The other day I gave the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editors a raspberry for all the space their newspaper allows the wingnut Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) in the paper's news and opinion columns. I also razzed the JS editors for their constant, nonsensical description of WPRI as a "conservative, nonpartisan think tank." I noted that those first two words together count as an oxymoron. Lo and behold, within a work day, in its very next use, the description had been changed to omit the word "nonpartisan."
Well, two more WPRI denizens contributed to today's Journal Sentinel "Crossroads" opinion section and -- behold! -- the original oxymoron is back. Which leads us to speculate as to what happened.
Perhaps, for instance, last week's revision was just a typo by editors. That really won't fly, because as any journalist knows, frequently recurring text ("boilerplate") is often assigned to macro keys on newsroom computer to save time. So, no, it's highly probable some editor deliberately changed the description last week.
But then, obviously, someone else has since changed it back. It's slightly possible the reversal was merely due to another editor using the original macro containing both words, but that in turn would suggest the original re-edit to just "conservative think tank" was the work of one person. Therefore, it's reasonable to assume another editor or set of editors objected to the change. It's further possible that WPRI itself (which seems more and more like it's editing the content of this paper, sometimes) objected to the change.
In any case, the JS is back to spinning oxymorons about WPRI.
Now, you might be able to stretch a point and make a case that it's possible to be both nonpartisan and partisan. Conservatives are in the political context partisan by definition, so the only way this works is if WPRI is saying that while its views are partisan, its outreach to Wisconsin residents is nonpartisan. As in, say: WPRI doesn't care if you're right of Attila the Hun or left of Attila the Hun; either way, it will reach out to you with its right-of-Attila-the-Hun views.
And indeed, perhaps WPRI thinks of itself as an organization that does no formal political campaigning, in which context it considers itself politically neutral. Ah, but its positions and views on politics are spread widely, and in the modern electoral environment, where court decisions like Citizens United have now totally blurred the meaning of speech versus the meaning of raw market power (i.e., paid speech), it's possible to be outside the formal political process and still campaign, which is precisely what WPRI does.
[This is becoming a wider problem among conservative organizations, such as Americans For Prosperity, which claims not to be political and yet has engaged in what is very clearly political campaigning, leading to formal complaints before the Federal Elections Commission. See URL below]
The bottom line is that WPRI staff and contributors clearly represent one circle in a Venn diagram in which a main overlapping circle is the Republican Party.
In any case, explanations (or, as I like to say in this context, cop-out stories) don't matter. When voters re-elected Scott Walker (at least, we are told he was re-elected) in the recall contest, he was arguably re-elected in part by Americans For Prosperity and other conservative third parties who in theory aren't political yet spend money on highly ideological and even political messaging.
WPRI is likewise in theory not political, but you can fantasize about reality, or you can acknowledge it. And if you do the latter, you'll sooner or later have to conclude that outfits like WPRI are functionally quite partisan.
As I have written before, the merging of institutional DNA between WPRI and Journal Communications Inc. ought to be worrisome to editors, since a primary source of political "studies" and opinions the paper now prints is an organization that, historically, the newspaper would view with professional skepticism.
I mean, letting WPRI employees have regular space in the paper to pontificate on Wisconsin political matters would be like giving a labor union official space to pontificate from an opposite direction. Now, you'll note if you scan today's edition that the Journal Sentinel in fact did give column space to Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, one of 18 state government employee unions.
But, of course, here's the thing: Beil's Sunday column was a one-off. He doesn't have nor has he, or any other union leader from anywhere, ever had regular space in the paper. Nor do employees of any other independent, moderate, liberal or progressive institution.
Thus, Beil's column today (which I must note was uncommonly instructive and illuminating for a Journal Sentinel op ed offering) is the exception that proves the rule. Not only are public employee unions across this state (except for police and firefighters) stripped of bargaining power and their historic method of collecting member dues, their voices are mostly ignored except in occasional quotes in a news story and an even more occasional opinion piece. Whereas WPRI -- which is just one of many conservative opinion machines -- gains the newspaper's precious column space a half dozen times a week.
The JS wants us to believe it offers a "diversity" of voices in its opinion pages, but with respect to labor unions, that diversity is mostly just a diversity of commentators opposed to organized labor and collective bargaining.
Moreover, this Fourth Estate state of affairs at Fourth and State (the Journal Sentinel's Milwaukee address) is of a kind with what has happened to the newspaper's coverage of labor in general. The paper used to have a labor beat with a reporter who focused on issues relating to unions and workers in general. But that beat and that coverage are long gone. The paper like most other dailies has a business section and that section regularly features interviews with and columns from establishment political figures, businessmen (and I do mean "men") and business associations.
But the Journal Sentinel almost never talks to labor or covers labor except mostly in the context of some business or political decision that negatively affects working men and women. Labor itself used to be considered news. Now it's mostly just the captive subject of third-party actions and opinion. And in the newspaper opinion pages, labor rarely gets its own voice.
Meanwhile labor's opponents, including the governor, his party, WPRI and many, many others, regularly dump on the men and women who do most of the work in this state and who learned decades ago that they would not be treated fairly if they didn't get organized. Arguably, they are now being treated very unfairly, not just by politicians and businesses, but by our news media.
It's no wonder many Wisconsin citizens have a negative view of labor or at least organized labor (apparently they prefer disorganized labor). No one, least of all our mainstream news media, are particularly interested in covering them dispassionately, if at all.
When I was a general news reporter eons ago, I occasionally was assigned to cover a union meeting. Such meetings almost always produced news, and unions weren't always happy with the way newspapers portrayed their activities. But they did get a seat at the table of journalism and recognition of their importance as an institution representing hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin workers. Now those workers and their unions are out in the back alley, waiting for any scraps that the cooks at Journal Sentinel and other news organizations stoop to throw their way.
All of which means this: WPRI may -- or may not -- be a "conservative, non-partisan" outfit. But in its journalistic choices (as informed by the business officers of its parent company), the Journal Sentinel has now clearly stamped itself as conservative and partisan, at least within its opinon pages.
And yet the paper's editors wonder aloud why Scott Walker and his ideological followers have been unable to mend what to the paper is a political rift created almost entirely by those union people they seldom write about and diss when they do.