It's Not A Witch Hunt If There's A Witch

Media Rants

by Tony Palmeri

From the June, 2004 edition of The Valley Scene

In April of this year, former Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus was convicted of taking $48,000 in bribes and filing false tax returns. Rumors of improper conduct in Paulus’ office abounded throughout his 14-year tenure as DA. Yet during that time the Fox Valley media not only failed to engage in any serious scrutiny of the DA’s office, but they more typically served as Paulus’ PR flacks.

One Valley media personality who refused to be a Paulus lap dog was WHBY radio news anchor Jeanne Anthony. In May of 2002, Anthony broke the Connie Christensen story and set in motion a chain of events that led to Paulus’ downfall. Christensen is the Oshkosh woman who avoided jail time for her third drunk driving offense after paying her attorney (and Paulus crony) Mitch Schierland $5,000. When Paulus’ assistant DAs E.J. Jelinski and Tom Chalchoff, along with Menasha police officer Ann Gollner, put their careers on the line to blow the whistle on corruption and criminality in the courthouse, Jeanne Anthony heroically helped get the message out while the Gannett press was busy bashing the messengers.

I interviewed Jeanne Anthony for this column to get her insights as to why the Valley media were so pro-Paulus and so hostile to his critics for so many years.
According to Anthony, early in Paulus’ tenure as DA, reporters learned that there could be hell to pay for crossing him. Getting inaccurate information from the DA or no information at all were common tactics of intimidation. "Paulus controlled the press with fear," she explained. "Reporters would compete to see who could be his favorite pet."

During the election campaign of 2002, Jelinski released audiotapes of Paulus bragging about his sexual exploits in the office. But the courthouse wasn’t Paulus’ only venue for exploiting and demeaning women. Anthony claims the DA let the television stations know that he wanted to be covered by female reporters, whom he would then "order" to drink with him.

By the time Jelinski and Gollner’s accusations against Paulus became public in the spring of 2002, the local press knew full well of Paulus’ reputation for slime and ruthlessness. So why were they so willing to excoriate his critics and — at least until the release of the Jelinski audiotapes — defend him vigorously?

Anthony’s theory is that the press’ behavior in the spring of 2002 was part of the same pattern of fear that had existed from the beginning. "The press gambled that the corruption charges against Paulus weren’t true," she said. "They were afraid that if the FBI found nothing they would then face punishment from a powerful and hostile DA."

Anthony told me that for years the attitude among Valley news editors was that to go after Paulus without already having solid evidence of criminal activity would be a "witch hunt." She tried unsuccessfully to get them to understand that "it’s not a witch hunt if there’s a witch."

Since Paulus’ conviction, numerous individuals have come forward to claim poor treatment and/or corrupt actions at the hands of Paulus. Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager has assigned her deputy William Hanrahan to look into all allegations. Anyone with information should contact Hanrahan at the Department of Justice at (608) 266-1221. Locally, Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney Mike Balskus is looking into allegations. He can be reached at (920) 236-4977.

The fact that the Fox Valley mainstream media for years looked the other way when they had chances to expose Paulus might be excusable were it not for the fact that they go for the jugular against people who don’t have the resources to fight back.

The Oshkosh Northwestern not too long ago devoted what seemed like Woodward and Bernstein-style resources and energy to show that the Oshkosh superintendent of schools used taxpayer money to purchase fruit baskets for district meetings. This would have been around the same time Paulus was taking bribes, filing false tax returns, and harassing women.

Former Oshkosh School Board president LuAnn Bird, former Oshkosh Mayor Melanie Bloechl, Winnebago County Supervisor Joe Maehl, and Winnebago County Executive Jane Van De Hey have also been targets of the editorialists. While some of the criticisms leveled against them have been fair, the lesson of the Paulus tragedy is that had they been able to strike fear into the press, they would have been left alone.

If the Valley press are interested in atoning for their Paulus-era negligence, they can start by apologizing to Paulus’ victims and to the community at large. E.J. Jelinski, Tom Chalchoff, and Ann Gollner are owed public apologies for the press treatment they received after coming forward with accusations against Paulus. No one is suggesting that these whistleblowers’ claims should have been accepted uncritically. But the ferocity with which the local press, especially Gannett, went after them instead of Paulus has produced a chilling effect for others in the community who might be aware of high-level corruption.

Jeanne Anthony told me that the local media were "derelict" in their coverage of Paulus. She said they did not ask the right questions and failed to protect the public. Sadly, in this age of mega-corporate journalism we have no reason to believe the same thing won’t happen again.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.