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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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With Capitol demonstrations, Wisconsin State Journal takes sides, belittles state workers
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I don't expect people to have noticed, but the truth is I've undergone something of a personal evolution in my attitude toward the Wisconsin State Journal, from critic to fan. Yes, I still take an occasional shot at Madison's sole remaining city daily print paper. But I've also supported and defended it with some regularity, as when I stood up for city government reporter Dean Mosiman when Mayor Dave Cieslewicz attacked him, as the paper itself acknowledged.

I've also stated repeatedly in interviews and public appearances regarding my new book that I believe the paper is doing good and vital journalism, for instance in reporter David Wahlberg's stunning series last year on rural health care.

Some of my best friends are State Journal reporters and editors. Really.

But as a longtime reader and as a person who cares about the quality of journalism and the fairness of commentary, I am deeply affronted by what I've seen in the paper's pages this week. Worst of all is Sunday's edition, which seems determined to obfuscate if not distort facts while going the extra mile to heap derision on the hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, social workers, prison guards, streets workers, police officers and fire fighters who have taken to the streets this week in protest of Gov. Scott Walker's assault against public employee unions in Wisconsin.

First, let's consider the paper's editorials, day by day.

On Friday, Feb. 11, the day Walker unveiled his budget-repair bill (details of which had been leaked in advance), the paper's lead editorial, "The city's unsettling settlement," chided the Madison Police Department for taking too long to fire a police officer and then allowing her to collect pay even afterward. It fell to the paper's former lead editorial page writer, Sunny Schubert, to point out in a letter to the editor a few days later that this criticism was misplaced; the fault was not the police but a bill passed by the state Legislature in the early '90s, affording extraordinary protections to police and firefighters.

Sunday, Feb. 13: The State Journal editorialized in favor of the newly announced willingness of state teachers unions to accept major changes in teacher pay and oversight ("Finally, some real reform for Wisconsin public schools"). But this concession had by that time already been rendered moot by Walker's announcement that he intended to extract even greater changes from teachers without making even an effort to negotiate.

Monday, Feb. 14: As thousands of state residents began mobilizing in opposition to Walker's bill, the State Journal ran an editorial in favor of reducing the size of the Dane County Board, as Marathon County is doing ("Which board will be most obese?").

Tuesday, Feb. 15: The paper ran an editorial encouraging people to go out and vote, as it was primary election day.

Wednesday, Feb. 16: The State Journal's editorial brain trust finally cottons to the controversy swirling around it, just a few miles from its offices on Fish Hatchery Road. It runs an editorial, "Governor's wise to secure prisons," applauding Walker for having said he was willing to call out the National Guard, if necessary, to counter any walk-out by state prison guards.

Thursday, Feb. 17: In its first editorial to comment directly on the governor's budget bill, scheduled for a vote in the state Senate that day, the State Journal said Walker was moving "too far, too fast" but otherwise supported his goal of securing changes in the state's relationships with its unions ("Right direction, dangerous speed"). The paper did allow that "eliminating virtually all collective bargaining rights while making it harder for unions to collect dues and stay certified aren't justified. And some parts of Walker's budget repair plan - such as an increase in political appointees - seem to have little to do with saving money."

Friday, Feb. 18: This was the day after all 14 Democratic members of the state Senate fled to Illinois to avoid being arrested and dragged back to the Capitol in handcuffs, if necessary, so that Republicans can pass the budget bill. And by now, the State Journal's patience for all this protest stuff had been stretched to the limit. Its finger-wagging editorial skewered state teachers for taking off of work to attend protests in Madison ("It's time to get back to class").

While the State Journal "[doesn't] begrudge the teachers for speaking up and getting involved in government decisions that affect them," it noted that "the school day ends around 3:30 p.m. That leaves teachers in Madison and surrounding communities plenty of time after work to drive Downtown if they wish to have their say at the Capitol." The paper did not note that tens of thousands of teachers and other workers did just that, as evidenced by the fact that the crowds at the Capitol swelled each night in the early evening hours.

Which brings us to Sunday, Sunday, Feb. 20 (the State Journal does not usually run editorials on Saturdays and saw no reason to make an exception now). The paper tried to play the role of mediator, in an editorial entitled "Fix budget, then bring bargaining back." Two days after saying that moves to strip the collective bargaining rights of almost all public employees "aren't justified," it now urged that this be done, albeit just for the next two years, until June 2013. It also opined, "The chaos we're experiencing in Wisconsin is simply the extreme manifestation of politics as usual," suggesting that all sides are equally to blame for their inability to let go of excessive partisanship.

These editorials are fully compatible with the paper's other commentary this week. Leading the charge has been columnist Chris Rickert, who has cranked out several columns belittling the protesters who have packed the state Capitol day after day.

There was his column on Tuesday, Feb. 15, "More of the same old hysterics, hyperbole," urging both sides to embrace his common-sense solution: Give the governor the pension and health care payments he wants but don't take an ax to collective bargaining.

Walker press secretary Cullen Werwie is quoted as refusing to comment on "hypothetical proposals" like Rickert's proposal. Rickert has yet to comment on the fact that the unions representing public employees have all agreed to accept the pension and health care payments Walker seeks making this no longer a "hypothetical" -- and that this has been soundly rejected by the governor and GOP leaders.

Rickert followed with a column on Thursday, Feb. 17, entitled "Budget pain hits beyond vocal crowd at Capitol." This column chided protesters for "accusing Republican Gov. Scott Walker of something close to putting all public workers in shackles and making them work for Chiclets."

In this column, Rickert highlighted a particular group of unionized state workers home health-care providers who don't have it as good as other state workers. His point was to lambaste these other state workers -- the "teachers, firefighters, engineers and other fairly well-compensated union government employees" now asserting their "loudness" at the Capitol -- for being such crybabies.

For Saturday, as the paper's editorial writers took a well-deserved day off, Rickert was back with another column attacking the protesters. "Look past political theater to judge Walker's proposal" focused on a tiny minority of signs at the Capitol which linked the actions of Gov. Walker to those of deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek. Rickert said these workers must be a "coddled" bunch to compare their situation to "living under emergency law for 30 years" -- blithely overlooking, among other things, that until a few weeks ago Mubarek was a trusted and respected U.S. ally backed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid and drawing not the slightest rebuke from commentators like Chris Rickert.

On this same day, State Journal reporters Clay Barbour and Mary Spicuzza took essentially the same tack, in their "On the Capitol" column, which ran under the headline "Hitler? Mubarek? Come on." "Let's be honest," the reporters urged. "Trying to weaken unions and forcing state workers to pay more for health insurance and pensions is not the same thing as ruling a country with an iron fist for 30 years and stealing billions."

We await their column decrying the guy who showed up on Saturday to support Walker by carrying a "Stop Socialism" sign and shouting about how Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen, as evidenced by his lack of a birth certificate.

Sunday, Feb. 20, brought another Rickert column in which he purports to be seeking middle ground -- at least at first. "It hasn't been the best week for liberalism" starts by mocking the protesters for suggesting that the loss of their collective bargaining rights "is a union-busting attack on working people everywhere," as well as the Walker supporters who paint opponents of his proposal as "selfish members of a new class of 'haves' bent solely on protecting their own interests."

Rickert, who has pretty much taken this latter approach all along, comes down squarely on the side of Scott Walker, saying he's been disappointed at the lack of thoughtfulness of those who are coming to the Capitol to "lobby for one of the best-compensated public work forces in the country as though they were something akin to the first black entrants to the University of Mississippi."

The paper's editorials and other commentary, of course, are distinct from its news coverage, which has certainly been more balanced and fair. But it's probably worth noting, as I'm sure others will, the extraordinary lengths the State Journal went to in today's paper to suggest that Saturday's rallies at the Capitol brought parity to the issue, in terms of the public's reaction.

"Great Debate" screams the front-page headline, in a story about how supporters of Gov. Walker stood "nose to nose" with pro-union protesters, without a single arrest or violent incident. The main article noted that Madison police estimated the total crowd at 68,000 but never gets around to mentioning their relative proportions. An inside story says the pro-Walker forces estimated their turnout at 8,000 to 10,000, while others say it was more like 2,500 to 3,000. The paper also ran a huge photograph of protesters filling the entire length of State Street, with the caption, "Demonstrators pack State Street on Saturday afternoon for rallies for and against Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill."

The State Street side of yesterday's rally was the site of the anti-Walker rally, as were the Wisconsin Avenue and Martin Luther King sides. The pro-Walker forces converged on the opposite side of the Capitol, facing King Street, extending only as far back as the sidewalk on the Capitol side of the Square, with the street also being filled almost entirely with anti-Walker protesters.

But by far the most outrageous insult heaped by the Wisconsin State Journal on the teachers, nurses, social workers, police officers and firefighters who have flocked to the Capitol this week was Sunday's editorial cartoon by Phil Hands. The cartoon shows a man with a huge ponytail sitting in a barber's chair getting a tiny lock clipped by the "barber," Scott Walker, while screaming "HE'S GONNA CHOP OFF MY HEAD!"

Hands is the paper's in-house cartoonist and his work is produced in cooperation with the paper's editorial overseers. So perhaps it's not surprising that his creation reflects the almost constant message coming from the paper's editorials and commentators: That those who object to Walker's agenda are whining brats dramatically overreacting to a modest reduction of pay and benefits for state workers who have had it too good for too long.

What makes this even more remarkable is that the Wisconsin State Journal has on its website a video of an interview it conducted with Walker late last week. Walker was asked, by one of the paper's reporters, whether the measures he was seeking "in more ways than one, if not killing the unions now, would lead to their ultimate irrelevance and probable [demise]" -- because the role unions would play after losing their collective bargaining rights would be so limited that employees would stop paying dues, as Walker's bill allows.

Walker, in response, essentially conceded the point, saying that's why his plan is getting so much blowback from national union leaders.

But the State Journal hasn't written about that.

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