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
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.
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
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
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
transporting patients to emergency medical care. Channel 12 followed up
on Monday night.
How easy, though, it can be to
dismiss those routine meetings of small-time government units as of no
How easy, and how wrong.
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