Will Wisconsin Newspapers Write about the Smoking Gun?

A video has surfaced that by any measure is critical to understanding Wisconsin's recall fight.

Ever since he unveiled his plan to put an end to collective bargaining for public sector workers and make it much more difficult for them to organize, Governor Scott Walker has consistently argued that he campaigned on the measure and no one should have been surprised by his actions.

Walker introduced his "budget repair bill" on February 11, 2011, sparking massive protests. A short time later, he defended the bill: "The simple matter is I campaigned on this all throughout the election. Anybody who says they are shocked on this has been asleep for the past two years." (Yet, in private, he characterized it as "dropping the bomb" to a prank caller he thought was David Koch.)

Reporters looked and failed to find any campaign speech, ad or interview where Walker talked about his plans to gut collective bargaining and balance the budget on the backs of working families. Collective bargaining started in Wisconsin 50 years ago and has been embraced by Republican and Democratic administrations. Unions argued that if his plans had been made public prior to the election, Walker would never have won.

On January 17, 2012, 1.9 million petitions to recall Walker and his top lieutenants were submitted to the state elections board. A recall election may be scheduled as early as June. Today, Walker is putting his integrity on the line, with an aggressive million dollar TV ad campaign, the theme of which is "Promises Kept."

Whether or not Walker was lying or "keeping his promises" is a rather important matter at the moment. But you would not know that by reading two of the state's largest newspapers.

Smoking Gun Video

The video of candidate Scott Walker talking to the Oshkosh Northwestern editorial board was unearthed by "Uppity Wisconsin" blogger Jud Lounsbury. The video was taped one week prior to the November 2010 election and shows Walker explaining how he would "negotiate" wage and benefit cuts with unions using the collective bargaining process if elected governor.

The video shows that Walker was not only not talking about his plans to bust Wisconsin public sector unions, he was in fact saying he would do the opposite, negotiate with the unions.

The video comes as close to a smoking gun as it gets in today's politics. But apparently that is not enough for the state's two largest newspapers.

Largest Papers Fail to Pick up the Story

Lounsbury spent some time sending the video around to the state's political reporters. Lounsbury emailed the Wisconsin State Journal, the state's official newspaper of record. Chris Rickert, a conservative Wisconsin State Journal columnist, did not appreciate the suggestion that he write about the video: "I guess if I was interested in ancient history. You all need to get over it. Breaking news: Politicians lie!"

An ironic response from a paper that is rarely critical of anything Walker does or says. The paper has yet to write a single sentence on the matter, online or in print.

Lounsbury also contacted the Capital Times, which is now largely an online publication. It published a story online March 3. Lounsbury contacted Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice. Bice quickly wrote a piece about the significance of the video, which was published online March 2, but the paper failed to publish the article over the weekend. While the story has 600 shares on Facebook, the paper's circulation is approximately 200,000. While the paper might justify this decision on the grounds that a year ago they reported that there was no evidence that Walker talked about his plans during the campaign, some would argue that the Oshkosh interview showed Walker actually misleading a newsroom. The issue is also newly relevant because of the ad campaign launched by Walker this week attempting to establish his track record as a promise keeper.

PolitiFact Truth-o-MeterOn Monday, however, the paper did devote a page to the most insipid PolitiFact yet (and that is saying something).

PolitiFact decided to "fact check" Scott Walker and tackle the weighty issue of how Wisconsinites got the nickname "badgers." According to Walker, "We're called the Badgers not because the animals are abundant here, but because we got nicknamed the Badgers because... our ancestors came here with the hopes of living the American dream by mining." After a lengthy exploration of an assertion that most elementary school children in Wisconsin would have agreed with, PolitiFact found Walkers's claim to be "True!"

Next week they will find an excuse to quiz Walker on the state bird and give him another thumbs up. (Spoiler alert: it's a Robin).

Not an Isolated Incident

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident at either paper. In July of 2011, during the contentious fight over the state's biennial budget, Bice wrote an article about a string of measures popping up in the state and their strong resemblance to "model bills" promulgated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In the article, Bice talked about a bizarre tobacco tax break that was virtually identical to an ALEC model bill and a boon for out-of-state tobacco giant Altria. The measure was inserted into the budget at the last minute by State Senator Alberta Darling and three other senators who were facing recall at the time.

But the article never made it into print. The public never learned that legislators facing recall were busy shilling for a company marketing candy-like tobacco products to a younger generation. They never learned that CMD had identified 20 ALEC proposals moving in the Wisconsin legislature, or that we had created a major new resource for the public, a trove of over 800 ALEC model bills. To this day, the Journal Sentinel reports on legislation, such as the ALEC Special Needs Scholarship bill recently passed in the Assembly, without ever mentioning its ALEC roots. In the past year, the Wisconsin State Journal has failed to discuss ALEC as a force in state politics at all.

CMD's ALEC Exposed Project went on to generate hundreds of stories in newspapers across the country and to win the Sidney Hillman Award and the IF Stone "Izzy Award" for excellence in journalism.

Since TV newsrooms are much smaller, they have a tendency to follow the major papers. If you think the story about what Walker said to the Oshkosh Northwestern deserves more coverage, consider a letter to the editor. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel letters to the editor can be submitted here. Wisconsin State Journal letters to the editor, can be found at the bottom of the page here.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.