Some Notes on the Wisconsin Media’s Coverage of the Recalls

Recall Walker sign leaning against a tree. Photo by Callen Harty.

The Wisconsin media have failed the citizens over the last year.  Fortunately, a lot of citizen media have covered stories that the mainstream media chose to ignore.  Unfortunately, the alternative media don’t have the same reach or influence as the established papers, television stations, and radio stations.  Overall, the mainstream media have not probed most stories with any kind of depth and have done a disservice to citizens with their coverage of the recall elections and all the protests leading up to it.  In addition advertising in the media would lead one to believe that Scott Walker might just be the savior of the universe.  There are several things in particular that have been bothering me over the last several weeks.

Scott Walker’s Ads:  Every one of Scott Walker’s ads manipulates the truth, usually with him forcing a smile to talk about it in a condescending way.  As much as his demeanor irritates me in his ads I can see where people would look at them and believe what he is saying.  He comes across as someone who’s just a simple man talking about the situation.  He’s an underdog being picked on by the big union bullies, while at the same time he’s an Eagle Scout who has Superman, God, and the flag on his side.  It is all so matter-of-fact that it doesn’t lend itself to being questioned.  He also has so much money that his ads relentlessly play on both television and radio.  They are inescapable.  Anyone in advertising can tell you that convincing people of something is merely a matter of presenting it in the right away enough times that the message gets through to the viewer or listener.  The Republicans under Karl Rove learned that if you say something as if it is true often enough people will eventually believe it whether it is true or not.  The narrative on these ads is repeated ad nauseum on the campaign trail and in news conferences as well.  For the most part, the state newspapers haven’t challenged any of it.  They simply swallow it whole and regurgitate it for their readers as truth.

The Lack of Ads and Media Coverage for Tom Barrett:  Though I’ve been seeing a few more Barrett ads the last few days the Democrats have a lot less money and the number of ads touting Barrett (or disparaging Walker) have been few and far between.  Maybe they’re saving what they have for a big push at the end, but in the meantime Walker’s message is the only one getting across.  To make matters worse the two biggest papers in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, both of them conservative rags, have published numerous articles about Scott Walker and very little about Tom Barrett, as if Walker needs any free coverage.  The Journal-Sentinel published an endorsement of Walker yesterday.  You can bet the State Journal will follow suit.  Both of these papers are pro-Walker in everything they do, though they pretend to be neutral and objective.

Blaming Tom Barrett for Milwaukee’s Issues:  One of Scott Walker’s ads is filled with horrible statistics about Milwaukee’s poverty rates, unemployment rates, and every other terrible thing one can think of about the city.  It is true that it is the most racially segregated city in the country.  I believe it’s true that there is great poverty there and it is not in great shape economically.  But Scott Walker is as much to blame as Tom Barrett.  These things don’t happen in an instant.  They don’t happen in a vacuum.  Walker was the County Executive of Milwaukee County for ten years until he became the Wisconsin Governor just over one year ago.  Many of the policies he put in place in Milwaukee County led to severe budget cuts for the City of Milwaukee, leaving Mayor Barrett and his predecessor to deal with the fallout.  In addition some of Walker’s policies as Governor have also had a negative impact on Milwaukee financially.  If the things stated in Walker’s ads and speeches about Milwaukee are true then it isn’t all Barrett’s fault.  Walker can’t demonize Milwaukee and point at all of its ills without pointing the finger at himself and sharing some of the blame as the County Executive and Governor.  Yet I have heard no one call him out on this.  In fact, when he was running for election in 2010 my friends in Milwaukee warned those of us in Madison about him, but there was no media coverage then of how he had handled himself as the County Executive and there is no media accountability now.

The Cynical Manipulation of Statistics:  The federal government released a report about a month ago stating that Wisconsin led the nation in job losses by a significant amount between March of 2011 and March of 2012.  No other state was close to us.  In fact most of them gained jobs.  Early reports are that a new federal report, which won’t be out for a couple weeks, shows that it looks even worse between April of 2011 and April of 2012.  Another new report was issued a couple days ago on the April numbers and shows that Wisconsin had lost another 6,200 jobs in April.  Yet I turn on the television and there is Scott Walker glibly talking about how he created 23,000 jobs last year and another 12,000 or so this year and that Wisconsin is moving forward.  Anyone who pays attention knows that an economist Walker hired at the Department of Revenue came up with a new way of looking at the numbers to make him look better than the federal numbers that have been used by every state in the nation for years.  But the newspapers covered his press conference in which he touted his new numbers as if it were a real and true news story, without questioning him in any way, publishing his new numbers as if they were the numbers we should have been looking at all along, completely swallowing the Walker line.

The Marquette Poll:  The one story that the media has covered big-time over the last couple weeks is the most recent Marquette University Law School poll that showed Walker leading Barrett by six percentage points, a five-point gain in a month.  With every poll in the last several months, including this one, showing only about three to five percent of the population undecided there is no way that the numbers shifted five percent in a month.  It is statistically improbable.  There have been several articles or online pieces written that show how the numbers were skewed in Walker’s favor, most obviously that more self-identified conservatives were polled than self-identified liberals.  Duh.  What result do you think they’re going to get?  The Marquette poll has always produced right-leaning results.  Only this time it went even further right than one might expect.  Did the media question this?  Of course not.  They published the results without any analysis and accepted it at face value, creating a headline that Wisconsin residents saw even if they didn’t read anything else about the poll that showed Walker with a big lead (which, by the way, is not that big even if it were accurate).

Recalls Should Only Be for Crimes or Malfeasance in Office:  In its endorsement of Scott Walker the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel repeated the ridiculous concept that recalls should only be for crimes or malfeasance in office and that Walker is not guilty of either.  What they don’t acknowledge is that if a Governor commits a crime while in office there is an impeachment proceeding that can remove him or her.  Recalls were designed so that the people could remove a Governor for any reason.  There is nothing in the Constitution specifying reasons for removal.  The law simply states that a reason has to be given and that it has to relate to the official responsibilities of the officeholder.  In other words, if Walker divorced his wife and most of the population thought that divorce was reprehensible we couldn’t recall him for that as it’s a private matter.  There is nothing in the Constitution that states that the officeholder can only be recalled for committing a crime or for malfeasance in office.  This recall does have to do with his official responsibilites.  The people who signed the petition believe that as Governor he abused the power of his office to change long-standing laws that the people didn’t want changed and he did it because of a personal hidden agenda that he didn’t share with voters when he ran for the office.  The people were lied to via omission and got a different Governor than they thought they had voted into office.  This is reason enough.  And if you look up the definition, it is malfeasance.  Yet the newspaper doesn’t look at the law as its written or apparently understand the definition of malfeasance.  They simply repeat the Walker campaign’s talking points about the recall.

If Walker wins this election the media should shoulder a great deal of the blame for it.  They have been complicit in accepting him at face value, at reporting his press releases as actual news, and have failed miserably at their jobs.  There has been no such thing as investigative journalism over the course of the last year or more, despite the Wisconsin State Journal touting itself as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its coverage of the Capitol protests.  After the last year anyone buying these so-called newspapers (both literally and in the sense of believing the garbage they print) deserves what they get.  Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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One Response to Some Notes on the Wisconsin Media’s Coverage of the Recalls

  1. Joseph Lutz says:

    I hope Walker will be finished, but I am so greatly fearful if he wins. Even if we can avoid the violence that might result (I pray it doesn’t happen), so many of us that have so much invested in this fight would become discouraged, the fight will end, and the fascists, the wealthy and the oligarchs will have taken definitive control.

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