In The News
Has McCarthyism revived in today’s recall climate?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted March 27, 2012
About 60 years ago, Milwaukee’s major newspaper won international acclaim and accolades from far-flung colleagues for standing up to McCarthyism, for speaking out against the dominant (often) Catholic opinion, the political and business climate that often controlled their advertising, to report, analyze and excoriate the one political side most engaged in distorted and even demagogic excess.
The leaders of that McCarthy supporting John Birch Society must be wondering why the editors of today couldn’t have been around back then.
A lot of political coverage of late has stirred such thinking. As a veteran who departed the main Milwaukee newspaper in the mid 1990s and still knows and respects several who work there (I even had a role in hiring and positioning), I sometimes have blamed reporters for misdeeds when all the downsizing should have made it clear that distaste is more correctly aimed at management. The top editors have more control these days because they have a far smaller staff at Journal Sentinel and less news hole to work with. That makes it hard from the outside to accurately place blame -- line journalists, if nothing else, want to get published, know what the editors want and know how to sell it, so some tilting is part of the game.
But the difficulty of accurately placing blame shouldn’t give a free pass to how balance, fair play and highest ethical standards do not exist in many areas – perhaps they never did but there were more avenues of complaint and correction. Much of the public no longer feels listened to and senses no remedy.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the issue of constitutional petitions, which is now a dominant reality of our political discourse.
If you look at the validated signatures in the recall Walker effort – approaching one million – and then consider the widespread dismissal of the very idea that recalls are legitimate expressed in editorials, you’ll see one big problem. Editorial opinion has bled over into news coverage.
Start with a simple largely unreported fact. The number signing recalls are within 160,000 of all the votes Walker got back in 2010 – and within 50,000 of the votes his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, got in a close race. In 2010, Walker took office with the votes of about 20% of the Wisconsin electorate yet immediately acted like this was a mandate to sweep his most extreme ideas through (or the ALEC conservative wing’s ideas) without discussion.
It is that behavior that left the recall as the only recourse available under democratic traditions. Blame more citizens for not turning out in an off year election. Blame them for being complacent after the gains of 2008. But don’t deny them the constitutionally provided ability to correct. There are sometimes reasons to use an eraser.
But if the recalls are already close to what Walker treated as a mandate, the Journal Sentinel is editorially on record as opposing the concept of recalls about policy, holding out for corruption or malfeasance in office. So are several other newspapers who forget their own activist past and concern for public issues. Recalls also have a bad reputation in this state for often being used by right-wing extremists angry at tax policy, so some sense of applying brakes is understandable. It is also good to be objective in reporting both sides.
But the selectivity in what you report and what you encourage your staff to report has over months added force to the doubt and hostility toward the media. Management’s resistance to acknowledging the power of demanding change smacks of an obduracy similar to Walker’s, or of playing up to the corporate dollars (suspected to be on Walker’s side) that the media needs to stay alive. Beyond that, the citizens are defying the media resistance to recalls. Just look at what they are feeling, signing and promoting in neighborhoods across the state.
And it is not just in the impact of Walker’s policies on them (we can argue about the outcome of these still green grafts). It is also the growing evidence that corruption should be a natural part of the recall discussion. It already is for the public as the John Doe and other probes circle in on Walker, who has already been required to talk to the prosecutors.
This can’t be dismissed as a partisan witch-hunt, not given the care, professionalism and the evidence involved. A dozen of his advisers and aides were at the very least engaged in secretive campaign and public policy intermingling. How the jail time falls out is still in the future, but without prejudging the legalities, the public knows these operations were conducted by his own personal and sometimes willful hires, that a secret network existed within feet of his desk and involved consultations on tactics, funding, policy, gossip, bickering about whom he favored and on and on, with details still unfolding.
From all evidence these operations were more akin to Mafia cutouts and the operational methods of terrorist cells. Yet these clandestine tendencies dovetail with what we know of Walker as governor -- the secretive stubborn refusal to discuss and compromise, the reliance on aides to flesh out details, the leaning on behavior, legal or questionable, of tacticians and financial insiders and outsiders,
Yet even while the journalists are circling in, they seem to be asking the public not to use his behavior through the only resource left them – petitions for redress -- though it is the public that is suffering the consequences of Walker and should be the first to insist that ethics and open engagement with the electorate should be central.
I agree that judges who know they will be forced to judge Walker’s involvement in corruption or related practices must bend over in impartiality (though I can’t resist the sarcasm of noting the right-wing favoritism displayed by Wisconsin Justices Prosser, Gableman and Zeigler at our highest court, undermining my call for fairness). Still, not knowing what’s around the corner for a judge or lawyer or elected official makes signing a petition more an act of citizenship and certainly these days an act of courage, rather than a sign of bias.
When the media questions the signing of a petition to the point of scorn, that raises an issue of fabricated objectivity.
You would expect journalists to be as aggressive in pointing out which public officials didn’t sign the recall when asked and whether fear of reprisal by right-wing voters was behind that refusal, given only the Tea Party and the GOP are going around taking names of those who signed – and threatening them with loss of support or even opposition for public office. You might expect a few stories pointing out that not signing in public for fear of being excommunicated by your party is quite different from what the victims intend to do in the secrecy of the voting booth (as several Republicans have told me). So far, you would look in vain for such stories.
Saying people who signed a petition can’t honestly vet the signatures of those who did may not have been the intention of a state ruling that actually slowed who could be hired by Walker’s administration to validate petitions. But when the media saw it as only that – well, it was insulting since a neutral panel made the final judgment. It was like suggesting being involved in the community should bar you from serving on a jury, as if citizens can’t follow compatible oaths.
The choice of who to identify for signing a petition, who not to and who never to identify for turning the idea down has all become quite ludicrous. More coercion is going on here favoring the GOP side than the opposition side, though neither is blameless. But why is the public watchdog only barking up one tree?
Let’s face it. From the start, those who signed petitions feel under more threat from the media than those who didn’t sign, making that the price they’re willing to pay for citizen involvement. Should the media even be doing that unless there is some sort of obvious conflict -- and what is an obvious conflict and what is a manufactured one?
In editorials journalists still give lip service criticism to “vindictive acts aimed at discouraging political dissent” but acts of omission or avoidance are not criticized – perhaps because it is mainly the media so engaged.
Those who sign petitions or openly oppose “Walker’s values” are clearly more in danger of media denigration than those who evade signing. They know they won’t be condemned for standing alongside Walker’s “values.”
This cowardice to the perceived status quo chills public dissent from “stand your ground” laws to immigration laws to gun laws to health laws to political debate. Those with long memories recall a McCarthy era when newspapers were proud to stand up for public expression without demonization, to stand against the chill rather than encourage it.