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Southeast Wisconsin’s epic political chasm is the focus of two recent high-profile news stories – one local, one national – and the headlines signal radically different approaches. The first, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is no-nonsense: “Dividing Lines: Democratic, Republican voters worlds apart in divided Wisconsin.” Then, this clickbait from the New Republic: “The Unelectable […]

Southeast Wisconsin’s epic political chasm is the focus of two recent high-profile news stories – one local, one national – and the headlines signal radically different approaches.

The first, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is no-nonsense: “Dividing Lines: Democratic, Republican voters worlds apart in divided Wisconsin.” Then, this clickbait from the New Republic: “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star.”

The first headline tops Craig Gilbert’s analysis of Milwaukee’s political polarization. The second lures readers to Alec MacGillis’ cover story, which dives into the history of race and politics in Milwaukee, drawing heavily on Gilbert’s data. 

The New Republic piece introduces a national audience to the area’s nasty, powerful talk-radio culture, which plays a starring role in the article. 

WTMJ talker Charlie Sykes sat down for not one, but two drinks with MacGillis – most likely for the last time. Sykes hated the story. On his blog, he called the reporter “clueless about Milwaukee.”

The thin-skinned Sykes is not alone in panning the work of reporters who drop in to characterize – or caricature – the Dairy State and its confounding politics. Since Gov. Walker passed Act 10, restricting collective bargaining, satellite trucks from coast to coast have descended on the state. Journalists puzzle over an electorate that went for Obama twice but elected Walker in 2010 and refused to recall him in 2012. The governor’s presidential ambition and the state’s stark fissures make Wisconsin a media magnet.

“People come into Wisconsin with a curiosity because it’s such a conundrum,” says Ron Elving, NPR’s senior Washington editor, who once worked for the Milwaukee Journal. “They scratch their heads at the apparent contradictions.” 

The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal are among the few national media outlets that still maintain bureaus in Chicago and cover Wisconsin intermittently. But in faraway newsrooms on the coasts, reporters can’t figure out voters who replaced Russ Feingold with Ron Johnson, elected Tammy Baldwin over Tommy Thompson, and have supported Democratic presidents since 1988.

Journalists who fail to see beyond the simplistic swing-state narrative often get it wrong, lumping Wisconsin with Minnesota, Michigan or Ohio. “The most superficial coverage I see is from reporters without any ground experience who simply put the state into the toss-up category,” says Marquette Law School professor and pollster Charles Franklin. Broad-brush Wisconsin may be purple, but most voters are solidly blue or red. The “persuadable middle” has shrunk from 20 percent to 6 percent, says Franklin.

It’s a nuance the New Republic’s MacGillis discovered through his reporting. 

“What you have in Wisconsin is this very populous part of the state that is just so riven between red and blue and in fact has barely any purple to speak of,” he tells Milwaukee Magazine. “People don’t understand that.” 

MacGillis stands by his story, painting himself as an Easterner with attitude. “Maybe it takes an outside publication to take it that one step further and be a little more blunt in naming names and attributing cause-and-effect more directly when it comes to that polarization.” 

A magazine gives him more length, style and freedom to be edgy, he says. The New Republic “is coming from a certain political perspective, and so is able to call the shots as it sees them in a way that a local newspaper would be more hamstrung in doing.”
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