Dance with the one what brung ya Does contributing millions to Wisconsin Supreme Court judges work in your favor?

Justices Recusal HeadLn bwToday the 4 conservative members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who benefited from millions in contributions and campaign spending by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, paid that generous investment favor back!

Nine months ago, Dee J. Hall (in our opinion the State Journal’s best reporter, now working elsewhere) delivered a front-page story documenting just where the money to elect these judges had come from — Justices face questions of recusal. It poses a simple question:

Should the four-member conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court decide a case involving groups that spent more than $8 million to get them elected?

This was great work at the State Journal.

And from 900 miles away, the New York Times editorialized

If the toxic effects of outsize spending in judicial elections were not already evident, the fiasco playing out in the Wisconsin Supreme Court should erase any doubt….

…A 2013 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that more than 9 in 10 people believed that a judge should step aside if a party to a case had spent significant amounts to help him or her get elected. Surely, that sensible principle is something an elected judiciary should embrace.

We waited for the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial. It never happened. To the best of our knowledge the editorial page never said peep. During these 9 months they produced 3 editorials in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, about which they could literally know nothing, since it was secret.

This local news organization is literally in a fight for its life. And the state of Wisconsin is experiencing its darkest days since the railroad barons of the 1800’s . The State Journal editorial page weighs in on behalf of theoretical free trade? Milfred needs to do better….


I paid for a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal! First time in a long time

This week your humble scribe actually forked over a dollar for a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal (print edition). I hadn’t done that for a long time.

Over the last 15 years — buffeted by the internet, and hemorrhaging ad revenue — the State Journal, like other newspapers, laid off newsroom staff. The product went from a healthy thud landing in the driveway each morning to a light-weight tissue fluttering in on the morning breeze. Combine this shrunken ability to get to the bottom of things with a dismal editorial page that far too often works against the interests of ordinary people, and you’ve got a product that I normally do not buy.

DeFour and Hall Front PageBut then there was this. A front-page story by Matthew DeFour and Dee J. Hall, handed out free, as usual, on Sunday at Metcalfe’s Sentry.  Whoa, actual investigative journalism!?! Not just a summary of another scathing audit of the “troubled” Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), but an investigation into one of the loans made by WEDC. And it was one highly peculiar loan.

This was the kind of story that used to make people like me buy the State Journal.

A quick summary:

Struggling business owner gives $10 thousand to the Walker campaign in 2010. It’s the day before the election; it’s the maximum donation allowed by law. Later the struggling business owner wants a loan from Wisconsin taxpayers via Scott Walker’s WEDC, which exists (supposedly) to create jobs in Wisconsin. On the loan application, business owner lies. Sez he’s not been sued lately, although he has been sued… including once, recently, by the State of Wisconsin. Nobody at WEDC checked? Hard to say. The loan file’s gone missing! The guy gets a half million dollars in an unsecured loan!!! (No collateral!!!) Who gets that kind of loan? The business fails. A half million dollars of public money vanishes. Not a single job is created. Walker, harkening back to the secret email scandal, says he knows nothing. Yes, Walker’s top staff, including campaign manager Keith Gilkes and DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch, had lobbied strongly for the loan (actually for a loan 8 times larger!!). WHY? And they did so without Walker even knowing??

In an online discussion, reporter DeFour said he’d been working on the story for two months, so this was an expensive story for the State Journal to fund.

During the rest of this week, I bought a copy of the State Journal every day, either at the Sentry or the Walgreens. It’s not subscribing, but I’m happy to have reporters DeFour and Hall at work. Tip o’ the hat to them, and to the unnamed editors and bean-counters who supported them.

The story is now playing out, even in the thinnest of news sources (the radio, the tv). It seems like there’s more to the story than what’s been reported so far. The numbers make no sense. Guy gives $10,000 and gets back $500,000 no strings attached? Did some of that $500,000 come back to the Walker recall treasure chest, but this time through an impenetrable conduit of dark money like Wisconsin Club for Growth? Maybe some reporter, someday, finds someone to talk more.

Supposedly William Randolph Hearst once remarked,

“News is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising.”

 


Are climate-science denialists fit for public office? An elephant in the room? What elephant?

Jonathan Chait, writing at nymag.com, believes climate-science denialists should be disqualified from holding public office.

If a candidate for a managerial job at your office insists that two plus three equals seven, it wouldn’t matter how well-qualified this candidate may be at any other aspect of the job…

That’s true about hiring decisions. There are some things so basic, so necessary to get right, that any job applicant with the wrong answer to a critically important question — much less insistence on the wrong answer — needs to be culled from the list of applicants. Organizations really cannot hire an ignoramus without damaging their whole operation and everyone in it.

Simple. No? And yet, for some — and here we turn to the editorial board of our local Wisconsin State Journal — it’s just impossibly difficult.

Toles-GOPSkateThe fact is, climate-science denialism is an almost universal orthodoxy among national Republican office-holders. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville), a perennial favorite at the State Journal, claims he doesn’t know whether human activity is contributing to climate change. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) blames sunspots:

Johnson said extreme weather phenomena were better explained by sunspots than an overload of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere…. “I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change,” Johnson said. “It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination.”

Alas, Ryan and Johnson illustrate the rule within their party. Almost no Republican on the national stage will acknowledge that climate change is real or that fossil fuels are the major cause of it. Even conservative pundits like George Will and Charles Krauthammer — who cannot, for obvious reasons, fear getting ‘primaried’ or losing their nonexistent public offices — will appear on Fox News and just grasp for reasons to doubt the scientific evidence.

This poses a terrible problem for the Wisconsin State Journal and indeed for all the press trying to appear sensible without ever saying that so-and-so (in fact, so-and-so’s entire party) is peddling truly dangerous foolishness, and has been doing so for at least a decade.

Talk about your elephant in the room, or rather don’t talk about it…  What kind of journalist or journalism takes this absurd oath of silence?


Front page voter ID nonsense

This dismally stupid headline makes the routinely credulous reporting a real eye-catcher. Front page, Wisconsin State Journal — Voter ID ruling stirs confusion, raises fraud concerns. What?!?

Look, dear friends at the State Journal, there IS no evidence of felony-committing, fake “voters” masquerading as someone else on Election Day. Never was. It’s a scam, and a rather obvious one, intended to fool the gullible and the lightly informed, and to hide the real self-serving motives of powerful state politicians, to skew the vote, maybe just a percent or two, in their own favor.

Pixies! Babies!

If these same politicians offered a bill to stop pixies from kidnapping babies, how would you play it?pixie

How would you report this “problem”? Would you bring any kind of skepticism to it? Or would you just report what the politicians were saying? If the politicians didn’t have actual evidence of pixie criminals… if they claimed simply that lots of people were “concerned” about the possibility (and indeed, if you’ve ever read a poll, you can be certain that some us will say, yes, very concerned about pixies)… would you produce stories and headlines that seem to take this “concern” seriously? Because, you know, that not only misinforms readers, it makes you look very gullible. And “gullibility” is one of the last things we need in our journalists.

 


Antarctic Ice Collapse: The Untold Story

Sometimes, the untold story is literally untold. It’s not reported. Doubtless many Americans live in a place — either physically or emotionally — where certain information will not likely penetrate. If you’re reading the Stinkvillle Weekend Advertiser and hearing occasional TV news, god only knows what you know.

For that matter, if you read our local daily or read on-line at Madison.com, carefully, you may discover this listicle“10 Things to Know: This Week’s Takeaways” from the Associated Press, including at #5…

5. NASA SPOTS WORRISOME MELTING OF ICE SHEET IN WESTERN ANTARCTIC

Two new studies show that the ice sheet is starting a slow collapse in an unstoppable way. Alarmed scientists said Monday that means an even higher rise in sea levels than they had feared. Scientists say that over hundreds of years, the ice melt that has started could eventually add 4 to 12 feet to current sea levels.

(The AP’s #1 “Thing to Know” was a tragic mine fire in Turkey. Is their list in any kind of order? Why is the eventual loss of many of the world’s great cities #5? The New York Times editors put it on page 1 above the fold, which is where it belonged, we think.)

Still, the week’s Antarctic Ice news wasn’t completely unreported in Madison, so that’s good. You could make a [weak] argument that Madison’s doing better than the mythical Stinkville. We hope it appeared also in the Wisconsin State Journal‘s print edition, but we don’t know. We just don’t see that anymore except for the Sunday giveaways over at Metcalf’s Sentry.

There’s no law that says adults living in an ostensible democracy need to inform themselves, and in fact many of us don’t. Less than half of us can name the three branches of government. About half of Americans can name one of their U.S. Senators; only a quarter can name both. Is this the best we can do?

Sure, it’s hard to keep up. It’s not just global warming; there’s also what’s up with the Kardashians, but it’s possible to follow both. What’s really grounds for pessimism is how many of us just really don’t want to know about certain important facts. Denialism is becoming a lifestyle. We remember when “denialism” wasn’t even in the lexicon, much less becoming a well-defined market. Now there are media outlets cashing in by ignoring certain facts or by sabotaging the facts when they cannot be ignored. It’s not just Fox News.

Polls show that climate concern goes up and down. Lately it’s down.

Gallop - environment trend It’s a particular problem among the usual suspects:

Americans are less worried about climate change than the residents of any other high-income country…. When you look at the details of these polls, you see that American exceptionalism on the climate stems almost entirely from Republicans. Democrats and independents don’t look so different from people in Japan, Australia, Canada and across Europe.

Toles - GOP Skates off the edge on climate change


We’re Done

A month ago we asked ourselves, “Are We Done?”  Turns out… Yes, we are.

Madison’s last surviving daily newspaper is shrinking year after year. That’s a bad thing for Madison, bad for Dane county, bad for the region. Meanwhile, that same shrinking newspaper’s editorial page often blunders and postures and diminishes the larger organization’s chances of survival. It’s not a business plan we understand.

We used to comment on that puzzle, but now, we’ve apparently lost motivation to comment further. Even major blunders on the editorial page — howlers that in the past would surely have provoked us to sit down and write something — now just come and go.

We’ve seen maladroit handling of many an issue by the State Journal editorial page. This one for example. The part that’s just anti-labor screed is entirely predictable (the State Journal doesn’t care for unions, and the parent company, Lee, actually operates a website opposing unionization at any of its subsidiaries), but for the Wisconsin State Journal to charge that every elected body of local government — city, county, and school board (all three, in a single smear)  — is in thrall to labor unions is an outrageous and undeserved insult. And then… as if that weren’t enough, the editorial goes on to cite the NFL referee lockout (a strategy that had already exploded in a nationally televised stinkbomb when the Packers played the Seahawks) as an example of how labor negotiations are supposed to work??? It was amazingly dumb. We mean AMAZING.

But even so, we just sighed, lightly. That’s when we knew we were done.

There’s a world of good analysis elsewhere… serious stuff, informative, insightful, and surprising. There’s an even bigger world of amusements to spend time with. Why lose an hour writing about something that’s just fundamentally not that interesting? For a while we thought we had some answer. As it turns out, we don’t. Probably never did.

OK, that’s it. Unplug the jukebox. Empty the cash register. This joint is closed.


Mike was right, but today, we hope, was not a good example

In commenting on the previous post, Mike writes (in part) about the Wisconsin State Journal

There is no reason to buy this paper or pay the slightest bit of attention to it. With all respect to the many fine people who work there, the WSJ is sinking together with its industry and no one deserves it more richly.

Our first reaction was, jeez, that’s pretty harsh. Isn’t it? We’ve said all along we don’t want to see our city’s sole surviving daily paper disappear.

Sure, that terrible editorial page needs new leadership — or a miracle akin to Saul on the road to Damascus — but we value the news pages, even if they’ve gotten thin. Don’t we? We want working journalists to survive, even to flourish, somehow, across various media, even if newsprint continues to vanish.

So  today we accepted Metcalfe Sentry’s standing offer of a free Sunday State Journal to shoppers spending five bucks. We took it home and read it thoroughly. We must say there was really not much there. By weight, it felt like a Sunday paper. But the stories left us simply unaffected. Read a story; eat a pretzel… both forgotten before we’re done.

There is no reason to accept our judgment. Go look. The top headline features the national election (It’s On, Wisconsin). It’s going to be close in Wisconsin; oh boy, various people are quoted saying this and that about the horse race.

Same sort of he said, she said, in the front page article about whether Paul Ryan’s views are in line with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Again, various quoted people disagree. Surprising? Of course not. The thoughts of the Madison bishop are presumptively worth knowing, because he’s a bishop, but the anecdotal opinions of random Catholic parishioners are honestly of no interest. It’s neither surprising nor useful to read it. It can all be simply presumed in a twinkling.

Even Science reporter Ron Seely disappoints (to a lesser extent) with a Dogs in the Wolf Hunt front-pager.  What do you know; folks disagree, although there is some useful reporting on other states’ wolf hunting. Ron, story idea: Why do 20,000 Wisconsin hunters want to shoot a wolf? That would be an interesting story.

We don’t want to criticize these reporters. These all seem like assignment problems. Once assigned to these particular stories, and given a limited time to write ’em, this is almost certainly what you get — he said, she said, again. Predictable and uninteresting.

For the moment then, it looks like MIKE WAS RIGHT. Is this really what we’re going to get on a Sunday, the biggest circulation day of the week? It’s really not much.


An ordinary day of the Wisconsin State Journal

We weren’t planning to… but yesterday, after praising the randomly-selected Friday, July 27, 2012 stories in the New York Times, it occurred to us that we should go back and check out the local paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, for the same day:

Page1:

  • Lane’s Bakery to close in September. This could easily be misunderstood as a small thing, but Lane’s is an important social hangout for the retirees who have gathered there for years we are told
  • increased police patrols in nightclub area just east of campus.
  • school board considers hiring a ‘chief of staff’ for interim superintendent
  • Romney gaffes in London  (AP)
  • village of Lake Delton (WI Dells) pays $29,000 to get its algae-filled lake dyed blue

Science, p 2:

  • normally solid “Seely on Science” gets adorably weak-in-the-knees as son gets married

Local, p 3:

  • Business lobbying group WMC urges no discussion of mining until a Republican majority can be reestablished in Wisconsin Senate (AP)
  • Madison Mallards collegiate summer baseball team introduces 600-lb. crossbow to hurl rubber chickens at upcoming games (that is, during the games)
  • Verdict expected soon in eastside traffic death trial.

Nation, p 6:

  • HIV patients living longer (AP)
  • London an extremely cosmopolitan city (AP)
  • Syrian army general who defected 3 weeks ago suggests he could be new unifying leader. (AP)
  • Obama: no push for new gun laws (AP)
  • Judge bars release of Aurora gunman’s student records (AP)
  • People doing Iraq reconstruction died in large numbers (AP) (really old news)
Editorial:
  • Approval for state/federal plan to reduce phosphorus in Wisconsin lakes (20 years ago, this would’ve been too ordinary to mention)
Leaving aside the Associated Press stories to focus on the local content, we’re left with 2 impressions.
  1. It’s informationally thin.
  2. It’s almost amazingly small town. Are we reading the Hooterville Weekly Shopper? The old bakery is gonna close, 50 miles north they’re dye’n their lake blue, and we’re flingin’ rubber chickens at the local ballpark.

Thoughts on cancelling a newspaper subscription, part 2

When we ended our subscription to the Wisconsin State Journal, we did it because, finally, we just had to. On principle.

Why, oh why, didn’t we cancel (as many did) when they re-endorsed George W. Bush for President? That is a mystery. And a moral failure. Now when we die, we shall not be allowed into heaven.

Later, when we finally did cancel, it was painless:

  • Obviously, it’s online!  We can read their top stories for free. And if we forget — and actually we do — then how necessary was it?
  • We have a great neighbor who has always ‘taken the paper’ (That’s an old manner of speech; it’s not like “taking a beating”.) even though she freely admits to hating the editorials and “especially that Chris Rickert!” as she hurries off to live life. She’s happy to pass along her old, barely-perused newspapers. She has no idea we use ’em to photograph headlines for our “blog”, whatever that might be.
  • The New York Times! Delivered with absolute reliability at 5 AM. Smaller than it used to be, sometimes exasperating, but still essential. It’s almost impossible to finish… there’s never enough time. We could read most of the State Journal while making toast.
  • Finally, the dog. Apparently she doesn’t know or care WHAT’s inside the plastic sleeve. She’ll fetch a year-old copy of anything as long as it’s got a plastic sleeve. She just wants to kill it, and carry it in.  For her, The Capital Times is still in print and delivered daily.

Thoughts on cancelling your newspaper subscription, part 1

Writing from Milwaukee, xoff was ticked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s endorsement of Scott Walker. Xoff, himself a former newspaperman, said :

I’d cancel our subscription if I could, but we already did that five years ago, and have never regretted it.

We did the same here in Madison, 2-3 years ago, not renewing our long-time subscription to the Wisconsin State Journal. It was a disappointment to the dog who had always loved fetching both local papers as well as the New York Times.

It wasn’t easy for us people either. If you love the idea of a smart person asking questions and telling you what they’ve learned, then it’s no easy thing to cancel a newspaper subscription. And if you know that professional journalists need to get paid, you feel bad about withdrawing your support. But it became too frustrating. For us it was the editorial page, exasperating, in both what was there and not there. It felt like subscribing to a service that would both mow the lawn and then vandalize something on the way out.

Getting the local news kept us subscribing despite the editorial stance, so our previous post is pertinent. How does a strikingly misleading analysis like Sunday’s “Level Playing Field?” get to appear over the byline of a respected reporter? The analysis uses an incomplete set of records (i.e., only reported contributions), actually acknowledges the incompleteness, and still moves on to a conclusion. It doesn’t seem up to Dee Hall’s reporting standards. Is it just happenstance that the conclusion is exactly the one the paper’s editorial board would hope for prior to a Very Big election? Is it important that the publisher and top news editor oversee both news and editorial page opinion? It looks bad.

For many subscribers it’s possible to sort of ignore/bypass/forgive the editorials, because the news reporting — on balance, in their view — is valuable enough to justify paying that bill again. You might say there’s enough honey on the front page to ignore that “honey wagon”.on the editorial page. But goodwill can be lost in a hurry if they screw up the news pages, too.