Friday, April 3, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Veteran reporter Michael Isikoff tweeted this Wisconsin
State Journal cartoon to promote his expose of Walker
campaign funding, but will this be the opening salvo of national
media takedown of  Walker's behavior?
While interviewing six dozen folks for a series of national outlet stories about how right to work (for less) was going over in Wisconsin, I was struck again and again by contrary reactions from people who want Walker gone (now including many former supporters).

One reaction was the skepticism if not outright cynicism of union leaders over all this belated national interest in the shenanigans of their governor.  The other reflected an optimistic contrast and came from citizens and dyed in the wool progressives delighted in that national attention. They were convinced that finally some top drawer investigative talents would flood in to expose Walker’s failure as a governor and knock him off his presumptive presidential perch. 

And sure enough, national media has flocked to the story – and sure enough the cynical union leaders were also right. 

The national media did explode but, with only a few exceptions, the sort of details that attracted them were not how bad his reign had been for Wisconsin or even the new revelations about the obvious pay for play within the money he had garnered in past victories.  No, it was headline statements and mirthful delight in this anti-Jeb threat from the Midwest, another media puppet to add to the string of outrageous conservative failures that dance through the primary landscape and fill broadcast and print space, stretching 15 minutes of fame into several days of anchor glory.

It’s a temporary fever since no extremist politician in these extremist primaries amounts to anything. But it sucks the air out of the media room for now.

Sure, the national reporters feeding cable news and far-flung newspapers were having fun along the way demonstrating Walker was the latest ass in the Herman Cain mode for suggesting he was ready to handle ISIS because of experience in handling citizen protesters, or dodging a simple yes or no on evolution in London, or bluntly stating that having been an Eagle Scout prepared him for the White House.  But they didn’t even have to visit Wisconsin to scoff since he unleashed such pomposity as he was raising money in locations far from Madison. 

They also had fun with his flip-flop and then flop-flip and then back-flip to deny any flip on immigration policies, ethanol, and wait-for-what-he-says tomorrow.  To careful readers or listeners it did clarify how he decides positions based on political convenience.

But again, that’s hardly news to Wisconsinites. As one GOP legislator who worked with Walker way back in the Assembly reminded me:  “Even then, Walker was a creature of expedience, a stoker of political trends not a true believer. If you want to see an avid unbending social conservative, look at (Assembly Majority Leader) Robin Vos, who clearly is waiting in the wings for Walker to leave.”

That fits. Walker opposed Vos’ right to work push when he needed worker support for the governor’s race – than gladly pushed it himself when needed for his extreme conservative image in running for president.   Once the US Supremes agreed the Wisconsin amendment defining marriage to exclude gays was unconstitutional, he shrugged off what he had once forcefully defended. 

He’s doing the same by promising continued harshness on Obamacare. But look more closely at what Walker said April 1 to a conservative gathering. He would oppose IF the high court opposed, which is looking more doubtful.  It’s typical Walker. Principles be damned. It takes an act of court or Congress to make up his mind.  

He supported the Pence folly in Indiana but then  blamed the media for overreacting even when other conservatives hinted that it might have been too broad and  divisive a move  -- something as overly broad and uselessly divisive as,  say, Walker’s attacks on union workers in Wisconsin. Few in the national media made that obvious connection because they know so little about Wisconsin politics and Walker’s methods.   

They did better after the US-led coalition of nations reached a preliminary deal April 2 with Iran to prevent nuclear weapons, chuckling at Walker’s insistence in interviews that he would “blow up” any deal that allowed Iran nuclear power even if our allies supported it.  

Fun with such stupid generalities is unavoidable. But mainly for their own ratings the media has played up his self-portrait as an obstinate maverick or even worse a  typical grit and guts Midwesterner,. They have no idea how that angers genuine gritty Midwesterners to see their entire milieu shriveled into a narrow-minded social conservative with a habit of letting his staff do the jail time while he feigns ignorance.  Yet television audiences mainly heard Walker portray himself without question as salt of the earth pastor’s son who crawled under the pews at his father’s Baptist church in Iowa without apparently understanding a word of the New Testament.

The media let him exaggerate even his shrewdness as a politician. His maneuvers with money and political machinery do fit that crafty Yankee opportunist image. Who would be proud of that outside a 19th century colonial novel?

So in effect the national media for its own purposes was buying into his lines of defense without looking as deeply as Wisconsin residents had hoped for.  Such as his “victories” over Big Labor. Well, Labor hasn’t been Big for decades and the media is now complacent in letting that  shrinking mostly white and aging right wing swoon over a bully beating up on the little guy because the little guy is the only residual collective money left  for his opponents. This is not exactly a celebration of the American Dream that the Fourth Estate should be playing cheerleader for.

What should be a negative is also becoming a positive -- winning three non-presidential elections in four years. Think of the timing and the volume of votes. Wisconsin has gone Democratic for president since 1984 and even as favorite son Walker already lags the most likely Democrat in the polls by 15 points.

Wisconsin brings enormous presidential election turnout in November – 70% of the state’s 4.4 million voters in 2012. In Walker’s wins in 2010, that special recall in the summer of 2012 and again in 2014, turnout was some 55% at best and a little over 2 million voters for both candidates split close to  half. The first race was pretty tight, the second he gained a bit because of media resistance to the concept of recalls plus unlimited funding (under the recall rules) for a threatened governor that gave him a 40-1 funding advantage.  The last was against a political unknown who actually seemed close for a while until the weight of money, false advertising and social conservative fear kicked in to give him a 6 point margin.  That’s an accomplishment but hardly something that the national media should be writing up as runaway success.  But I could only find one national story that suggested Walker’s electoral ability was far from impressive. 

This article may sound like a putdown of Walker, but it is more about whether the media will start telling the truth about him beyond concern for making money from a “Twenty One” rigged game show wonderkid.  This is also why so many union leaders I’ve talked to are so cynical.  So far it has been hard to find national stories that detail the disasters that have put Wisconsin 40th among states in job creation and lagging its Midwest neighbors broadly and the national average terribly. The scope of Walker’s failures from education to conservation, and his coziness with robber barons,  should be low-hanging fruit for investigative journalists.

As one New York newspaper man emailed me, if only Wisconsin was geographically close to big media centers like New Jersey is.  That governor, Chris Christie, is already fading in the presidential sweepstakes given in part the massive coverage of his state’s fiscal failure, his tinkering with hurricane money and Bridgegate, Yet each “scandal” is harder to pin down than Walker’s heavier hand with a lighter body.

“If Wisconsin was located where New Jersey is, Walker would have been a goner months ago,” said my friend.

Despite their growing presence in Wisconsin, only a few national outlets such as Bloomberg and the Washington Post are really thinking about digging around. Many are still relying on the local media – in fact, pushing them to look harder and feed them the goodies.  They don’t yet know that readers in this state have been waiting for years. 

Mike Isikoff
If there is a nationally recognized and honored muckraker to dig out misbehavior in politicians like Walker, the hidden connections between him, the rich guys and his administrative machinery, it is Mike Isikoff, former lead investigative reporter for NBC, a gadfly to Clinton to Bush to Romney and master researcher for  national publications now chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News, where Wisconsin gave him a gem.   

Yet only Rachel Maddow of MSNBC caught the full flavor of what he uncovered about Wisconsin’s richest citizen John Menard and how the public hadn’t known  about the money for Walker or why. Menard, the largest offender of Wisconsin environmental regulations,  had secretly given $1.5 million to Wisconsin Club for Growth to support Walker’s  recall defense – and then gained favorable treatment from Walker’s DNR and tax credit coffers.  

Now billionaire Menard  has  played tax credit roulette with other governors (though for less money)  and runs such a powerful hardware chain that he  is accustomed to favorable treatment and acting above the law.  But once the DNR cared about the environment more than political pandering, and back then it handed Menard record fines and even caught him hauling hazardous waste to his own home trash rather than dispose of it according to regulations.

Readers can draw their own conclusions about the timing of all this Walker kindness to one of his biggest financial  supporters within months of getting the money  -- and they have.  But though Isikoff is a national media name it was the local media that followed up --  including Urban Milwaukee re-chronicling the  findings  and several media outlets resurrecting the great Bruce Murphy 2013 story  regaling readers with Menard’s sexual misadventures in court and the ugly side of friendship among the very rich.

The sort of links  Isikoff uncovered between money and alleged pay for play may soon disappear if  the media doesn’t get cracking. He dug it out from the largely neglected remaining files  of the John Doe II probe.  The furious rich who gave such largesse to Walker are arguing their rights to privacy were invaded by prosecutors (who turn out despite their claims to have been heavily monitored and  bipartisan). 

We may soon never know the truth for ourselves.  The Wisconsin legislature is desperate to cripple future John Does that might investigate them. WMC and Club for Growth hope that even before that the conservative dominated state high court will remember who funded their campaigns and kill the current  investigation and bury any further document release.  

It sure seems a footrace right now between the cynicism about national coverage the union leaders fear and the scrutiny that many hope national attention will finally bring to the Walker operation.  Anyone want to make a bet on the winner?

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for and movies at domsdomain.

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