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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Wisconsin State Journal reporting excellent, commentary still notably uninformed
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Let me make one thing perfectly clear -- much clearer than the last time I wrote about this topic: Madison's morning paper has, as much as anyone (except, of course, Isthmus), risen to the challenge of the moment and done terrific reporting on the state Capitol crisis, day after day.

My earlier piece dealt almost entirely with the paper's editorials and commentary, and especially a cartoon that brutally mocked the public employees who object to Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to extract unilateral concessions and strip them of bargaining rights. But I also faulted the paper for its news coverage from the day before, which failed to make clear in its main story on the Tea Party rally that this pro-Walker crowd was dwarfed by the pro-worker one that swirled around it.

I stand by that criticism. John Smalley, the State Journal's editor, has admitted its validity ("We probably should've provided more perspective on the size of the pro vs. con crowd") in an excellent column he wrote last week about some of the blowback his paper has received. But I agree with him that this momentary lapse does not undo the mostly excellent around-the-clock reporting the paper has done.

It was a mistake on my part not to have made this clearer, and I have apologized to my friends at the State Journal. Moreover, I would like it known that I firmly and thoroughly dissent from anyone who would respond to dissatisfaction with the paper's editorials and other commentary, the main focus of my critique then and now, by canceling their subscription in a huff.

As I wrote in response to one of the readers who declared this intent in a comment posted to my earlier piece:

"The Wisconsin State Journal is about more than just its editorial page, whose content is decided by a small minority of its staff, and more than its commentators and cartoonists. It is a dedicated group of skilled and hardworking journalists, and a vital organ in the Madison community. The commentary that I and others found offensive and lacking should not overshadow the tremendously good work the paper has been doing in covering this story."

Time does not permit me to individually catalog and praise the paper's articles, especially since that was not then nor is it now the focus of my attention. I will note that today's State Journal, for instance, has excellent stories about the decision to close the Capitol on what is transparently a false pretext; the alternative solutions to the budget gap being advanced by Senate Democrats in hiding; and a public appearance in Dodgeville by state Sen. Dale Schultz, where an audience member's appeal to the Republican lawmaker from Richland Center to vote against Walker's plan drew a standing ovation.

Anyone wanting to stay informed about this historic clash between our rookie governor and the state's public employees should be buying and reading the State Journal, each and every day.

Now, having said all that, I'd like to return my attention to the paper's editorials and commentary. The key test here is not whether these take sides -- editorials are supposed to do that, and commentators are allowed to -- but whether they are reasonably fair and informed by the facts. In my opinion, the paper has improved on this front -- it's refrained this week from ridiculing the protesters -- but still seems notably lacking. At times I wonder whether the State Journal's editorial writers and columnist Chris Rickert even read the paper's news coverage.

A few particulars:

The State Journal has continued to insist, as the headline for its Feb. 21 editorial proclaims, that "Running away is irresponsible," in regard to the 14 Democratic senators who have left the state. It's fine for the paper to take this position, as have Gov. Walker and the Republicans, but note the insulting tone it takes in defense of it, as when it says: "So Wisconsin sits and waits. For how long? Until Walker apologizes for winning the last election?"

Really? That is the paper's idea of fair commentary? To ignore the senators' clearly stated position -- that they want the governor to negotiate and compromise -- and instead accuse them of wanting to undo the last election? If this point is fair, how come Scott Walker never once as a candidate or in the interim between winning the election and unveiling his budget bill on Feb. 11 said he would refuse to negotiate with unions, unilaterally extract major benefit concessions, and strip away collective bargaining rights from every public employee in the state?

What rot the State Journal is holding out to its readers and asking them to swallow!

The State Journal, in an effort to balance its opposition to most of what the hundreds of thousands of people who have flocked to the Capitol are asking for, has lately taken to praising their good behavior. Exhibit A is the paper's Feb. 22 edit ("Civil debate shines on Square"), which tries to stake out middle ground, insisting "Walker isn't a dictator" and the public unionists "aren't greedy."

Thanks for that. But in the course of trying to be fair to everyone, the editorial characterizes the concessions Walker is demanding as "a proposal to scale back their benefits and collective bargaining rights." Is this not a wee bit euphemistic for changes that will completely eliminate collective bargaining rights for most workers except, to a very limited extent, when it comes to salaries? Does it not fall a wee bit short of describing the other changes demanded by Walker, which everyone from AFSCME's Marty Beil to Fox News commentator Dick Morris agrees will weaken unions to where they will no longer be a meaningful force in political campaigns?

This Sunday's editorial ("Rise above ugly stalemate") again strove to take the middle road, with statements like: "Even the many protesters banging drums, chanting slogans and sleeping overnight in the halls of the Capitol building were well behaved, compared to their state leaders in both major political parties."

True enough. But the tonic the paper goes on to recommend seems like pretty weak tea, given the gravity of the issues and the enormity of the divide. It wants the Senate Democrats to come back and "allow democracy to proceed," and for Walker and the Republicans to "[keep] an open mind when the minority party and public offer ideas to improve legislation."

To quarrel with the latter advice would be to appear, well, querulous. But surely the paper's editorial brain trust, in the course of making it, should acknowledge that this has not happened so far and there is no reason to expect it will. Walker and the GOP have said time and again they will not budge, and when the budget repair bill came up in the Assembly, every single amendment introduced by Democrats -- no matter how sensible, like requiring an audit before the state sells off its power plants to the Koch brothers -- was shot down. (The editorial, to its credit, does note that this process ended when the Assembly Republicans sprang up to "speed a final vote in seconds, preventing most of the Democrats from even voting.")

Meanwhile, Chris Rickert's commentary has remained awful, even as he has taken pains to make it less insulting. On Feb. 24 ("Some refreshing uncertainty amid intractable debate"), he tried to get a bead on the real issues by going to "various locations in Madison and Monona, looking for the oldest people he could find and asking them if they agreed with "the protesters' characterization of Walker as a 'dictator.'" Most didn't. Stop the presses.

Today Rickert was back with a column that began: "I expect any Wisconsinite not marching on the Capitol or nodding in agreement to Gov. Scott Walker's latest Fox News appearance is pretty sick of the two major political parties by now."

Really? That's the dichotomy you want to present? Between those who are actively engaged in taking sides and the rest of the state (where is the rest of the state on this one, anyway?) who are just sick to death with all of this controversy?

Rickert elaborates: "[U]nless you're rabidly Republican or Democrat, or rabidly aligned with an interest group beholden to Republicans or Democrats, standoffs are more tiresome than titillating. Plus -- excuse the drama -- they have the unfortunate side effect of whittling away a citizen's faith in the democratic process as God's gift to political organization."

This is not just lazy thinking, it's bad writing. Rickert goes on to spout nonsense about some sort of $100 threshold for campaign contributions to political candidates. He even has the temerity to complain that the state political parties "didn't have much to say in response to this particular plank of my sanity-maintaining approach to politics -- despite my repeated requests for comment." [The original version of this article conveyed and took further issue with what Rickert said was an incorrect synopsis of his point. While his actual point eluded me at the time and eludes me still, I am removing this reference.]

Back to the paper's editorial page and its relentless cheerleading for the so-called Schultz compromise that allows it to claim the middle ground. Today's editorial ("Move forward to larger debate") again argues in favor of this plan, which both the Republicans and unions have rejected. The plan is to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights -- and presumably also impose the other anti-union measures demanded of Walker, like making payment of public employee union dues voluntary and requiring annual secret votes to see whether workers still want to be represented -- for just two years, until June 30, 2013.

Walker and the Republicans reject this because it undercuts their ability to permanently kneecap public employees. The public employee unions reject it because it would leave their members vulnerable to wholesale changes in their relationship with their employers that will be nearly impossible to undo. The State Journal backs it because it allows the paper to present itself as seeing both sides.

That's as unfair to its readers as it is to the partisans. The State Journal wants to have it both ways. But, on this issue, that isn't possible -- without the paper continuing to overlook inconvenient facts.

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