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Recall Recalled
News and notes on media coverage of the recent election.

John Nichols, the Capital Times associate editor and Washington correspondent for the liberal magazine The Nation has (in the latter outlet) a strikingly underreported piece of information.


By the time Wisconsin went to the polls last week to vote on whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker, exit polling found that 60 percent felt that recalls themselves should be reserved for official misconduct.


Yet if polling last year is to be believed, Wisconsin residents didn’t always feel that way. Last November, Nichols reports, a St. Norbert College survey found 58 percent of voters supported using the recall mechanism to oust Walker. In January, a Marquette University poll found 53 percent similarly favored keeping the state’s broadly worded recall language as it was, instead of limiting it to matters of criminal wrongdoing.  Indeed, the historical record suggests that the father of the state’s constitutional amendment that enables recall elections – the Progressive lion Bob LaFollette – favored such a broad approach as part of his larger pro-democracy, anti-corporate agenda.


So what changed? Nichols argues that a series of huge, under-the-radar media buys – TV ads, direct mail and other messaging – by pro-Walker forces pushed a message opposing recall elections on principle. “Scott Walker ran hard against Tom Barrett and the Democrats, but he ran harder against the recall,” Nichols noted.


The recall was a national story of course, and at Politico, columnist Dylan Byers points out how cable news and commentary outlets covering it played into their most partisan stereotypes:


MSNBC was blatantly rooting for Tom Barrett to defeat Gov. Scott Walker, even sending union champion Ed Schultz to cover an event with no apologies for the dog he has in the fight. (Earlier tonight, Chris Matthews even told Schultz that if he wasn't an MSNBC host, he could be head of the AFL-CIO.) When it became clear that Barrett would lose, Schultz looked almost teary eyed . . . .  Meanwhile, Fox News was blatantly rooting for Gov. Scott Walker, and the moment it became clear that Walker might win, host Sean Hannity called it "a repudiation of big unions"  . . .  Fox's Greta Van Susteren later hosted what amounted to a victory celebration for the Republicans.


So where was CNN – which has been touting itself as the still-objective alternative to the respective slants of Fox and MSNBC? Re-running coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.




The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik (a UW-Madison grad) piles on:


CNN, as I have often said at this blog, was our last best hope for fact-based, journalism that serves citizens by providing them with reliable, trustworthy information and analysis about the world in which we live. Without someone performing that function, democracy is impossible. I don't know why more people don't get this. One of the reasons we are at each others' throats and having such angry incoherent debates about monumental matters like the economy is that we are so misinformed about so many important matters by a failed and biased press.


Byers’ observation about MSNBC’s coverage in particular leads me to a hypothesis: that if some segment of anti-Walker voters last week were surprised by the outcome, and maybe even unaware of the anti-recall messaging that Nichols describes in his Nation blog entry – is it possible that their main source of TV news and commentary on politics is in fact MSNBC?


I say this not to bash the network. But I do know that when I watched it over the last several months I saw virtually no political advertising in the Wisconsin recall race. In and of itself that’s not surprising; while there are local spot buys, for the most part the advertising is national. My point is that viewers who didn’t watch anything else might not have even realized the specific pro-Walker, anti-recall messaging that was going on in the weeks leading up to last Tuesday.


And if my hunch is accurate, it’s another, possibly unintended and certainly unexpected consequence of the way our news and commentary media have fragmented along ideological lines.


Did the Journal Sentinels still-unfolding examination of how the Milwaukee Police Department reports crime data to state authorities move any votes to the Walker camp? That may be unknowable – just as whether a late-breaking report of Walker’s non-cooperation with the ongoing John Doe investigation in Milwaukee either turned some voters against him or actually produced some sympathy votes.


Still, the way the story was twisted to be used in a Walker ad against Barrett may inevitably feed conspiracy theories that the timing was intended to damage Barrett’s mayoral race.


For the record – I harbor no such suspicions. Although I’ve criticized the story’s execution, I think the topic is a legitimate one, I think the initial findings raise important questions, and I don’t believe that the newspaper was deliberately trying to torpedo Barrett’s campaign.


Money has been pegged as at least part of the big story of this election. In that vein, the most comprehensive examination of just how much Walker raised and where it came from was undertaken by the Appleton Post-Crescent, part of the Gannett chain. The paper’s story was picked up by Gannett’s national daily, USA Today.


And in the aftermath, Bill Lueders’ column on how that money was spent – not just by Walker, but his opponents as well – is not to be missed.


Finally, former Milwaukee Magazine editor Bruce Murphy, now holding the editor’s title at the website Urban Milwaukee, offered a contrarian view of why Walker won.


And farther afield . . . The New Orleans Times Picayune – along with sibling southern papers in the Advance Publications group – becomes the largest daily to date to drop daily print publishing—and announced it would cut staff by one-third. Instead, starting in the fall, the paper will be web-only except for three days a week. But online columnist Richard Prince, who monitors the topic of diversity in the news business, points to research suggesting the change will particularly cut off poorer, nonwhite readers.



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