Saturday, November 30, 2013

Triple weasel words -- Dolan, Walker and PolitiFacts

By Dominique Paul Noth
Dolan receiving Milwaukee  social justice award
We’ve entered strange times when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan shows a shrewder  grasp of marketing language and more skill at semantic manipulation than either Gov. Scott Walker or those hired wordsmiths of the Journal-Sentinel PolitiFacts team.

It was in Milwaukee as archbishop that Dolan polished his ability to play all sides of the class warfare strata, spouting conservative rhetoric backing GOP style politics while supporting -- in newsletters and award ceremonies at least -- the church’s traditional progressive vision of social justice.

That’s a talent he has deepened as leader of the US bishops. Now he adroitly encourages media quotes on the horrors of the Affordable Care Act (opposing contraception despite those lavish religious exemptions) yet quietly backtracks in other statements to support the ACA as helping Americans to better health care.  If this is a selective and sanctimonious word game, how would you describe any politician’s campaign platform?

More recently Dolan has used the techniques of an infomercial pitchman to explain why gay marriage is on the upswing against his own bishops’ statements and actions.  (In state after state, 16 so far, many with high Catholic populations, full marriage rights for gay partners have become the law of the land, with more on the horizon.)

Catholics, he suggests, were falsely painted as “anti-gay” and had been “out-marketed” by “Hollywood” and vague “opinion-makers.”  It is typical Dolan shrewdness – and probably fair to let him have his say in a breaking news story, where readers can see the holes in his argument and decide for themselves. It is in analysis, the sort of digging into the facts that PolitiFacts is supposed to be about, that a different picture should emerge.

Since PolitiFacts hasn’t and probably won’t dissect Dolan, we will. As a reporter who actually interviewed Dolan, I know exactly what sort of misdirection he is up to – and it’s not quite what leaders of SNAP (the Survivors Network of Abused by Priests) are saying, that he is deflecting attention from the church’s pedophilia problem. He’s actually carving a public relations narrative of his own – that the church is not against gays or anyone, but has been outmaneuvered for the time being by clever opponents.

The hole is obvious.  Dolan has creatively ducked the central issue in a democratic society -- human rights – by suggesting this is all about better salesmanship. But religions abandoned exclusive control of the word “marriage” over centuries of letting secular powers determine who gets licensed to marry or perform the ceremony.

Blood tests, documents, elected or appointed officials as well as delegated religious leaders are all equally engaged and approved by secular regulation – and it goes deeper. Marriage had been legally limited in definition, in obeisance to dominant religions in the US, as between one man and one woman. To back that up, all manner of legal rights – tax laws, inheritance, hospital visits and dozens more in regulations  – were embedded in the process. Only now is the public catching on, thanks to activists. It’s dawned that such constricting legal binds have turned the word “marriage” into a “human right” far more than a religious term for a sacrament or ritual.

Dolan knows the church can’t win that debate in a free society, so he claims the church is losing to smarter PR rather than on  a moral ground.

If this were PolitiFacts, which analyzes news statements for accuracy and attempts to rate the truth or consequences, Dolan’s explanation  would require a robust discussion of semantic trickery and historic  rationale. But Wisconsin PolitiFacts  team, a curious mix of journalists and political mouthpieces, dodges and weaves when it comes to calling out Walker.

The gov now spends most of his time AWOL -- out of state pitching hay in the presidential sweepstakes. And he’s getting away with slick evasion in studio interviewers with  TV talking heads pretending to be journalists. Perhaps they can be excused for not knowing the ins and outs of his behavior in Wisconsin, allowing him to say he is not about hot-button social issues but focused on economic policies. At least it sounds to the uninitiated that he’s not vindictive on matters of women, marriage, worker rights and voter ID.

But what can possibly be PolitiFacts’ excuse for letting him say that? They know the real Walker intimately, as well as his statistically provable  ineptitude on the fiscal success he’s pitching.

It is Wisconsin journalists who have studied his whole career who should be stepping up immediately when he plays fast and loose in those studios and podiums far away. They know how heavily he has engaged in vaginal probe laws for women, against equal pay initiatives, opposing any municipality having better rules on wages or sick pay,  forcing poor families off Medicaid and so forth. They know how only while campaigning for president has he backed away from taking a position on issues he has privately supported, such as abstinence-only sex ed in schools,  demeaning mascot names and right to work legislation.

There is a movement afoot to have Amazon place Walker’s “Unintimidated” in the fiction bin where it belongs.  But his co-authored version of his reign as governor will not be heavily marketed in Wisconsin in any case. There are too many citizens, politicians -- and journalists -- who can tell the real stories. Not PolitiFacts, apparently.

Local journalists should jump all over the sales myth he is hawking outside the state. Yet JS amply discusses all these fables he pitches on the national campaign trail as news stories and in analyses don’t even trot out its standard  “Pants on Fire” or even the bizarre label  “Half True”  (why not half false?). Admittedly, these half and half  labels  have  become a PolitiFacts safety valve to avoid offending advertisers, using  fine print loopholes so that a statement that is completely true to the knowledgeable public  can be labeled half true to avoid upsetting conservative readers  –  especially if Mary Burke said it.

But the kicker came when Walker discussed his opposition to gay marriage and PolitiFacts treated it as an “In Context” discussion -- as if simply explaining on behalf of Scott  how he never intended to sound so extreme on gay marriage. It was quite a show since PolitiFacts usually pounces when a politician stands the dictionary on its ear.

Walker said he was merely following a state amendment (not mentioning how heavily it is under legal attack), yet the newspaper ignored the recent past when he gave  full-throated support against gay marriage, defending one man-one woman because it worked with voters. They also know through the John Doe probe he openly hired the sort of  gay staff members who can be arrested while opposing hospital visitation rights for gay couples.

To allow him to describe his current position as “a healthy  balance” between opposing camps is sheer nonsense that should have been nailed.  All this turns  PolitiFacts into a  bigger joke and  a deeper stain on objective journalism than it was.  And reminds readers that the worst mumbo-jumbo of labels or non-labels defending Walker can be traced back to one writer.

But frankly politics shouldn’t matter.  PolitiFacts is supposed to analyze and probe independently, opposing any fudging from any quarter --  rather than allowing more fudging.  It would be wrong if they protected Obama. What they are  doing to let Walker off the hook is shameful.

The author is a former senior editor at The Milwaukee Journal and recent editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Secret right-wing money steps hard into Wisconsin legislature

By Dominique Paul Noth

National news media have caught on that secretive right-wing funding networks are focused not just on the presidential race and major gubernatorial and senate contests but most effectively in the normally sleepy hollows of state politics. From Iowa to Ohio to Colorado to Wisconsin, from school boards to city halls and other local run-offs, under the guise of ALEC, Koch funded groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the innocent sounding State PolicyNetwork, outside wealth from the Citizens United case and other decisions have upset the homegrown apple cart.

Races that used to about local concerns and which candidate could make the best case and do the most doors have been turned into a sophisticated expensive blitz of mailers, radio ads and half-truth generalities.

Special legislative elections in Wisconsin are driving the point home.  In Milwaukee County’s Assembly District 21 (suburban communities Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and an inserted slice of Franklin), the state GOP  passed up the local Republican’s best choice (popular Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi quit after being told how to run by Madison powers and has now announced his support for the Democrat in the contest next door, John Hermes in District 82).
Jessie Rodriguez (left) had far more
 outside money than Elizabeth Coppola in District 21.

After turning down the preferred local choice,  the state GOP was forced to rely not on groundswell but on outside right-wing funders to push Jessie Rodriguez into the legislature (much to the anger of her four GOP primary opponents, equally right-wing but more reliant on community campaign support).

The money used to elect her as well as the deceptive motives proved staggering – and insurmountable Nov. 19.    It apparently works out to about $40 for every vote Jessie got.

Rodriguez drew a mere 4,546 votes to win a district of some 60,000 people. This was less than a third of the usual turnout in such assembly races, but not unexpectedly low given the week before Thanksgiving timing.  Here’s the first reality --- passivity. Only about a tenth of those of voting age in the district determined their representative, and it wasn’t even with their own money or sweat. Or their own issues, since voucher schools don’t yet exist in a district where public schools are much admired.

While the tale of the tape is in the math, deeper arithmetic is elusive since much of the money for Rodriguez came in unreported “issue advocacy” ads – you know, those misleading radio commercials that concoct a position for a candidate and then urge listeners to “call Elizabeth Coppola and tell her to oppose increasing property taxes” though the Democrat never mentioned increasing taxes in her campaign talks or literature. But under the current bizarre rules, this is not advocacy for Rodriguez because she was not named.

In Wisconsin in particular such issue ads played into the politics of divisiveness, with progressives and unions clearly still  upset over forced policies rammed through the legislature and believers in Gov. Scott Walker convinced that  landing hard on workers was the only way to cut tax costs.  The facts reveal that taxes are going up, as are state deficits, and that it is needed public services not fat that has been cut, but the dominant ads are more persuasive than the nuanced realities.

Smart guessers say an additional $60,000 was “spent for Jessie” in such undisclosed advocacy buys and in multiple home mailers from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, not subject to the same reporting rules as conduits and contributions directly to a candidate.  What is known is that as a lobbying group, WMC is in third biggest spender in the state.

The $24,000 portion of radio buys by the Jobs First Political Coalition is reportable as is the initial $45,647 from the American Federation for Children, a national school voucher advocacy collection agency for the rich based in D.C. that intrudes on many local elections and usually disguises its actual voucher agenda. (It is No. 9 on the state lobbying list.) In a report now deleted from its website, AFC boasted of spending more in Wisconsin on elections than any other state, nearly $2.5 million. Its leader, Betsy DeVos, is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party while her brother, Eric Prince, founded Blackwater, the private military contractor.

AFC was effective in District 21 by hiding its core mission.  It talked only vaguely about choice (obviously educational choice and definitely not choice for women’s reproductive rights) but quickly turned its mailers into attacking Elizabeth Coppola as the outsider – she had moved into the district from the southern edge of that foreign land known as Milwaukee -- and mainly defending Gov. Walker’s “rescue” of local property tax expenses (despite the reality they are actually increasing).

If you combine the known outside money, the unknown outside money and the direct campaign contributions to Rodriguez of $48,000 by individuals and such groups as the realtors – it’s clear that whatever doors Rodriguez  visited did not drive her appeal . It was the radically high advertising money, following the food coupon formula that a mere one-hundredth of one percent return justifies the investment.

In contrast, the third-party funding for Coppola of $30,815 and her own campaign gathering of $25,000 translated into a more normal $15 for every one of the 3,520 votes she got – and obviously she thought this reasonable expenditure on supportive literature and contacts would carry greater weight. Comparing how the campaigns operate could be interpreted as sour grapes, but it certainly pinpoints the reality of why relying on outside money and issues not central to the community can indeed work, particularly in local contests.

There are wheels within wheels of this funding game that clarify why the GOP paid so enormous a price to secure a temporary seat.  The campaign is likely to be repeated in bipartisan funding fashion in November of 2014, less than a year away. The Democrats wanted to run on issues and what’s best for the community, but now they may decide that it’s all about how much money is employed no matter the source or the motives.

Incumbency gives every candidate an edge, but a year also gives voters time to decide on issues not blandishments, which has to worry Rodriguez supporters when they look at how shallow her reach proved – a pretty pitiful 4,546 votes.

Some progressive wags openly suggest she is a mere stalking horse for a politician barred by law from running. That may be too insulting since by reflective mirror Jessie Rodriguez has national voucher funding status from her role with Hispanics for School Choice, headed by her brother-in-law, Zeus Rodriguez, and her marriage to right-wing blogger Aaron Rodriguez, who wields strong GOP contacts.  

But there is a banned name haunting her campaign ---
Scott Jensen
Scott Jensen, the once powerful GOP Assembly leader forced out of office for misconduct and then convicted and sentence reversed on jurisdictional issues involving felony campaign fraud.  In 2010 he finally reached a deal to avoid felony sentencing by paying a fine and agreeing never to run for any public office in the future.

Immediately Jensen became a behind the scenes funding source, aided by the secretive nature of third-source money. He is closely allied with Jobs First (which parrots Walker’s take on business stats) and the American Federation for Children that poured such enormous money into the Rodriguez election.

You can dismiss as left-wing bile these open suggestions that Jensen has now bought a political office he can run as a puppet master in his old assembly home turf. But you can’t escape the reality of “follow the money” and wonder why so much was invested by his groups in this election.

And here’s another game to ponder with.  The Waukesha DA who made the deal to keep Jensen out of prison is Brad Schimel, who is now the lone Republican announced to run for Wisconsin attorney general now that J.B. Van Hollen says he is abandoning the seat.  It will be interesting to read between the lines of the secretive money that backs Schimel in this bid.  Any bets?

Monday, November 18, 2013

What’s beyond the pale on Sarah Palin?

By Dominique Paul Noth

The erudite and sarcastic British born commentator Martin Bashir, host of a popular weekday afternoon show on cable network MSNBC, opened his November 18 program with a lengthy and clearly seriously contrite apology to Sarah Palin for remarks he made in his end of week telecast November 15.
Martin Bashir on MSNBC

Which immediately raised a question for viewers – can cable news really insult Sarah Palin?

What could he possibly have said about a fading political figure who gets too much air-time anyway for her mangled rhetorical meanderings and has a penchant for thrusting herself into the media spotlight?  She simply reminds us all she is too easy a target and cable news thrives on easy targets.

So what happened? Did he insult her looks?  Her children? Her gender? Did he make some jest about transvaginal probes in her life or some similar Bill Maher moment, since that cable humorist loves to harp on her mannerisms and personal failings? All that would obviously be out of bounds for a TV news show and warrant such an opening minute groveling, as long as “60 Minutes” devoted to apologizing for welcoming a liar into its Benghazi report.

So naturally thousands of curious viewers who missed the first show rushed into the video archives to find what horrors Bashir had hit Palin with.  The results speak volumes about the speed to apology of MSNBC journalism standards more than about Palin herself.

 Because Bashir was clearly outraged – and deserved to be -- that Palin in a speech said the Affordable Care Act was a new form of slavery, slurring her offhand denial that anyone who took her comments as supporting racism would clearly be out of bounds.

What infuriated Bashir was simply comparing an effort to help people with health coverage to shackling people into servitude, that being beholden to any effort at government service or debt was equivalent to slavery.  The choice of comparison itself suggested Palin didn’t know anything about the true horrors of losing your freedom to the power trips of another – and how slave owners ultimately behave.   Of course, the plight of blacks remains the most prominent example in US memory but slavery continues to flourish around the world.

So Bashir called her a “dunce” and a “world class idiot” – and I doubt that was what he was apologizing for.  Truth is always a fair defense, and he was simply describing, after all.

But then Bashir went back to 18th century documents describing in scatological details the sort of humiliations slaves were subjected to by their owners – routine whippings, skin rubbings and being forced to eat excrement.  He ended his commentary with the statement he clearly was apologizing for  and that must have driven producers in the control room nuts when he inserted it on his own – that if anyone in modern times deserved to be subjected to this sort of defecation treatment, it was the governor who quit Alaska in midterm.  That was out of bounds.

So he was right to apologize for being so carried away on his rhetorical flight.  It was a moment that made the public long for similar brakes in all public discourse.  Bashir in his inflammatory zeal has now allowed Palin supporters to pretend she ever made any sense in the first place.  For that, he owes all viewers an apology.