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.