In The News
How media fails voters: Supreme Court
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Annette Ziegler has been buffeted by some inescapable facts – her decade on the Washington County bench is riddled with cases where her “gut check” produced glaringly obvious violations of the state’s code of ethics for judicial conduct.
The media agrees. But they suffer a “gut check” of their own in the Wisconsin Supreme Court contest. They give news space to Ziegler’s lame defense that her opponent, Linda Clifford, might, maybe, pigs can fly, face ethical conflicts in the future.
Under that kind of thinking, we’d better lower the age for elected officials to three months, because only a newborn hasn’t formed alliances, friends and philosophies. It’s how people behave in elected office, not the mere existence of temptation, that reveals their characters. Ziegler, flatly, has revealed hers.
So these are not equal issues. But around election time, fearful of being called partisan for being logical and factual, the media tends to ignore the whys and treats the real and the artificial as the same. And then they excuse that easy-way-out as “objective journalism” or “balanced reporting.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 24 – tsk-tsking about the obscene amount of money in the race, without mentioning how most of this profits media companies, leads off stating the candidates reflect “dueling accusations of conflicts of interest.”
Equating such points of view is not just lazy journalism; it’s self-protective journalism.
The April 3 election has mild examples of wimpy journalism in the Milwaukee school board race (which we’ll deal with in a later column) and this one thunderous example in the Supreme Court race.
Time and again Ziegler failed to reveal to lawyers or recuse herself from cases involving companies in which she had sizeable investment. Her argument that many were rubber-stamps on small-claims (actually, several were not – though a $47,000 judgment may seem like chump change in her circles) simply confirms her indifference to fair play for the average citizen. Her behavior clarifies why corporate and conservative lobbyists, with a lot of their cases heading toward the high court, want her there.
Ziegler’s election eve promise that she would place her $3 million fortune in a blind trust attempts to close the barn door 10 years late with a tacit admission of her misbehavior. She says her family never benefited financially from her rulings, though the rulings certainly didn’t hurt -- the companies involved were 90% on the winning side in her court. And she says “there is no scandal,” which the dictionary labels “abuse of position’ and “public indignation over inappropriate behavior by a public official.” Hello? That’s a scandal by basic definition.
Newspapers arrived late to a Ziegler record they should have examined long ago. And they were pushed by bloggers and independent voices (some reacting against the right-wing sources that have aligned with Ziegler). So it’s convenient to excuse that pressroom lapse by suggesting there surely must be problems on both sides.
It was in this context that Clifford used her ads to outline Ziegler’s ethical failings and punch home the obvious difference in character, integrity and independence.
Those are the “negative ads” that have brought such ferocious attacks from Ziegler and third party supporters such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the right-wing Club for Growth, using every visual trick in the book except the image of Saddam Hussein floating in the background.
Haven’t we seen this game before? If you can’t refute the facts, just muddy the facts and invent doomsday scenarios. Such tactics are only possible when you know the media won’t look too deeply. Which by default treats Wisconsin voters as Pavlovian boobs.
For instance, of all the myriad things the high court does, the one it doesn’t is sentence felons to prison. Did you know that? Not from the media coverage. Yet the Ziegler ads lean on scruffy-looking people in a lineup, slamming prison doors and her sentencing record on rapists and child molesters.
It wouldn’t take much research in newspapers’ own files to reveal how from 1999 on Ziegler was taken to the woodshed by reporters and her own conservative colleagues for lenient sentences against child molesters. She’s playing catch-up, a blowing with the wind that the high court definitely does not need, another demonstration of adjusting her behavior after being held up to public scrutiny.
It takes even less research to reveal that no high court candidate should insist, as Ziegler does, that only trial judges deserve a seat. To do so would wipe away half the justices of the last 150 years. Legal acumen and legislative experience have long been valued for making justices responsive to real people and real laws. The current court already has four former trial judges.
But it’s image and language that are most extreme and pandering in the Ziegler ads, which grain down Clifford to an ugly black-and-white creature of the night . The Zieglers are shown as brightly lit and Technicolor happy as a family in a Wal-Mart commercial (Wal-Mart being the case of slow recusal and $100,000 plus investment that started the investigation of Ziegler’s favored treatment of companies in her own portfolio).
The ads call Clifford a “mud-slinging politician” for just citing the news reports about Ziegler.
The ads also pick up a language game the WMC started – a new pejorative to the traditional slurs of trial lawyers as “ambulance-chasing” or “sleazy.” The new insult is “immigration lawyer.”
Let’s think about that, and why it wasn’t instantly excoriated by the media. Clifford’s resume is long and deep. She was tapped by fellow lawyers and the Supreme Court to hear grievances about fellow lawyers, set conduct for an independent judiciary and lead research into constitutional rights. And she did pro bono work to help asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Ethiopia, Iraq and Kazakhstan.
Just when did “immigration” in front of priest, doctor, judge and lawyer become such a profound negative in a nation of immigrants? Just when did this become part of subliminal right-wing hate speech?
The very fact that the Ziegler team can produce such an ad, with impunity, is not just a comment on how voters are regarded by these forces, but how sure they are that the media won’t respond with watchdog ferocity and legitimate indignation.