Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Old media fail the test in Wisconsin: major media outlets report on today's recall election without insights into the issues at stake, the possible ramifications

It has been hard this morning for me to read the stories appearing on websites such as the New York Times, CNN or others and not wonder about the kinds of reporters and editors that currently work at out leading media institutions.

Weak, limp noodles – that is how an old editor might describe the stories being printed and posted online – stories that pretend to offer insight, but in the end do their best to avoid actually addressing anything, probably out of fear of alienating their readers who hold strong opinions about the issues at hand.

The voters of Wisconsin today go to the polls to vote for governor. The election is occurring a mere 17 months after a similar election involving the same two candidates: Republican Scott Walker, and Democrat Tom Barrett. In the previous election Walker won by about five percentage points.
election today? Reading multiple stories in the NYT or in other media outlets, one would think today's election is some sort of drama being played out over national politics. It isn't that simply, nor that mundane.

The Wisconsin capital occupied by
protesters in the Winter of 2010-11.
Today's election is all about money, collective bargaining rights, and, amazing as it may sound, teachers.

Shortly after his election in 2010 which saw the Republicans take over the state government, Governor Scott Walker began rolling back collective bargaining rights for state employees. The move caught many in the state by surprise as the just concluded election did not center on the issue. Unions organized protests against the move and hundreds of thousands made their may to Madison in the Winter of 2010-11 to protest. The protests gathered national attention, but little real national debate.

Immediately following the Walker's successful effort to end bargaining rights opponents mobilized to gather signatures in order to recall a short list of legislators. The governor could not be recalled immediately due to state rules, but efforts began to recall Walker when possible. Recall elections were held last year with mixed results – some survived, others did not.

Now is the governor's turn in front of the voters. In his effort to survive, Walker has raised over $30 million, three times what he raised to win the post in 2010 – with 70 percent of the money coming from outside the state. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in contrast, has collected a far smaller war chest.

At issue today is whether state employees have the right to bargain collectively. In a state with a rich history of collective bargaining, the fact that this would even be up from discussion has caught many union members by surprise. But what they did not seem to realize is that opinions and emotions have been building around the issue of teacher's unions and "the bad teacher."

Conversations I have had with Walker supporters inevitably turn to a personal example of some teacher they felt should have been fired, but wasn't. Many voters blame the teacher's unions for protecting bad apples. To these voters, they see Scott Walker as trying to fix their schools by weakening the power of unions to protect bad teachers – it is a personal issue, one that brings out emotions.

To union supporters, the idea of killing off collective bargaining over a few bad teachers seems insane – like outlawing marriage because a couple has decided to divorce. To opponents of the governor, Walker and the outside business interests that have bankrolled his campaigns, are trying to drive down labor costs. The next move, many believe, will be to make Wisconsin a "right to work" state – the euphemism for "no rights to work" – or at least, work for a living wage and with benefits.

In a state naturally divided between big city Milwaukee and Madison, and rural dairy farms, the fight is about very real and very local issues. But to the national media, it is all a prelude to this fall's presidential election. The issues at hand – the power of big business and money in politics, the rights of workers versus the rights of tax payers – is simply too complicated to report on, too emotional to risk readership.

So the old media world has punted.