In The News
The inside story of JS letting Walker duck candor
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Revised from May 3 original, May 24, 2012
You will note that Journal Communications recently reported revenue losses at its newspapers counteracted somewhat by electronic media political ad buys --- mainly Scott Walker recall defense money. It would be nonsensical for anyone to suggest that this influences news coverage, wouldn’t it? Until you take a look at the JS interviews with Walker -- videos posted May 2.
In them, a battery of unidentified Journal Sentinel leaders (senor VP and editor Marty Kaiser, editorial page boss and assistant boss David Haynes and Ernie Franzen, are visible while there are clearly others in the Journal boardroom) look serious as they lob softballs that Scott Walker was clearly prepared for.
Granted, the governor is glib and evasive, very good at handling the journalistic bigwigs and dissembling to their faces so smoothly that they are distracted from following up.
Still, these videos are dismaying lessons for first year students in sloppy journalism,
For instance when Kaiser asked the tough question – was Walker a “target” of the John Doe probe – he allowed the gov to tap-dance away. First dissembling: Walker repeated that it was his own chief of staff that started the John Doe probe (quite a stretch, since veteran Tom Nardelli feared fellow vets were being cheated by Walker’s hires, a complaint that prompted something Walker never anticipated -- a detailed John Doe investigation that has now moved way past his fabricated veterans tribute).
Then Walker said – again -- it was really Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm who “asked us not to comment on specifics and I'm going to honor that.”
The journalists in the room had to know that was an evasion of the law – and indeed knowledgeable lawyers had to be rolling in laughter at such journalistic naiveté, understanding that it was Walker’s high-priced criminal defense team that advised him not to comment, and that is what he was honoring.
Walker was again taking advantage of Chisholm’s straight-arrow refusal to comment – and the journalists were letting him.
Because if they had bothered to read the Wisconsin statutes and just ask about them, Walker would be in big trouble. He would have to dance like Astaire. A state official can only create a criminal defense fund, also known as a legal defense fund, if he or his agent is facing charges or already indicted – and Walker has not only created such a fund but sent it more than $60,000 (some say $117,000) of campaign money. I wish Politifacts would challenge me on this, because to quote:
“Wisconsin Statutes permit a state government official who is being investigated for or charged with a violation of campaign finance laws (chapter 11) or prohibited election practices (chapter 12) to establish a ‘legal defense fund’ for expenditures supporting or defending the candidate while that person is being investigated for, or charged with, or convicted of a violation of those chapters.”
I know a lot of Republicans keep saying, “What charges? What accusations of corruption?” Well, we are not at conviction yet, and we don’t know about charges, but investigated? Surely. Shall we now define”target”?
In another segment Walker completely changes his defense about being recalled, warning the voters not to start “pingpong recall.” Remember the JS editorial? Walker clearly did in this answer: “If people don't like recalls, the last thing you want to do is vote to recall me.” In other words, don’t dump me even if I deserve it because the next governor will face the same game and then on and on. It’s curious how that echoed the anti-recall argument of the newspaper that once endorsed him for governor.
Except it is hard to imagine another governor acting so extremely and to the state’s entire detriment, particularly since the likely contenders are known for effective across the aisle administration – in fact, their lack of extremism bothers some hot-blooded liberals.
Of course, Walker’s right-wing supporters could be so angry when he loses that they try to make mischief, but this is clearly a bogeyman. Anyone who looks at what it took to recall Walker knows the offense has to be enormous. And if all that Koch money hasn’t made much of a difference this time, how many dollars would they have to spend for each petition signature in the future? Who would waste such millions? And even if they would, they know it doesn’t work. Wisconsin has indeed upset standard right-wing expectations.
The curious case of JS videos, when theoretically hard-hitting journalists turn into marshmallow, has a corollary of downplaying even one of their noted journalists skewering Walker’s claims. Craig Gilbert, the astute political reporter and master of calculated objectivity, analyzes trends and data, providing excellent graphs and tries to maintain an even hand.
But when he was recently asked to explore the record on job creation claims from Walker and Barrett in political statements and ads, his Wisconsin Voter column (click down to the May 1 article) may have appeared under a benign headline (“Walker and Barrett duel over job trends”) but mainly dissected the depth of Walker’s falsehoods.
Gilbert blamed both sides, if you read carefully, for jumping too quickly into the blame game and not pointing out that national economic issues had the most to do with Wisconsin’s job picture. So neither side escapes his judgment. But when his analysis went directly after Walker’s attack on the Milwaukee mayor’s job record, Gilbert pulled no punches.
“The City of Milwaukee, under Mayor Barrett’s failed policies, is an anchor weighing on Wisconsin’s ability to create jobs,” claimed the Walker camp, and Gilbert debunked that pointing out that the March job losses cited by the Walker campaign were for the four-county area (Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee), not the city of Milwaukee that Barrett was responsible for.
And then when Walker told Mike Gousha on Channel 12 that “a huge chunk of that (job loss) is in the city of Milwaukee,” Gilbert went to the fact book, that two-thirds “of all the jobs in the metropolitan area are actually outside the city of Milwaukee” and how for the last 12 months – the worst job loss in the nation – “most of the job losses statewide have occurred outside the Milwaukee metro area.”
The nail in the coffin: “Taking just private-sector employment, metro Milwaukee actually out-performed the state as a whole over the past 12 months, gaining 500 jobs while the rest of Wisconsin lost 12,600.”
Of course, Gilbert is right that both sides make too much of these job numbers in terms of blaming political leaders, but well might you ask why such a brutal dissection of Walker’s case didn’t appear as Politifacts but rather under a neutrality headline?
It’s a reminder that citizens aren’t always getting the full balanced story in recall coverage. Not given the tendency to tilt the script to match previous expectations. Not given the policy decisions of playing down the hardest hitting stuff and playing up the softies.