News breaks out, editorial page goes to sleep

It’s a pattern we’ve all observed, We’ve written about it before.

It’s the loyalist’s dilemma. When the leader speaks or acts, the party or movement loyalist has but two choices: 1) to shout hallelujah, or 2) to shut up.

Individual loyalists needn’t all choose the same path. One may cheer while others keep silent. Or one may go silent while others cheer.  But it must be one or the other.

Well, the Republicans are acting. And the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page has chosen Door Number 2. For this editorial page Door 2 is a common choice.

Last Friday was a particularly amazing day, as the State Journal devoted its editorial to traffic roundabouts (in favor of). Yesterday the editorial concerned spelling bees (also in favor of). And today it was gambling casinos proposed locally in Sheboygan and Beloit (opposed).

Now we’re not saying that any of these things aren’t worth a moment’s thought, or several moments of discussion.  We’re not even saying that these charming little editorials are mistaken. We’re saying that the Journal’s editorial page has chosen to take itself out of the game when the game is hot and heavy.

There’s lots of news. The Journal’s news pages carry it. Only the editorial page goes missing.

Front page of the State Journal today: Last night in a deliberate late night session, Senate Republicans passed a bill to weaken wetlands and water management in Wisconsin. Opposed by Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the National Wildlife Federation.  Could be discussed in an editorial. Will it?

The wetlands bill goes hand in hand with the contentious mining bill sought by the Gogebic Taconite mine.  (To their credit, the WSJ editorial page has at least commented on the mining bill, but then unfortunately showed no evidence of knowing anything, suggesting “smart, streamlined regulation” — whatever that might mean — as their witless guidance on the matter.)

Or what about this?  Republican lawmakers are trying to keep 84 documents about their new election maps secret, even though a court last month ordered them to release a raft of records about the maps.  Might be grist for an editorial, no? Nothing yet from the State Journal editorial page.

Or this?  Gov. Scott Walker Pockets Money Intended For Wisconsin Foreclosure Victims To Make Up State Budget Shortfall

Or this? Gov. Scott Walker has shattered Wisconsin’s campaign fundraising records with the help of big-money contributions from out-of-state donors

For us, this all underscores a failed editorial page, often missing-in-action, often shooting itself in the foot.  How exactly does an editor who describes himself as a “political guru” manage to discuss traffic roundabouts and spelling bees in this brutally divided state of Wisconsin?  How does the slogan “Wisconsin’s Independent Voice” apply? How about “Wisconsin’s Irrelevant Voice”?  How about “Inconsequential Voice”?


They say listening is sometimes better than talking

Today the Wisconsin State Journal‘s benighted but never bashful chief editorialist Scott Milfred struggled to say something (anything) useful about Madison school superintendent Dan Nerod’s plan for raising African-American high school graduation rates. Headlined “Narrowing gap will take more than money,”  the editorial takes up a seemingly intractable problem.

Like a sophomore at mid-term, given one hour to write something — anything — while actually knowing nothing in particular, Milfred scribbles some tentative back-and-forth and this-and-that into his blue book, and hands it in.  It seems a woeful effort.

But it’s worth a C-minus. No one in the exam room did any better. It was a trick question. It was too hard. Nobody — surely, no sophomore — could be expected to have a sure answer. Honestly admitting that would have been worth a B-plus.


Is everyone OK at the Wisconsin State Journal?

On Friday, the State Journal delivered an editorial that was completely puzzling to us, almost unsettling. It was about traffic roundabouts (in support of). It’s such a random topic that it seems to set a new high water mark for eccentric WSJ editorials. Traffic roundabouts are, we suppose, interesting enough, but only in the same way that everything in the world is interesting. Only in the same way that the internet is interesting. A curious person can begin anywhere and follow the beckoning bread crumbs which lead off in new directions, on and on and on, until it’s time for bed.

But it’s difficult to imagine how the topic of traffic roundabouts would make its way onto a newspaper editorial page, as it did on Friday. How would it rise above the other billion-or-so topics in traffic engineering, ship design, logistics, refrigeration, and so on?  Does the editorial board meet? Do they just let Milfred loose on the internet to see what strikes his fancy?  Does the publisher arrive in the office with roundabouts on his mind and tell Milfred to get to work on a roundabout piece? Does he tell Milfred whether to support or oppose? None of this is really imaginable to us.

It just seems weird. We do believe that staff changes are in order — overdue, in fact — if this editorial page is ever going to improve. And we need it to improve. But we don’t want those staff changes to be the result of a breakdown. Bring back the old snarling, stupid editorial page — for a day at least — just to let us know that everyone is OK.


Was the State Journal trying to ruin Super Bowl Sunday? Mr. Milfred's unique and humorless skill

On a day reserved to all Americans as a day of solemn observance — and we mean, of course — watching the Super Bowl while downing mass quantities — some from the solid group, some from the liquid group — the State Journal editorial page set out to ruin the mood.

In a piece called, “The sorry state of our neighbors to the south,” Scott Milfred, self-described “political guru”, who can actually get more wrong in 140 characters than most people can get wrong in a month, sets out to praise the budget work of Governor Walker, but inadvertently, and for the umpteenth time, demonstrates that the editorial page slogan (“Wisconsin’s independent voice”) is no more accurate than another operation’s more famous slogan (“Fair and Balanced”).

Sorry about writing such a long sentence, but we are worked up. We’re ready fo’ some footbawl [super-commercials], darn it, and Milfred comes along with “this”. And what exactly is it? Half the piece — read it and weep — is gloating over how Wisconsin isn’t Illinois.  Well, no, Wisconsin isn’t Illinois. Who cares? Wisconsin also isn’t Wyoming, or Vermont, or Costa Rica.

Then the real sermon begins. It says, we’re closer to a balanced state budget.

OK, yes. That’s actually true.

It says “Walker and the Republicans… made a lot of difficult decisions.”

Really? Difficult for whom? Certainly not themselves.

Ultimately it asks, “Did Walker have to do that to fix the state’s chronic budget mess?”

[We’re pretty sure there’s a common saying among lawyers to the effect of “Never ask yourself a rhetorical question for which you intend to answer with a big, fat lie.”  Nonetheless…]

The editorial says

“Maybe not.”

But the honest answer is “no.”  Walker and company did not need to do what they did. State workers did not need to bear all the burdens of balancing the state budget. Unions did not need to be busted. The wealthy did not need to be unaffected. Hundreds of things could have been considered, debated and implemented.

It is not, after all, the case that Walker and company had made a campaign promise that unions would be destroyed once Republicans were elected. It was all deceit. Not a peep before the election.

This governor looks dirtier and dirtier as the Friday afternoon ‘Walkergate’ news accumulates, but here’s “Wisconsin’s independent voice” doing its best on its editorial page to burnish the Walker image.  And on a Sacred Day. It leaves a bitter taste.

Bring on the game. Where’s the bottle opener?

Never mind, we’ll bite the top off.


Ring the bell, school’s in session

Self-described “political guru” Scott Milfred offers us “a quick lesson” today on the  Wisconsin State Journal editorial page. It’s a lesson about political partisanship, which he flogs approximately once a month, and which he always, always, always measures as equal within the Dems and the Repubs.

Worthless punditry regularly opens up this same can of dogfood, and apparently there’s some audience for it, since it does get served regularly.

Dogs’ll eat some nasty stuff — we’ve got the pictures to prove it — but so will low-information readers and voters. If they hear it enough, they’ll start repeating it.  Politics is worthless, the gummint can’t do anything right, and politicians are all the same.

This will be their entire understanding of how the public sphere works, and then they will be well qualified to stand at the end of some geezer bar, repeating their one-paragraph of worthless cynicism to anyone who will listen.

Or, if stars mis-align, they might become a columnist at the local newspaper.

But back to Milfred’s “quick lesson”.  Please read the editorial if you have time to burn, but it boils down to this breathless discovery — both D’s and R’s, have, at various times, spoken both in favor of and against certain tax credits which are somewhat different but at least sound kind of similar. Boy howdy, that’s an insight!  What’s more — you’re not gonna believe this — the R’s and D’s favor the idea more when their own party is proposing it, but oppose it more when the other party offers it.

Now that is a lesson for us neophytes. Could anyone other than the WSJ’s own “political guru” have schooled us better?

Answer: Oh, fer cryin’ out loud…. First of all, the editorial’s examples are about political speech. In societies that enjoy any form of democracy, opposing parties will talk this way.  One says, “there’s cause for optimism,” and the other says, “we believe that’s over-optimistic.”  It’s talk. It’s normal. It’s predictable. It’s OK. Yes, it might be hypocritical claptrap. Human beings — all of us, not just the pols — are masters of hypocrisy, often crippled by our own self-interests.  Good observers try to point out the claptrap.

What matters is doing things. Passing laws, eliminating laws, changing them.  In this, our D’s and R’s want to do different things. They want to serve different constituencies — yes, often insufficiently different constituencies; yes, often hand-in-hand with lobbyists pushing wheelbarrows of money — but there are differences that affect almost everything from infant mortality to childhood poverty to education to health and well-being for oldsters. R’s and D’s do propose to do different things.

They do oppose each other’s efforts. Folks back home want that. They demand it. Describing this as “partisanship” is not helpful.

Voters oppose other voters. Industries oppose other industries. It’s a real contest with winners and losers. Even when a change is blocked, when something does not change, someone wanted that no-change outcome, and someone has won as someone else lost.

To grump, as this editorial does, that “politics trumps progress again” is a childish misunderstanding of what’s going on in our politics. What “progress” do we agree upon? There’s deep division in America.

A functioning editorial page would help readers understand what opposing political parties want to do, who would benefit, who would lose.  Indeed — for ordinary people — this is (or would be) the benefit of reading the thoughts and analyses of a good editorial page.

The world will always have geezers standing at the end of geezer bars, griping about the imaginary ‘old days’, and ‘partisan wrangling’, and ‘nothin’ gettin’ done’. It’s bar talk. It’s not exactly enlightened, or enlightening, but it’s OK.

It would be swell if our public information systems were much better at counteracting this chatter, but it’s never been job #1. They’re corporations trying to profit and survive. Selling ads is far more critical to their existence than delivering thoughtful analysis applied to complicated issues.

Do  we have huge swaths of the public, almost whole regions of the country, where people seem to know nothing in specific, trading only in no-nothing cynicism and empty memes, of which “partisanship” is a constantly recycled golden oldie? Seems like! Is the cure for that found on the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page? Sadly, no, it is not.


Scott Milfred on Twitter

Oh, geez… lookit this.  Scott Milfred’s Twitter profile.

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Scott Milfred @ScottMilfred

Political guru and editorial board chief for the Wisconsin State Journal daily newspaper in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin’s independent voice.

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Dude! You can’t call yourself a “guru”. It’s like saying, “I’m irresistible to women” or “I’m an electrifying writer.”  It only works when other people say it about you.

“Guru” is a title that can only be bestowed by others!

You can’t say it about yerself!



Palookaville Post: ‘Chocolate better than vanilla’

Apology:

This article refers to a publication (the “Palookaville Post”) which we originally thought was imaginary… apocryphal… made up (by us). We were mistaken. It turns out the Palookaville Post really exists, and we apologize. We were looking for a name that suggested smallness. “Palookaville” came to mind. We should’ve checked to see whether such a Palookaville publication actually existed. We didn’t. Our bad.

***

All too often, as we describe the editorial page of the Wisconsin State Journal, we find ourselves using “scare quotes“… i.e., “editorial” rather than editorial, because at least in our view the day’s effort just barely qualifies.

Simply publishing an opinion about some random thing is not enough.

If a newspaper editorializes:

Chocolate is better than vanilla. Not everyone agrees, but that’s what we think!

It’s at once idiotic and yet far more interesting than today’s State Journal “editorial” — Lot’s more we can do here — which is a fairly humdrum news story dressed up as an editorial. County Exec Joe Parisi has formed a committee to explore how to use the county’s Alliant Energy Center more effectively. It’s a fine idea. Nice to see government operating appropriately. The article describes who, what, when, where, why, and includes such incisive nuggets as

That’s smart.

That’s reasonable.

That’s the right attitude.

Jiminy! It’s a big, not-just-interesting, but fascinating world out there.  And this is what Madison, the nation’s 80th largest media market, deserves to read this morning?  This is what occupies the attention of the WSJ editorial page editor?

Let’s check over at the New York Times…. Wow, home run.

EDITORIAL

So Who’s a Lobbyist?

Published: January 26, 2012

Under the federal lobbying law, Newt Gingrich can legitimately claim that he is not a lobbyist. That alone demonstrates how much the law needs to be changed….

Critically important topic! Why, there’s even an available tie-in to Wisconsin. Tommy Thompson has filed financial disclosures that show (for the umpteenth time) how a former government official can quickly become a multi-millionaire lobbyist.

Of course, the Wisconsin State Journal is not the New York Times.  But neither is it the Palookaville Post.

Is it?


Small progress on the editorial page

We always feel obligated to comment on the excitable macroeconomic views of State Journal editorial page editor, Scott Milfred. We feel obligated because the topic is inherently important, it’s subject to a LOT of blarney, and Milfred is mostly always adding to the blarney. Today is no exception.

However, he’s showing slight improvement. Let’s try to encourage that.

Milfred’s main point is both true and small.

Apparently, in his State of the Union speech (we didn’t watch) the President made a statement to the effect that America would have more money for things like roads and bridges now that troops are home from Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan.  Milfred pounces on that foolishness like an angry tabby cat, correctly observing that it’s not a windfall of new money; it’s a reduction in borrowing.

Why, that sounds like yet another misstatement by yet another government official. Color us dismayed. We join with Milfred in rebuking President Obama for that whole sentence or paragraph, or whatever it was.

Moving on.

What we do like in today’s editorial is that it shows evidence of actually remembering where our debt comes from. It comes, partly, from two wars, long ones, which no one was asked to bear a tax to pay for.  Although  the editorial begins with inexplicable quotation marks around the words “unpaid for,” it does go on to clearly acknowledge that the wars were, obviously, unpaid for.  No quotation marks.

Small as it is, we see this as a teensy bit of progress in the Milfred discussion of debt. It’s factual. It’s something that actually happened. We had a budget surplus 12 years ago (it can be done) — but a relentless Republican drive to cut taxes, two unfunded wars, and unfunded Medicare drug benefit, and then a mysterious financial collapse for which no one (well, no one important) is to blame all added together, almost mathematically, to increase our borrowing.

The usual line of illogic from editor Milfred proceeds directly to a call for cutbacks in Medicare, Social Security or the generalized bugaboo of “entitlements”… as opposed to a cutback in tax-cutting, wars, unfunded programs, and unregulated Wall Street excess (namely the policies that drove us directly from a surplus at the start of the Bush II presidency to big deficits by the middle of his term).

But none of the usual line was presented today. Instead there was an actual acknowledgement of one source of our federal debt.

It’s a start.


Wisconsin State Journal contemplates at least one new job

Late yesterday, when we read the Wis State Journal editorial — “Foster more Epics across region” — we were stunned by its apparent randomness.

Nearby (i.e., Verona, Wisconsin) Epic software is growing fast and hiring staff.  Epic develops medical software systems, a hot niche in a rotten economy.

Now the State Journal regularly publishes light-weight Filler editorials praising this or that, but didn’t they just– yes, they published one about Epic just two months ago (9-21-2011) (Here’s what we had to say about it.)

What’s going on? The governor can’t claim any credit for Epic, nor does the editorial suggest he could. Privately held Epic isn’t a venture capital story. Wouldn’t there be lots of topics they could better editorialize about? Are they picking just random thoughts to write about ? What’s going on?

And then a reasonable hypothesis came to mind. Someone is looking for a job. When this odd little editorial waxes poetic, like this

Epic’s new and third office cluster will be built at the south end of the company’s sprawling property. Two buildings will nestle in front of a grove of hardwood trees while a third will sit beside an orchard of apple, pear, plum and cherry trees.

maybe someone is imagining himself in that picture.