Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Journalism false equivalency in clear Solidarity Singers victory

Scott Walker’s unbalanced advantage is Wisconsin mainstream media. The reluctance to take on his political prominence has proven the main reward for his tactics.

The governor controls the state FAX machine to warp the depth of state economic distress, assured that the establishment media will either be silent or slow to react.  In June 2012 he had an enormous funding advantage to fight off a recall– and still uses those contacts to woo favors out of state.  Media is more impressed with this drawing power than the nature of his audience.

He strong-armed state Republicans this year to push through a state budget pretending they hadn’t changed it radically. Little reporting on that.  His “take no prisoners” image despite constant reversals of positions – usually in late-hour news dumps – propels him in the GOP presidential sweepstakes and further deflects state voters from the realities.

The media reluctance to use mounting solid facts to reveal such games crystallized October 8 when his administration flat reversed its Department of Administration arrest and detain policy on peaceful singing protesters in the people’s house, known as the state Capitol – and the media generally reported this as some sort of even-handed settlement.

Good reporting would have led off with the truth – a total capitulation by Walker under the threat of court defeat on fundamental free speech and freedom of assembly issues. That should have been the national news headline.

His loss was preordained not just by basic democratic rules of the road but by the power of
Internet video images – police acting as if they were facing dangerous anarchists as they handcuffed and carted away elderly singers, ministers, even journalists along with hard-working parents, grandparents and even some children. All was captured and subject to thousands of national YouTube views – even as his opposition to legal dissent led to more protesters and cost taxpayers far more than the $88,000 in attorney fees the administration agreed to pay for unwarranted arrests.

Walker was further roundly rebuffed by the steady dismissal of dozens of citations issued by Capitol police – operating under his administration orders -- including that ridiculous felony battery complaint against Damon Terrell, an African American frequent observer with a camera whose roughtakedown went viral on the net.  

But the Wisconsin State Journal let the governor
down easy – “State, ACLU Reach Accord on Access Policy for Capitol.”

A similarly soft headline in Wisconsin’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (“Administration drops permit requirement”), introduced an amazingly gentle lead paragraph:

To settle a free speech lawsuit, Gov. Scott Walker's administration agreed Tuesday to pay more than $88,000 in attorneys fees and drop its hard-and-fast requirement that larger groups protesting in the Capitol receive a permit.

The story behind the story – Walker didn’t give anything back, except paying for legal error.  The settlement was a vindication of what the Solidarity Singers and other groups had enjoyed under free speech and right to assembly provisions anyway. The Singers always gave notice they would perform and gave way to scheduled gatherings.

As noted by the winning plaintiff in the case – Michael Kissick, an assistant professor of health at UW-Madison and an occasional Solidarity Singer -- “I’m happy because the group has effectively been giving the state notice all along, and has always deferred to events with permits.”

While publicity releases are always suspect, few can argue the PR statement of facts from Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin:   “This is a victory because giving notice is significantly different from forcing people to ask the government for permission to exercise free speech.”

But if you skimmed media headlines and stories, the sense of satisfaction and the basic evidence that Walker had capitulated were near invisible. What Dupuis called a “profound” victory for the government agreeing to longstanding “informal notice” was treated as some sort of validation of Walker’s behavior, as opposed to a profound slapdown.

The governor got into this mess because of political overreach and naked fear. Stunned by the depth of the massive protests in February and March of 20111 against his elimination of collective bargaining for public workers, he was ill-prepared for the thousands of largely peaceful but immensely angry citizens that filled the Capitol. And while the citizens generally behaved well, Walker’s political acolytes in the legislature and administration were consumed with worry and even hysteria.

A new book  explores the back and forth among law enforcement agencies in those months, hamstrung by confused orders from on top resulting in constant interference and contradiction on compromise and control.  By the fall, Walker’s team was facing enormous public pressure and both genuine costs of their own excesses while inflating the costs of the actual protests themselves.

Out of this came a bizarre determination to handcuff any future protests regardless, fed by the assured complacency of a political hack, the GOP attorney general who has now decided not to run again, J.B. Van Hollen.  That has resulted for recent months in the sort of bully tactics associated with 1930s strikebreakers -- only this time Walker changed the police into an obedient submissive  to make the cops look like the bullies, not the policies he imposed.

The ACLU suit is a court imposed protection from those tactics. Actually, for some devout civil rights advocates, the protection doesn’t go far enough.  Even “informal notice” smacks them as an imposition on rights of assembly --   although the ACLU argues that it has always been done to maintain smooth operation of a government building.

But no one should ever lose sight it was not a few folk singers that caused this long-running horror show.  It was Walker’s overstep of basic US law.  Reporting it that way might offend some advertisers and some subscribers still enamored of Walker, but a false balance misreads the essence of reporting.

It’s understandable that office-seekers maneuvering for better paying jobs in the Walker administration or alliance in local politics would side with him whatever their growing discontent.

It’s perplexing that the watchdog media, so capable of scrubbing bureaucratic data and even sometimes jumping too quickly on personal misbehavior before full evidence is in, are proving so generously passive about a powerful governor.  The first case is politics as usual.  Heaven help us if the second case is journalism as usual.