Sometimes the New York Times is hard to believe--on March 12, for instance.
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.”
Really? Democrats are staying at the table? Nearly everything that took place in Wisconsin over the past month happened as a direct result of 14 Democratic state senators not only leaving the table but fleeing the state. But if one’s news about Wisconsin came solely from this Times article, one would think that Republicans, who repeatedly offered compromises, were unwilling to negotiate and that Democrats, who rallied behind the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois, were committed to “staying at the table.” (Note that O’Malley, with a two-to-one partisan advantage in the state legislature, did not pledge bipartisan cooperation, but promised to work “with” union members and leaders.)
A second piece, “Union Bill is Law, But Debate is Far from Over,” made many of the same points. Times reporter A. G. Sulzberger writes that Democrats and union leaders were “emboldened” by protests and opposition to “what they called a politically motivated effort to weaken unions.” Sulzberger explains that the bill that passed was not the original “budget repair bill” as Walker submitted it. That’s true. Senate rules required that Walker and Republicans in the legislature strip out two minor provisions in order to allow the vote to proceed without senate Democrats who, Sulzberger notes in passing, had “decamped in Illinois.” But the two major provisions of the original bill – one, requirement that would require public workers to contribute more towards health care and pension, and a second limiting collective bargaining – remained.
Both parts were crucial, but unions and Democrats had focused their anti-Walker campaign on the collective bargaining piece no doubt because it took the focus off of popular cost-saving measures and allowed them to charge that it was, as Sulzberger wrote, “a politically motivated effort to weaken unions.”
So how did Sulzberger describe the tweaked “budget repair bill?” He called it simply “the bill on collective bargaining” as if it were no longer a bill aimed at budget cutting. In fact, his piece nowhere mentions the fact that other major provisions remained in the bill.
Sulzberger noted a lawsuit challenging what he calls “unusual legislative maneuvering” without including the rather significant fact that three nonpartisan state agencies told Republicans they could proceed as they did and that the senate clerk ruled that the proceedings were well within the law. How is it that these facts did not make the piece?
Any assessment of the long-term politics of the Wisconsin fight is, by definition, speculative. The Times is correct that most public polling seems to show voters are skeptical of the kinds of changes Walker has brought to public employee unions. But it’s worth noting that those questions almost all asked about the state taking away “collective bargaining rights” of workers – wording that undoubtedly favors the pro-union position.
In a poll late last week that has received virtually no attention, Gallup asked voters a similar question, but worded differently, and placed in the context of budget deficits – a far more accurate way of depicting what Walker is doing. The question: “Thinking now about state government efforts to balance their budgets, please say whether you would favor or oppose taking each of the following steps to help balance your state’s budget. How about _____?”
When Gallup filled in the blank with “changing state laws to limit the bargaining power of state employee unions” – precisely what Walker did – 49 percent of respondents approved and just 45 percent opposed.
Voter opinion about what Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin depends on an accurate understanding of what happened. The articles in America’s newspaper of record – by incorrectly reporting Walker’s willingness to compromise, by omitting basic facts that undermine the narrative of the pro-union left, and by focusing on means (collective bargaining limits) and virtually ignoring ends (balanced budgets) – make such an understanding more difficult.
Hard to believe.