Posts Tagged ‘media criticism’

Problems with Isthmus cover story

October 16, 2009

Isthmus writer Marc Eisen highlighted a very important fact in last week’s Isthmus cover story on Wisconsin’s relationship with the federal government: the Badger State ranks 48 out of 50 in attracting federal dollars.

It’s important people know that their state’s congressional delegation is perhaps not looking after them as well as, say, West Virginia’s.

It was good to see Eisen explain some of the most important aspects of the political context in which Wisconsin congressional members compete for pork.

In the 1970s, observers began to connect the rise of the Sun Belt with three decades of heavy federal spending on military and infrastructure. They noted that long-serving Dixie congressmen controlled the key appropriations committees to the immense benefit of their constituents.

Good point here: No region has had more undeserved power in the U.S. Congress than the South. For a century after the Civil War there was virtually no Republican Party in any part of the former Confederacy, meaning that southern Democrats elected to Congress almost never faced meaningful competition again. Therefore, the most senior members of an institution that was based entirely on seniority, were disproportionately Southern, and hence controlled the most important committees.

Moreover, Eisen highlights the strategic advantage the sunbelt had in acquiring federal funding for infrastructure and huge investments in space exploration and other scientific research.

However, Eisen goes astray as he seeks to find an explanation for Wisconsin’s poor performance at the federal trough.

Our pols tend to throw up their hands at the mention of federal spending: Pork? You want us to dine at the trough of the taxpayers? Please! How unbecoming!

Even Russ Feingold, a notable proponent of earmark reform, proudly displays the money acquired for Wisconsin in the stimulus plan on his website. Herb Kohl, chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee, makes no secret of his devotion to getting Sconnie farmers everything they deserve plus a lot more. Even Scott Walker, the politician he cites as anti-stimulus, eventually caved to public pressure and accepted the money. And it wasn’t until the very end of the article that Eisen mentions that the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee – perhaps the single most influential position for targeting federal coffers – is our own Dave Obey (D-Up Nort).

Before he mentions that, Eisen presents this thesis on Wisconsin’s supposed aversion to spending federal tax dollars:

There’s some truth to this, to be sure. But another and perhaps greater factor is the state’s political culture and its dysfunctional mix of high-minded liberals and doctrinaire conservatives. More often than not, neither has much interest in playing the hard, smart game of federal funding.

And later…

Doctrinaire conservatives may deny it, but federal spending can be a catalyst for economic growth. Liberals may be too high-minded to care.

Again, where does this come from? Sure, there have been a few prominent examples of fiscal hawk Wisconsinites, but it is anything but the tradition. In fact, his take on the Germanic and Scandinavian backdrop in Wisconsin politics as “individualistic” is firmly at odds with established opinion on the matter. In fact, Wisconsin and Minnesota have long traditions of generous welfare states, and although state services do not equal love of federal government, they certainly speak to the desires of the people to be looked after by the representatives they elect.

Granted, it wasn’t just Eisen’s analysis – John Nichols of the Cap Times joined in the Wisconsin fairy tale:

“We’re better than that,” says John Nichols, the liberal columnist for The Capital Times, who adds that Wisconsin politicians “go to Washington to be leaders, not to hunt for nickels and dimes.”

Frankly, I’m surprised Nichols allowed himself to be quoted as a liberal and not as a progressive. Cap Times insiders have told me that the paper goes to the utmost lengths to preserve that vestige of the La Follette lingo.

Maybe Eisen is correct. But he didn’t come up with enough evidence to support the conclusion. The idea that Wisconsin is not getting federal money simply because it doesn’t want it is not convincing. If the article had excluded this tenuous premise, it would have been considerably stronger, and Eisen could have devoted more space going into detail about what the state needs to attract dollars, such as research, infrastructure improvements etc. Granted, that would have been a less sexy story. But I think it would have been more accurate.

What the music industry can teach newspapers

October 8, 2009

Hat tip to the Dean for guiding me to an article at Mashable, which has a run-down of all the things newspapers can do to avoid extinction, in the same way that the music industry has. Some of it is obvious but there are some points I haven’t heard – and I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about the decline of print media.


Reports of downfall will be grossly exaggerated.

Do not get sue-happy with bitter lawsuits against piraters (bloggers, social media etc.).

Embrace the digital age – look for internet equivalents to the jobs of yore.

Nothing is said about seeking tax breaks from local government.

The problem with the Wheeler Report

October 3, 2009

Besides having a design that would embarrass characters from Revenge of the Nerds, the Wheeler Report also seems to be the unfortunate peddler of every thought that wanders into Sen. Mary Lazich’s right wing brain. Or perhaps the brain of her chief of staff, talk radio host Kevin Fischer.

All jokes aside, anybody who checks the report daily notices a definite pattern in the legislative press releases. Some legislators put something out almost daily, while others seem utterly disinterested. The ones that I notice the most are Lazich, Kedzie and Clark.

Granted, a Lazich reading can sometimes be rewarding. In a balanced discussion of a proposal to extend the deer hunting season, Lazich pulls a couple intriguing stats out of her pocket:

Even if you are not a hunter, you still need to be aware of deer. State Farm Insurance reports a vehicle collides with a deer somewhere in the United States every 26 seconds. Wisconsin ranks eighth in the nation for the likelihood of vehicles crashing with deer. Your odds of crashing with a deer are 1 in 116.

Save WI newspapers, but what’s a newspaper?

September 30, 2009

Rep. Marlin Schneider is either a strong believer in the free press or he is desperate to get newspapers off his back. Either way, the outcome of this idealism/cynicism may very well be a solid measure to keep local newspapers afloat in Wisconsin:

A Wisconsin state lawmaker known for his rocky relationship with the press wants to save newspapers even though he admits to sometimes hating reporters.

“It’s hard for me because you guys jerk me around all the time,” said Democratic state Rep. Marlin Schneider, a 39-year veteran from Wisconsin Rapids, at a Tuesday news conference. “Some days I hate your guts.”

Schneider said his volatile relationship with the press will protect him from accusations that he’s doing favors for the industry. In recent years Schneider, a privacy advocate, has often clashed with media groups over how much information should be made public through the state’s online court system.

The plan announced by Schneider on Tuesday would make any building associated with newspaper production exempt from property taxes. Currently, printing presses only are exempt. Because it has yet to be formally introduced, there is no cost estimate.

This is a good plan. If passed, there have to be strong protections built in that prevent future lawmakers from using the tax-exempt status to blackmail nosey papers. There are many forms of government media participation which are wrongheaded and run against the tenants of free speech, such as the Fairness Doctrine, which far too many liberals tout as the answer to the cable news catastrophe. We don’t need government regulation, we need government investment. In addition to Schneider’s proposal, there needs to be a serious movement to push for more public media outlets, such as PBS. It would cost so little but do so much.

The inevitable question, however, is what constitutes a newspaper? Can anybody who puts out a newsletter make an attempt at tax-exempt status? There were surely be definitions in the legislation – let’s hope they put up walls to prevent non-news corporations from exploiting the loophole by claiming that they too “put out news.”

Media manipulation in the Badger State

September 28, 2009

I picked up a good flick the other day at Four Star Video that I recommend to my readers interested in campaign politics. Bogeyman: The Lee Atwater Story tells the tale of the late Republican strategist who has come to define the strategy of the modern GOP, and whose legacy lives on through the work of his protégé, Karl Rove. Atwater’s work was defined most by its subtleness. Not only did he understand how to connect his candidate’s message to the electorate, but he knew how to work that message into supposedly pure and unbiased mediums of communication: the press.

The movie came to mind when I read a post at One Wisconsin Now which discusses the Wisconsin media’s dangerous deference  to polls. Any kind of polls. Even ones released by partisan organizations who manipulate the questions to get certain responses, and most importantly, choose which part of the poll is made public.

There was a time when newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would not report on a poll unless it had the entire poll, rather than partial or selective results that are strategically released or leaked to try to shape news coverage of a campaign. The Milwaukee paper would do its own polling.

Perhaps because of lack of resources, those days are “long gone,” says the author. Here’s where it gets interesting:

One firm that has raised a lot of questions from political practitioners — but, unfortunately, not from the media, is Strategic Vision, a Republican strategy firm based in Atlanta (and, it claimed, in Madison). Strategic Vision has released all sorts of polls in Wisconsin in the last few years, all eagerly reported by the news media.

Luckily the pollster community has raised attention about Strategic Vision’s tactics. Nate Silver, the former baseball statistician-turned-political pollster has suggested that SV is not even conducting real polls, but simply making up slightly skewed but plausible results!

As I commented at One Wisconsin, pollsters are not the only problem. There are also the “think tanks” and study groups which claim to be non-partisan but supply selective information to media outlets. Various “taxpayer” advocacy groups come to find immediately. Local papers especially seem to fall victim to this type of manipulation. It is not hard to find a citation from a right-wing interest group in the Badger Herald or Daily Cardinal with no type of disclosure about the group’s political goals. I’m sure the same definitely happens on the left, but I haven’t noticed it as much.

Have people lost their minds?

September 25, 2009

Badger Herald:

“According to statistics released last month by Georgia University’s [sic] Grady College, overall undergraduate enrollment in journalism programs across the nation have been on the rise since 1993 when 128,367 students enrolled in journalism programs nationally. Enrollment reach-ed a high of 201,477 students last year — an increase of 57 percent from 1993.”

Isn’t it ironic that nobody majored in journalism back when journalism actually existed?

Herald priorities

September 22, 2009

The front page of the Daily Cardinal was superior to that of the Herald today.

The Cardinal ran a story on the Board of Estimate’s approval of important budget items. The budget is perhaps the most important issue that faces the city each year – like any government entity, the city’s agenda is most accurately reflected by what gets funded and what doesn’t.

The Herald’s top story was a UW alum – one of those hundreds of thousands of living people who graduated from UW – caught for soliciting sex from a minor. Because of it I’m sure the Herald would have run off the racks by noon if so many students weren’t staying home because of the rain. [Insert rant about declining standards in journalism.]

The prioritization of drama over important news is surprising, considering the Herald’s chief, Jason Smathers, is a bit of a political junkie. However, campus politics has always been his priority – as it should be. Hopefully city and state affairs don’t get pushed to the side in the hopes of attracting more readers with sensationalist stories that belong in the hands of Chris Hansen. The presence of this story in the paper is not necessarily wrong, but its placement is.

Cardinal babysits Republicans better than Herald

September 15, 2009

I missed out on some of the amusing commentary on the column printed in the Herald by the College Republicans two weeks ago. Luckily the Daily Cardinal, which printed an equally absurd piece by the Repubs on Friday, has given me another chance to comment on the story and still be somewhat topical.

Let’s start with the column from the Herald, written by College Republican leaders Crystal Lee and Stephen Duerst. The editors of the Herald clearly did not edit the article. Not that I necessarily blame them. There’s a fine line between polishing a piece and re-writing it. In my several years on campus, I’ve come to realize that any well-written, factually-sound article by the College Republicans is a clear misrepresentation of the organization.

But there is such a thing as journalistic integrity. I believed I was pursuing this ideal when I decided to bar columns written by the College Democrats and College Republicans last fall. It appears the orgs are back like the plague.

While Doyle engages in disagreements with members of his own party on the Congressional Finance Committee, a $6.6 billion budget deficit plagues Wisconsin.

A lot of commenters made fun of the reference to the “Congressional Finance Committee,” which of course does not exist – at least not in Wisconsin. Although I sincerely hope the two young Republicans can distinguish between state and federal government, I was more disturbed by the allegation that Wisconsin is plagued by a “$6.6 billion budget deficit.” Did Crystal and Stephen write this article three months ago, perhaps in over-anticipation of the school year? Are they aware that those Democrats on the “Joint Committee on Finance” balanced the budget? Not because they’re fiscal hawks, but because it’s required by state law. An allegation that even the balanced budget leaves Wisconsin with a structural deficit (much lower than $6 billion) would have been more reasonably aligned with the facts. But apparently the facts were not an issue for Crystal and Stephen or any of the several Herald editors who read the piece before it was printed.

The piece printed by the Cardinal (this time just Duerst) was less rife with factual inaccuracies, which is surprising because it Duerst recycled practically all of the same talking points, including facts about employment in Wisconsin, wages, General Motors, and higher taxes. It was practically a carbon copy. Ironically, however, there was an added emphasis on center-right. Duerst even claimed the CRs would move away from social issues, perhaps responding to Kevin Bargnes’ column: “Why Mikolajczak was bad for UW.”

Did Duerst do the fact-checking himself or were the Cardinal editors simply more vigilant?

Groups look to re-open Cafe Montmartre

August 6, 2009

Cafe Monmartre, a bar and restaurant I once described as “much better than Wando’s,” may be back in action soon. One of the people rumored to be organizing a team of investors told me not to spread speculation on future ownership, so I will not mention names. Has the press also followed this request, or is it just totally out of the loop? It’s a story I’ve heard from several sources, including from a member of the city council.

Questions that interest me – how much would a purchase cost? Are the current owners going to absorb a loss on the sale, and was profitability the main issue in the decision to close the bar? What will the new owners do to make the place profitable? I’ve heard talk about decreasing the emphasis on the “restaurant.” The vast majority of patrons were there to get a drink and listen to music but the place nevertheless boasted a gourmet menu, which may have been a drag on profits. Unfortunately these are questions that have not appeared in the press yet.

Granted, bars and restaurants come and go all the time. But I would much prefer to see reports on those little slices of social drama than the endless reports of crime that plaster the front pages of the State Journal and Cap Times. The front page of (the joint site of the Journal and the Times) has featured the mug of some guy who committed a murder 20 years ago for what feels like an eternity, and I have yet to bother clicking on the story. OK, now I finally did so I could show it to you, dear reader who loves crime stories because you see it as a manifestation of Shakespearean drama in the 21st century.

Poor Cap Times editorial knocks Assembly Dems

July 23, 2009

The Capital Times editorial board delivered a much-needed piece highlighting the hypocrisy of Speaker Mike Sheridan’s claims of instilling “ethics” in the Assembly.

The Assembly speaker declared this week: “Assembly Democrats are fully committed to clean government, and earlier this year, made a sweeping change to campaign finance practices. We prohibited members from fundraising for their individual campaigns during the budget process, and we now see that rule was incredibly effective.”

Spare us the hyperbole.

Good to see the Times on top of one of the biggest dilemmas facing Wisconsin’s political system. Nevertheless, I can’t decide which is worse, Mike Sheridan or the editorial criticizing him. It’s incredible how much the board left unsaid on such an important issue. It could have mentioned, for instance, that despite banning “individual campaigns” from accepting campaign contributions during the budget process, the ban allows party committees to raise money, which the Assembly Democrats so crassly took advantage of in June, and tried to exploit once more but was deterred by a media fire-storm.

Speaker Sheridan and his team implemented a minor reform. For this they deserved and got credit at the time it was implemented. Now they need to get serious about real reform.

It might have been more convincing to the reader if the board had taken the time to explain what  the “real reform” it supports means. The Times criticizes politicians for accepting contributions before and after the budget, but what does it suggest to remedy the pay-to-play? Public campaign financing? The idea has a strong intellectual backing – an articulate argument in its favor would have been a worthy read.

The Cap Times has in many ways admirably adapted to a changing media climate. Its weekly edition generally has interesting feature stories and its political and policy analysis generally bests the competition from regional dailies, most notably the State Journal. Although I admit to being a relatively new reader (last couple years), I sense that the Times more enthusiastically embraced its progressive label after it changed to a weekly. However, those credentials will not be respected until its ed board beefs up its articles, and stops leaving gaping holes in their arguments for obnoxious bloggers like me to point out.