Via Meadia has been watching the New York Times‘ coverage of the Wisconsin recall race with some bemusement. The race is of vital importance for anybody who wants to understand where the country is headed this year. The bill restricting public employee union collective bargaining rights set off a huge uproar, polarized Wisconsin politics, ignited a furious resistance and a series of recall elections — climaxing with the current attempt to unseat Governor Scott Walker.
NYT readers, like many other Americans, are interested in the race. The issues stir deep passions on both sides of the aisle. Outside money has poured into the state as conservative advocacy groups and high profile donors rushed to support Governor Walker and his allies. Similarly, organized labor and some serious liberal donors have pulled out all the stops to notch up a win in this high profile contest between liberal and conservative ideas.
That the Times takes sides in this contest neither surprises nor disturbs the Via Meadia team. We know the Times is a liberal newspaper (often a very good one) whose readers are primarily liberal and want the news reported and analyzed from that point of view. The paper doesn’t try to hide this from readers and its editors, reporters and proprietors are doing nothing wrong in producing a paper of this kind.
It is only to be expected that the Times would embrace the recall movement and follow the popular mobilization in support of the public sector unions in loving and even lavish detail. But the Gray Lady’s Wisconsin coverage has gone way beyond the journalism of engagement, a venerable and honorable practice. It has gone into the journalism of denial. For the last few weeks it has gone well beyond telling the story from the point of view that it and its readers share; it is concealing facts that its readers need to know.
Take this new magazine feature piece: a Brobdingnagian seven page weeper lamenting the political divisiveness ushered in, the article claims, by a Walker administration bent on bringing partisan conflict to the peaceful and civil people of Wisconsin. The Times accuses Walker of using outside money and shady legislative tactics to push through a radical agenda to rob workers of their rights, undo gun control laws and “dismantle public education.”
So far, so good. Let us stipulate that in the view of the Times, Scott Walker is a skunk and a cad. And let us stipulate that everything bad in Wisconsin, all the ill feeling and all the turmoil is entirely because this sinister enemy of all that is noble and good has been riding roughshod over every decent principle in public life.
But what Times readers will not learn from this piece is that the skunk is winning. Walker is overwhelmingly favored to win on June 5, with polls consistently giving him a significant lead over his opponent. In seven pages of focused, detailed coverage of the politics of the Wisconsin race, the piece has no room for this simple yet somehow telling detail.
The Times knows very well that Walker is kicking butt in Wisconsin. Blogger Nate Silver tells readers exactly this at his NYT blog 538. (Gibbon buried the more salacious details about the scandalous lives of the Roman emperors in untranslated Latin footnotes; the Times puts unpalatable facts in blogs where the more sensitive readers seldom look.)
It isn’t just that recent Times articles about Wisconsin have studiously tiptoed around the opinion polls that point to a solid Walker lead. Dan Kaufman’s weeper doesn’t give readers any idea why anybody in Wisconsin supports Walker or why even the Democrats now accept that the public supports Walker’s union legislation and aren’t making an issue of it in the campaign.
The bruised feelings, the sadness and the anger of Walker’s opponents are given plenty of air time, and we learn much from Mr. Kaufman about why the governor’s opponents think he deserves to be recalled. But we don’t learn anything at all, really, about why people support him — or why so many of them are furious with the unions and their supporters. In an article about the bitter political divisiveness consuming Wisconsin, we learn nothing about the actual nature of the divide.
Again, the Times doesn’t need to treat the two sides as equal. It can sneer at what it considers to be the fallacies and inconsistencies of Walker’s opponents all it wants. But if it wants to tell readers why Wisconsin is divided, it needs to at least refer to the ideas and the perceptions, foolish and mistaken though they may be, of those who passionately support the governor.
Kaufman’s agitprop misses much of the rest of the “divisiveness” in Wisconsin. There’s nothing about the allegations of violence, intimidation and lawlessness that Walker supporters have made against his opponents. There’s nothing about the controversies over state workers getting phony doctors’ notes to take ‘sick’ days rather than personal or vacation days to protest against the Walker law. Again, he is free to excuse this conduct as justified or raise doubts that it happened — but you can’t write about divisiveness while ignoring the controversies that have made people so angry.
Read the piece and see for yourself. It is long, exhaustive and deeply misleading. This goes beyond bias; it is the most foolish and self-defeating propaganda. If you want to know why liberals are so frequently surprised by events that other people saw coming, why so many well educated and well meaning people are so pathetically clueless about American politics and American culture — read this piece.
If there were an anti-Pulitzer Prize for the worst journalism of the year — this would be a contender.