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Going Through the Motions
What we lose when we write off “traditional” coverage.

Back in January the Democratic Party of Wisconsin held a telephone news conference to outline its strategy for winning the state when Gov. Scott Walker runs for reelection next year.


The event got a smattering of coverage: a blog post at JSOnline and stories on Fox 6 and in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram.


I suspect a generation ago the whole story would have been quite different – in the way it was reported and in the way it was presented.


I doubt either the Democratic Party or the Republicans in the 1960s or even the 1980s would have held a news conference to disseminate strategy details. More likely it would have trickled out slowly, as political insiders chatted with particular reporters, who then would have made phone calls, played hunches, and worn out shoe leather, hanging out in the offices of pols and staffers engaged in the project. And the stories would have probably run longer and gotten bigger play, whether in print or on the air.


But notice what would have made those stories possible in the first place: ongoing conversations and interchange between reporters and various actors in the political drama – legislators, staffers, behind the scenes operatives. Those certainly still happen; there are still well-connected reporters. But they are fewer, and their numbers are shrinking.


Rich Eggleston, a longtime AP reporter in Madison now retired, recalls when he started at the bureau, in the waning days of campus protests as the scars of political disaffection on all sides were beginning to fade.


“Hardly any of the pols thought I had a hidden agenda, and mostly they weren’t intent on keeping their agendas hidden either,” Eggleston tells me. Politicians had a grudging respect for the watchdog role of the press. And at least some reporters – Eggleston counts himself as one – were comfortable enough being candid with politicians in interviews, willing to sharply critique policy and press for concrete responses to such criticisms.


“The ability to cast a jaundiced eye on the workings of politicians was something that was not universally abhorred,” he says. Not so today. “While I'm not in the trenches any more, I sense that what is happening today is a lot more like trench warfare.”


Access, I am told – and I have experienced – is far more controlled and managed than it once was. And notwithstanding exceptions, like the Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice, the journalistic insiders with the “inside dope” these days are often explicitly playing for one side or the other.


So when the first story appeared about Walker’s plan to reject federal Medicaid expansion money, who got it? A partisan blogger who was considered a sure bet to describe the decision in terms most favorable to the governor.


Soon, a pointed rejoinder from the other side of the ideological fence followed as Dominique Noth, Milwaukee Labor Press editor, took apart the Walker plan. As I noted a few weeks ago, however, it still took more thorough reporting to get the full story.


But let’s go back to that Democratic strategy story. Is it something readers and viewers would care about at all? Something they should care about?


The politically engaged would, of course. Others, probably not so much.


Yet there’s a case that it would have been important to them, whether or not they thought so. If deeply reported and offering genuine insights into the ongoing political process, it would tell people something about how their world works, perhaps even engaging them in that process, on whichever side.


But just as those strands of thought unwound in my mind, something else tied a knot in them: The likely rejoinder, which I’ve heard, and uttered, often over the years: It’s all “inside baseball” mattering more to the participants than to the average person, and readers and viewers will just turn the page or switch the channel.


In every newsroom I’ve worked, there’s always been ambivalence about how to cover institutions and bureaucracy – schools, labor unions, legislative bodies at every level, political parties, the courts or government agencies.


The journalist’s mindset can be a complicated mélange of suspicion toward authority and a certain tendency to identify closely with some of the characters on the beat, or even the institutions themselves. Neither of those ways of viewing the world is entirely illegitimate. But either can wind up seriously distorting the story that comes out.


Still, dwindling news outlet resources combined with the world-weary dismissal of institutions may explain why outside Milwaukee and Madison, the number of reporters in the state interested in politics is so small that one insider tells me, “I can almost count them all on both hands.”


So which came first – the tendency of journalists to write off institutions, or the withering of institutions themselves in their authority and in the public mind? And did the polarization of our society, and our media, further exacerbate both of those trends?


Arguably, it did. All the hand-wringing about how we gravitate to media that confirms our ideological biases misses the large number of people who aren’t in either polar camp, whose engagement with politics is so shallow or even non-existent that while you’re watching Hannity and your neighbor watches Maddow, they’re all staring at Downton Abbey, Netflix or icanhascheezburger.


Maybe they always did (well, except for the kittens) – and so that just reinforces the impulse of editors and producers to give “inside baseball” a pass in favor of something everyone will want to read or watch.


Sometimes, though, “inside baseball” is the only way to get at some piece of information essential to our self-government. And we don’t always know until we’re deep into the game.


Take the local village board meeting. How many times do we think of that as the stultifying lowlight of a reporter’s work day?


Yet at a series of such meetings in the last week, doggedly covered by Mount Pleasant Patch, the story has emerged of how deferred replacement of ambulances used by the South Shore Fire Department (jointly supported by Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant) contributed to recent breakdowns that delayed transporting patients to emergency medical care. Channel 12 followed up with coverage on Monday night.


How easy, though, it can be to dismiss those routine meetings of small-time government units as of no consequence.


How easy, and how wrong.



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(illustration via Shutterstock)

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