Monday, February 17, 2014

UNLIKE CHRISTIE, WALKER NOT YET IN CROSSHAIRS OF NEWLY AGGRESSIVE JOURNALISM

By Dominique Paul Noth


The scrutiny that Christie is under (top) so far
 has skipped a more obvious target, Scott Walker.
The major Wisconsin newsrooms are nowhere near the level of contrition, re-examination and determination to do better that colleagues tell me is going on at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC,  CNN and other East Coast power media centers left, right and middle,  along with the usually moderate Bergen Record and  New Jersey Star-Ledger (nj.com).

Not just their readers but their consciences have made them aware of culpability -- the price paid for their blanket enthusiasm for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rather than journalism’s natural instincts (whatever your political camp) to be skeptical and probing. 

Wisconsin establishment journalism is lagging far behind in such remorse. Yet it has an even more obvious longstanding case of economic ineptitude, office misbehavior, bad hiring, evasion of campaign finance rules, fraud in commerce  and failures at job creation, education consistency  and transit development in its governor, Scott Walker. 

Out east, with some sarcasm here and there, all media outlets responded positively 2012 and 2013 to Christie’s blunt style and political gifts. He was seen as a rare voice of Republican sanity because he was willing to do what every governor should -- working with the president on disaster aid across party gridlock.  His press conferences were masterful misdirection of casual-speak and dominating personality.   He was frank that he was running up voting totals to enhance his crossover reputation.

It’s a different manner than Walker, who wraps himself in statistical wonkishness and glib pretence of thinking things through even though his mind is made up. Behind the scenes Christie catered to selected regions and developers who could help his campaign.  Walker catered to the Koch funding network (which has been rather simplicity labeled Kochtopus but actually exists and runs wild, as independent-minded reporter Lisa Kaiser has brilliantly explored in pieces for the Shepherd Express).

Yet they share a playbook. The constant failure in Walker’s hires are the fault of minions, not him, he said -- so no wonder Christie is now trotting that one out, too.  Christie insists he was always in tight control but did not know what his closest aides were up to.  Isn’t that a Walker gimmick?

The contrast and similarities East and Midwest raise questions not just about these governors’ pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination but about integrity in mass media. Will East Coast aggressive journalism infect Wisconsin --  or will Wisconsin journalism continue to settle for nibbling delicately around the edges?

Editors cite the public’s disinterest in deeper stories about Walker’s maneuvers. Their CEOs worry about the economic necessities of not offending business advertisers who tend to support Walker.  That has allowed only the extremist voices to be loud on both sides, without the sort of concentrated diligent probing essential for effective journalism.  In Wisconsin we get Sykes, Sly and Media Trackers.  In New York and New Jersey they get the investigative staffs for Anderson Cooper and Joe Scarborough, Wall Street Journal mea culpas and the Star-Ledger reversing its original tepid support for Christie. No wonder they win the Pulitzers.

Why is it considered bias in Wisconsin to rigidly examine a politician who has a blatant ideological agenda? That is slowly happening on the East Coast where the media ideology was not friendly to Christie at the start but now recognizes the need to investigate hard. Locally, media ideology  is friendly to Walker but stuck in neutral. Why?  Shouldn’t a Fourth Estate be rewarded by advertisers and readers for doing its job?

Here it’s usually taken court action,   not the deep database hunting Christie is being subjected to by the press and many branches of government, to block the Walker administration’s unorthodox and illegal behavior, and that mainly stirs media carping about the prosecutors not the governor and his secretive networks.

If there had been deeper probity here, perhaps the governor wouldn’t go so amazingly unquestioned in his media blitz across the nation to raise money for his re-election effort.

Out of state, Walker makes his points without contradiction, as he did in an extended November interview on ABC where he said it was thugs and yahoos from the unions that made him the most hated politician in American in 2011 rather than his own actions. He can rewrite history in “Unintimidated” to invent bravery he never demonstrated.  In an echo of the dictatorial injunction of pharaohs, he is telling the nation in effect to “give me the reins again and I will behave differently.” Just a few months ago it was Christie who enjoyed such unbridled superficial  media attention.

Flattered by the important financiers serving as Walker’s advance team in big cities East and West, the media is providing unchallenging headlines   (though more time by Walker raising money out of state than governing in state  is a temporary salvation for local citizens). The bussed-in press simply doesn’t have the facts at their fingertips or the desire to ask the tough questions.  

Walker is even getting away with surface coverage in a newspaper that the Republicans normally regard as their bête noir  -- the so-called leftie New York Times. In a general analysis of the difficulties Midwest Republican governors will face in re-election,  reporter Trip Gabriel  allowed Walker to escape by calling his current economy an improvement over the national worst year in job loss.  Going back before the Great Recession and recovery would have nailed that Walker is actually performing worse than neighboring states, a more accurate picture of the fumblings. 

That was unnaturally kind to Walker, but typical of the reluctance of the national media to dig around in Wisconsin political facts.  Why should they when few Wisconsin journalists do?  It actually took Mother Jones to examine the same issue from another side  -- how all these Republican governors, Walker out front,  are luring a lot of “dark money” from the right-wing hidden from public scrutiny.

National press and particularly TV anchors allow  Walker to pretend he is focused on the economy not on ever narrowing white America social agendas. These media folks  just don’t seem aware -- as so many in Wisconsin are -- of how disappointing Walker’s administration has been in economic terms and how ferocious he has been in attacking equal pay for women, supporting transvaginal probes, opposing living wage ordinances in communities, fighting marriage equality and stepping hard on other personal  issues that would normally be fodder for national coverage.

It is not just the events in New Jersey that should make Wisconsin citizens wonder why only a few dedicated independent watchdog groups have done their job. Admire or distrust Walker, shouldn’t all the general media at least be questioning him more intensively as the East Coasters are belatedly doing to Christie? In Wisconsin they do have mounting evidence of the methods and consequences. Even skeptical members of Walker’s own party are finally speaking out – but only  behind closed doors in Madison. 
Walker grins. He winks. And somehow that substitutes
in media interviews for answering tough questions.

Walker tells the national media he is all about cooperation (a surprise to Madison Democrats) while quietly assuring conservative evangelicals he is the real Tea Party candidate and their unbending social messiah. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he insists that the only road to economic security is cutting taxes while increasing debt, though major centrist researchers point out that even major  entrepreneurs are looking for something far more robust than Walker is offering Wisconsin.   Shouldn’t such simplicities be routinely challenged?

A year ago without asking how, the press applauded Christie’s ability to wrestle massive voting support and money in a blue state. They believed his reputation as US Attorney for cleaning up corruption. Now authorities are looking at his behavior with the crossed-eyes he cast on others in a state that still sings more like “The Sopranos” than the Vienna Boys Choir.

Wisconsin is different.  New Jersey has lived on insider corruption whichever party had the governor’s mansion.  Wisconsin  had a long reputation of clean government and refused to give the governor the unlimited authority over cash and carry that Christie enjoys.  And Walker is different. He would never like Christie berate a lone schoolteacher at a press event.  He just limits the income and freedom of all public school teachers.

In Wisconsin it took single party dominance in 2010 – both chambers of the legislature along with the governor’s mansion – to push through extremist policies, often in the face of common sense analysis or moderating concerns.  No one expected Walker to blow up historic give and take, but fellow Republicans had to go along or change party stripes, which they were not ready for. 

Yet all along Walker has been the target of campaign fraud investigation.  Unlike Christie he could dance into the wings with aplomb claiming any opposition was merely political payback while lying about job statistics.   The Wisconsin media still acts  in general like the East Coast media of yesteryear did with Christie, letting him buck-and-wing offstage-right without answering. Nor have they looked hard around the state at what local municipalities are saying about backroom pressure from Madison.

Walker beat the recall because of unlimited cash and general dislike in the electorate to interrupt the normal four-year cycle (let us correct our mistakes in proper order, many voters decided). Christie succeeded because circumstances forced him to act cooperative while manipulating the image agenda.

It’s an irony. Walker never acted cooperatively and got away with it – still does if you contrast his job creation promises with reality. Christie had to finagle in a two-party system, yet he’s termed the bully.  Walker could always shove things through – without hefting the abrasive weight of a bully.

Now, Easterners are asking, why  did the media take so long to see that Christie’s  own schemes and exaggerations may have robbed consumers of a $2 billion train tunnel he once supported?  Could he really have clogged traffic on the George Washington Bridge to score political points? Or did his aides simply misread his body language? Did he try to hold up hurricane relief for drowned Hoboken because he favored the one development  project that would make him look good?  The investigation is on.

But there are similar pressure cases in Wisconsin so far ignored. A  lot of local Republicans could speak to that pressure. They saw this train wreck coming but remain willing to ride off the rails with Walker because of short- term fiscal benefits. They can look around the corner at disaster, but don’t think the voters can. Cynically (shades of Jersey!) they think voters have short-term memory,  won’t blame them for looming deficits,  so why rock the boat and be driven from  office by the Walker big money machine? (That may be why so many local Republican leaders criticize his policies in private but refuse to speak on the record.)

Lack of proximity to probing journalists has been Walker’s buddy. His escape hatch.  He is counting on a  sympathetic legislature that will never engage in rounded probes, a public that is not demanding, an alliance with financier networks that can challenge any reputable investigation or at least delay the John Does until after the election.  And a complacent press unlike those East Coast pursuers after Christie.

The natural cycle to oust Walker comes in November 2014, but a national aura of attention could work like a home team advantage, outside bigwigs paying homage, pretending they know better than local victims of his leadership.

That’s clearly his game plan, and the Wisconsin media is something of a co-conspirator -- even as the East Coast media is now waking up and realizing they were providing similar  cover for Christie.

For 10 years the author served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

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