News Blogs and Commentary

  Newspapers Even on a slow day, keeping up with the news can be akin to getting a drink of water from a fire hydrant. And with Wisconsin the center of national — maybe even worldwide — attention in the last week over Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees except for police and firefighters, it becomes like trying to swim in a tsunami. We may glance at the paper or listen to the TV and radio news — and for many of us, the story may stop there. But for others of us, that’s only the beginning,…

 
Newspapers

Even on a slow day, keeping up with the news can be akin to getting a drink of water from a fire hydrant. And with Wisconsin the center of national — maybe even worldwide — attention in the last week over Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees except for police and firefighters, it becomes like trying to swim in a tsunami.

We may glance at the paper or listen to the TV and radio news — and for many of us, the story may stop there. But for others of us, that’s only the beginning,

What we look at next is likely to color what we think and reflect what we feel. That’s part of what’s behind the lament of a lot of grizzled old news veterans who bemoan the decline of traditional news and the rise of the Internet as a news medium

Online we check out blogs that are likely to align with our viewpoint on the events. At Facebook we post links or video that (we believe) trenchantly describe what’s going on.

As a consequence, we sometimes learn interesting and relevant facts ahead of what we see in the mainstream press—like this Isthmus online story that suggests Walker is disingenuous when he says that emasculating public employee unions is something that local governments have been begging for “not just for years, but for decades.”

(An aside: Isthmus is a go-to site for on-the-scene reporting of the Madison protests. And yes, wearing another hat, I do write for the Madison weekly, albeit not on this topic.)

More problematic, though, we also get spun. And sometimes it can be hard to sort one from the other.

Take the story of Walker’s “ginned-up crisis,” as Talking Points Memo asserted last week, quoting a Madison Capital Times commentary. Here’s the basic claim: That the $137 million current budget shortfall was “created” by the $140 million in tax breaks the GOP-controlled legislature passed, at Walker’s behest, earlier this year.

For liberals it was appealing in its elegant simplicity, and it took off, even making Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC. It was also factually wrong.

I’ve been pretty harsh online and in print about the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact operation, and I stand by my past criticism. But I agree with Murphy’s Law yesterday (first item under “The Buzz”) that it’s acquitted itself pretty well in covering the controversy. And it’s done so without resorting to the false equivalency that blows up a bit of sawdust in the eye of one group of partisans to match the two-by-four lodged in the eye of the other group.

The unfortunate side effect of the inaccurate “ginned-up crisis” meme is that it undermines legitimate and important lines of inquiry.

The larger argument remains that the tax-cutting agenda that Walker rammed through made the state’s long-standing fiscal problems worse; just based on the math, that’s hard to deny. And that, in turn, raises the legitimate question about whether the Republicans in Madison or Washington really care about deficits or are simply using it as cover to pass other policies that they have long sought and that benefit mainly, if not only, the wealthy.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich makes that argument, in a widely shared blog post, one of many that I saw in the last week:

The Republican strategy is to split the vast middle and working class – pitting unionized workers against non-unionized, public-sector workers against non-public, older workers within sight of Medicare and Social Security against younger workers who don’t believe these programs will be there for them, and the poor against the working middle class…. They hope to deflect attention from the increasing share of total income and wealth going to the richest 1 percent while the jobs and wages of everyone else languish.

Variations on that analysis, from Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, and others, have swept the blogosphere and framed the story effectively. Yet they’ve done that mostly for people who are already inclined to see it that way. It’s not likely to persuade someone who, say, buys into, say, Glenn Beck’s theory that the recent uprising in Egypt signals a coming worldwide Islamic revolution.

And Reich, Krugman, Klein et al. rely ultimately on inference and speculation to make their point — no one has come across the secret Oligarchy Playbook laying it all out.

Nor should they have to. But it’s just easier in the role of an opinionated columnist or blogger to draw those connections than it is for the traditional straight-news reporter.

Of course, the old news colored our thinking, too—and could be just as biased in its framing of stories. Until we all turn into completely logical and dispassionate Vulcans, that will happen. Which means, like, forever.

Yet along with all of the wrongheaded reasoning that can result from our ideological blinders, there’s a signature value — but also a caution flag — in the instant reading and instant interpretation we find in the new media.

We can get a glimpse by considering the Koch Brothers angle.

In the Walker story, the blogosphere has been ahead of the newshounds in connecting the governor’s agenda with the right-wing industrialists who’ve poured millions of dollars into politics to elect conservative Republicans — including donations that went to Walker’s campaign and to conservative activist groups (notably, Americans for Prosperity) that also bought ads on his behalf. Mother Jones on its website and a blogger at Forbes.com — yes, that Forbes—drew connections last week.

This morning, The New York Times picked up the story, reporting it with the much more restrained conventions of daily, mainstream journalism.

Now, for the full background on who the Kochs are, you have to go back to yet another mainstream publication: The New Yorker, which published a lengthy story last summer on them.

In Wisconsin, a new twist surfaced Monday and was picked up by a blogger at Daily Kos: language in the budget repair bill that allows for selling off, without competitive bids, state-owned heating, cooling and power plants. Another Daily Kos blogger waxed cynical. All the commenters have made the understandable — but still inferential — leap to connect the passage with Koch Industries as a likely beneficiary.

This time, mainstream reporters didn’t wait as long; Aaron Diamant of the WTMJ-Channel 4 Investigative Team ran with a story Monday night—complete with the Koch connection.

But is there a Koch connection? Maybe — or maybe not. We really don’t know yet. (After drafting this piece, I see that Andrew Leonard at Salon has made a similar point.) But it’s an important question, and one of the distinctbenefits of blogging is that such questions get asked in public, not just around the table in a newsroom story-generating session.

For that matter, Pressroom can play the same game:

Koch Industries has holdings in coal and natural gas. So does that begin to explain the real reason Walker wants to crush the wind farm industry in Wisconsin and has scrapped biomass at the new UW power plant in favor of natural gas? (And is that plant one of those “heating, cooling and power plants” that the bill would let Walker sell off without bids? To the Kochs?)

I don’t know, and you don’t either (or if you do, send me the documents to prove it). But it is a question worth asking.

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.