You are writing for one of the most informed, educated and civic-minded readerships in the country, encompassing both a top-tier university and the state capital, and yet you often write pabulum.
Dear Wisconsin State Journal,
As non-union public sector workers (yes, we exist) who are about to be hit with an 8% take-home pay cut as a result of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, my wife and I have to decide what luxuries we're going to cut out of our lives. She has been arguing for weeks that we should let our subscription to your newspaper expire.
Despite my recurring annoyance with your hit-and-miss political news coverage and editorializing since moving to Madison, I had halfheartedly defended renewing it. My excuse was that there was local news in your paper that I still wanted to be able to get from my breakfast reading rather than having to go online to look for it.
My resistance to dropping your paper finally collapsed Sunday morning when I read your jaw-dropping editorial "Rampant recalls wrong".
It was not simply that I disagreed with your position. I disagree with other publications' positions all the time without necessarily feeling insulted by them. The straw that broke the camel's back for me was that you had once again ignored or grossly oversimplified deep and important issues affecting Wisconsin while basing your position on superficial ones.
There were of course other straws:
You habitually oversimplified the motivations of the countless thousands of citizens -- many of whom previously had no union ties whatsoever -- present at or supporting the protests at the Capitol.
You inexplicably neglected to report on the remarkable, and nationally significant, outcome of the April 5 Dane County and Madison referendums on corporate money and speech, leaving it to out-of-state blogs and a local reader to do your reporting for you.
You confidently touted the "narrow yet conclusive" victory of Prosser over Kloppenburg without ever acknowledging, let alone countering, widely publicized anomalies and procedural violations (see also here and especially this testimony before an Assembly committee) that severely tested voter confidence in the provable validity of that outcome -- at least among those voters who had news sources other than the Wisconsin State Journal. And despite your own earlier pious lip service to "making sure all votes have been properly counted and tallied."
You mentioned the mess of the Prosser/Kloppenburg election in your advocacy for merit-based appointment of judges (which I do strongly agree with) while utterly failing to address the obvious and disturbing implications of the same mess for all elections held in Wisconsin.
You praised the bottom line of the "balanced budget" while failing to offer more than token criticism of just a few of the very controversial provisions of Walker's "budget repair" bill. (Hint: there are certainly less destructive and divisive ways to balance the budget and "not raise taxes" even if that is truly your sole overriding objective. And there are analysts who argue persuasively that Walker hasn't even done that.)
And the list goes on.
You are writing for one of the most informed, educated and civic-minded readerships in the country, encompassing both a top-tier university and the state capital, and yet you often write pabulum. You ignore, rather than confronting and testing, information that is widely available through other sources. You routinely insult the intelligence of a large fraction of the readership you depend on for your livelihood.
Worst of all, you fail to confront the myriad signs that democracy itself is under assault in the state of Wisconsin.
Do you really believe that the recall efforts against the GOP senators would have gained the remarkable momentum they did if they were solely about disliking one specific vote those senators cast, independent of the way in which it was done? Your simplistic and superficial editorial makes it sound like a few whiners and sore losers were behind the recalls, failing to note that they collected record numbers of signature in record time. Just from union members?
Since you're apparently posting your editorials from another planet, or at least another state, let me be clear: the spreading flame of opposition to the Walkers, Fitzgeralds and Prossers of this government, and all of their enablers, may have been ignited by opposition to specific policies, but it has been fanned to white heat by the following:
- Arrogant contempt for transparency in government, for the rule of law and for the constitutional authority of our courts by our elected officials.
- The shameless appointing of unqualified cronies to important state functions.
- Appalling power politics as manifested in successful efforts to create unusual obstacles to voting by traditionally Democratic-leaning constituents, such as students and poor people. (Note: the myth of rampant voter fraud has been thoroughly debunked. We should be much more concerned about election fraud.)
- Blatant pay-to-play favors to major campaign donors.
- A rubber-stamp Supreme Court bought and paid for (PDF) by the WMC.
- Mean-spirited scapegoating of public sector workers for partisan political purposes.
- Politically motivated exemptions from collective bargaining restrictions for public sector workers who helped Walker's campaign.
- Partisan harassment of prominent critics like UW-Madison professor Bill Cronon (which, by the way, numerous major out-of-town papers saw as newsworthy but the Wisconsin State Journal, apparently conflating the roles of "public employee" and "public official," did not.)
- Troubling evidence of incompetence and possible malfeasance in the conduct of the Waukesha vote count by a partisan, legally-tainted clerk with questionable explanations for a two-day-late decisive swing in the vote total.
In other words, all of the ugly things that we used to associate with banana republics, not with Wisconsin, of all places.
Corruption of political processes and abuses of power are not unique to any one party; indeed, they are the rule rather than the exception in human history. In our democracy, we depend on constitutional safeguards enforced by impartial courts, an uncompromised ballot box, and a vigilant press to keep them in check.
Once those barriers are breached, they are not easily restored.
Passion for the recalls was inflamed by events -- starting with the open meetings violations and concluding with the compromised Wisconsin Supreme Court's blessing of those violations -- that give us good reason to fear that the Wisconsin traditions of clean government and rule of law will be as dead as Monty Python's parrot unless all Wisconsinites, not just union members, fight for it with every tool at our disposal.
By failing to do what real journalists are supposed to do, which is to hold the powerful accountable and to challenge your readers to have a more nuanced understanding of the issues and hazards confronting us, the Wisconsin State Journal, our newspaper of record, has become one of the enablers of our spiral into political corruption, and for that reason we will not support it any longer.
It's a luxury we literally can no longer afford.
Grant Petty is a Fitchburg resident and professor of atmospheric science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also treasurer of South Central Wisconsin Move To Amend.