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Hard to Believe: The New York Times on Wisconsin

3:30 PM, Mar 14, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Sometimes the New York Times is hard to believe--on March 12, for instance.

Hard to Believe: The New York Times on Wisconsin

That day, the newspaper published extraordinary stories from Japan and Libya – gripping, detailed accounts of tragedy, brutality and, occasionally, triumph. Unfortunately, the paper also covered Wisconsin.

In two separate but equally misleading pieces, there was one basic takeaway from the fight there over the past month: Democrats win; Republicans lose. The claim may end up being true, though there are a number of reasons to doubt it. But if in six months or a year the short-term victory for Republicans in Wisconsin looks like a long-term loss, the kind of reporting the Times had over the weekend will be a factor.

The first piece, “Democrats See Wisconsin Loss as Galvanizing,” includes a major factual error and otherwise describes the politics of the standoff in such a misleading way it’s amusing. Kate Zernike and Monica Davey write: “Gov. Scott Walker’s refusal to compromise with Democrats has given them a vivid way to demonstrate the point they tried unsuccessfully to make during the midterms: that Republicans are motivated by ideology, not just budget balancing.”

That’s simply not true. Indeed, what actually happened is closer to the opposite of what the Times claims. Not only did Walker not “refuse to compromise with Democrats,” he continued to seek compromise with Democrats even after the top Republican in the state senate concluded that his Democratic colleagues were not negotiating in good faith. Republican senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald met with Democrats Tim Cullen and Bob Jauch at a McDonald’s in Kenosha on February 28. He left without a specific compromise on legislation but nonetheless believed that the Democrats would be returning to Wisconsin. When they didn’t return, he told Walker and Cullen that he was done negotiating. At that point, Walker sent two of his top aides, chief of staff Keith Gilkes and deputy chief of staff Eric Schutt, to meet with the two Democrats and, on one occasion, the Democratic leader in the senate, Mark Miller. Walker authorized his staffers to seek compromise on a wide range of issues, from how unions could bargain on wages to recertification. Democrats insisted that Republicans drop all restrictions on collective bargaining, a position Miller laid out in a public letter to Walker and Fitzgerald.

Zernike and Davey may believe, as Democrats in Wisconsin surely do, that Walker should have conceded on collective bargaining. But refusing to give in to the demands of Democrats is not a “refusal to compromise.” And the record is clear that Walker not only was willing to compromise, he was willing to compromise even after his original overtures were rejected. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Cullen was “among Democratic legislators who tried to get a deal with Republicans” and believes “negotiations are difficult in an ‘era of impatience.’”

The Wisconsin State Journal reported on March 9: “Gov. Scott Walker has offered to remove limits on wage negotiations and keep some other collective bargaining rights for public employees, according to emails his office exchanged with one of the 14 Democratic senators boycotting a vote on his controversial budget repair bill.”

The New York Times article not only missed or elided basic facts about the dispute, it reflected a broader lack of perspective that was at times almost amusing. In seeking to support their claim that Walker had refused to compromise, they sought comment from Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “Democratic governors are facing some of the same budget challenges, and we’re asking for some of the same concessions, but we’re staying at the table and working with our force and their union representatives.”

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