Board Chairman, especially considering that Holloway was elected to the County Board while the O’Donnell structure was still under construction.
So despite the lack of any connection between the deferred maintenance reported and the accident itself, WTMJ-TV aired not one but two reports attempting to connect the accident to cost-cutting measures by Milwaukee County. The first report failed to establish any connection. The second report repeated the mistakes of the first, using visual cues to imply a connection before finally revealing otherwise.
Whether Diamint was fooled by his source for the original document, or the story was just “too good to check,” Diamint had a responsibility to his viewers to find out if the repairs in the report were completed or if they had anything to do with the accident before going on the air waving papers around as “proof.”
Once it was clear that the first report was completely misleading, WTMJ-TV and Diamint had a responsibility in the second report to correct the false impressions they made. Instead, the second report again implied that the deferred maintenance had something to do with the accident and gave very little time to the actual focus of the investigation, the construction of the façade itself.
The second report by Diamint even gave Walker critic County Board Chairman Lee Holloway one more chance to connect the county executive to the accident even though the likely cause of the accident actually occurred before Walker was county executive and while Holloway was a member of the county board.
Despite raising issues that had nothing to do with the tragedy, don’t be surprised to see excerpts of the “I-Team” report in political campaign ads this fall.
When surveys show a declining trust in the mainstream news media, it’s reporting like this that shows why the decline in trust is deserved.
By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute