Media Gone Mad

The battle to reform spending on public employees is underway in a dozen states, and there's little doubt as to which side the mainstream media is taking.  

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is leading the charge to reform spending on public services. This laudable effort to bring spending under control has been labeled "anti-union" and "union busting" by many in the mainstream media despite efforts by Walker and other governors to work with unions to reduce costs to what taxpayers can afford.

As of Sunday, pro- and anti-reform protesters continued to rally in Madison, and the mainstream media continued its one-sided coverage of the rallies. CNN posted an article by politico and Huffington post blogger Diane Ravitch, who warned of a "simmering rage among the nation's teachers." According to Ms Ravitch, a historian at New York University, reform efforts underway in various states would abolish teachers' rights to "due process, seniority, and-in some states-their collective bargaining rights." The purpose of union lobbying is said to be "to increase education funding and reduce class size." Is this all? Is it not also about salaries, benefits, and the iron-clad guarantee of lifetime employment regardless of performance?

Likewise on Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning reported that "tens of thousands" had "joined the demonstrations" on the side of unionized workers. As for those who support Gov. Walker, CBS called them "conservative activists" who favor "cut at all costs." Also on Sunday, the ABC Evening News reported the day's events from Madison with a story that featured interviews with four pro-union protesters but only one voice for reform-that of Gov. Walker. 

That report seems to be following the media playbook of depicting the governor as isolated and outnumbered.

A lengthy article of Feb. 18 posted on characterized the Republican budget initiative as a "controversial bill" and accompanied its report with images of hundreds of passionate union protestors. A linked three-minute article from ABC World News quoted only one person supporting budget reform, Gov. Scott Walker himself. The same article quoted six Democratic lawmakers and their supporters in addition to one professor who seemed intent on undermining the Republican attempt at reform-noting that the attempt would stir up intense opposition and that any reform might passed this term might well be reversed by future legislatures. Any unbiased observer would, I believe, conclude that many in the national media are not reporting the events objectively but are doing so in a partisan manner.

On Saturday, as pro-reform protestors rallied in Madison, they received very different coverage by the national media. Unlike the enthusiastic and extensive coverage of union protestors, that of pro-reformers ranged from polite indifference to snide attack.

Everything from crowd estimates to characterizations of intent was distorted. Unlike the exaggerated estimates of anti-reform crowds (a Feb. 18 crowd of perhaps 10,000, reported as up to 40,000, according to one station), few estimates were given as to the size of pro-reform crowds. Saturday's NBC Nightly News reported that "up to 70,000" protestors had gathered in Madison, but the context of the statement seemed to suggest that the estimate referred only to pro-union protestors. Another source clarified that the estimate of 70,000 included both pro- and anti-reform protestors. No separate estimate of the size of the pro-reform protest was reported on any of the mainstream networks, so far as I could determine.

Not content with interviewing unionized teachers and Democratic politicians, an article of Feb. 17 on the MSNBC website noted that "seven current and former members" of the Green Bay Packers opposed the budget bill. (Are there football players who support it? We may never know.) The article was accompanied by a video with John Nichols of the liberal Nation magazine explaining the "devastating effects" of the Wisconsin budget bill.

The motives of reformers were also brought into question. ABC News was quick to point out that pro-reformers had been "bussed in" and that the protest had been organized by out-of-state conservative groups. The fact that union protesters had also been bussed in and that they had been organized by unions and Organizing for America, a liberal group that is part of the Democratic National Committee, was rarely if ever mentioned in media reports, other than in the Wall Street Journal. Viewers were left with the impression that union protestors, chanting in unison and carrying exactly the same professionally produced signs, had simply awakened in Waukegan and decided to join the protests on their own.

The national media also made an attempt to draw an analogy between union protestors in Madison and pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo. By implication, those opposing union protests were to be compared with the "thugs" on camels who attacked democracy activists in Cairo. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's comment on MSNBC's Morning Joe program that the Madison protests were "like Cairo" was seized on by the left and immediately distorted. What Ryan meant to say, I believe, is that intimidation by union mobs is not the way democracy works in America. What the media had him saying was that Madison's carefully organized protests by public sector workers to protect their own excessive wages and benefits were somehow heroic. Clearly, they are not.

On Feb. 19 the liberal Ed Schultz Show, covering the pro-reform protests live, depicted union members as "under assault, protesting peacefully, in the greatest of American traditions." In a string of interviews with union supporters, Schultz depicted union protestors as moderates who were willing to compromise on wages and benefits-overlooking the fact that they have not been willing to do so over the past decade at least. "Walker's only target," said Schultz, was destruction of the unions. "Walker doesn't care about these people," he shouted. The Schultz report included a clip with Nancy Pelosi, of all persons, "standing in solidarity" with the union protestors. 

The media's reporting of Wisconsin is, of course, a warm-up for larger battles ahead in Congress, and for the 2012 presidential campaign. Whatever media restraint, however miniscule, may have existed in the lull following the tea party victories of November, it has now been cast aside.

Anyone who thinks that the media has cooled off following the November election is madly mistaken. All that has changed is that the tactics of the mainstream media have become more outrageous. From now on, it's back to the playbook of the 2008 campaign, when everyone with a "D" following his name was lauded and everyone with an "R" was vilified.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and article on American culture
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