It's quite reasonable for journalists and others to look carefully at who's supporting our political candidates, and whether those supporters are following our now weakened, laissez faire campaign spending laws. But I'm afraid today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel once again has conducted an examination in rather myopic fashion. Dan Bice, who we'll stipulate has in the past done any number of columns that don't make Republicans look good, today takes on organized supporters of Democrat gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk.
I'm okay in principle with news media inspection of the Falk campaign, or any other candidate's campaign, and the third party groups that support those candidates. I'm not okay when it's done out of context. Or when as with Bice's column it's done as the top story on page one of the newspaper, when similar and arguably more egregious behavior by Republicans is regularly downplayed and even buried on inside news pages or a staff blog post -- that is, when it gets covered at all.
The essence of today's Bice's piece is in its beginning (to read the whole piece, see the URL below):
Almost out of nowhere, a group called Wisconsin for Falk blitzed the local airwaves this month by buying $1.6 million worth of TV time to run ads statewide promoting former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in an all-but-certain recall contest for governor ... . In short, Wisconsin for Falk is a union front group that - despite its name - is being led by many out-of-state operatives intent on defeating Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
That opening to Bice's column plays right into Scott Walker's meme that pretty much everything that has happened since the huge protests of spring 2011 that led to his recall has been orchestrated by thuggish, out-of-state "union bosses." Indeed, Bice gives the Walker camp space to make that very charge.
Unions supporting a main Walker opponent? Why, that's absolutely shocking! Re-plate page one immediately!
The rest of Bice's piece does provide some context and defense from the Falk camp, but you can bet this column will be widely cited and used in Falk attack ads by the Republicans and their financially toney enablers. Perhaps this defect should be attributed to Falk and her followers, but context is a hugely important component of fair-minded journalism and not just superficial context amounting to, Falk: Threat? Or menace?
Now, as Bice notes, even the left-of-center Mother Jones magazine had questions regarding the Wisconsin for Falk organization. But that's only half the story. What Bice left out is that Mother Jones, unlike many mainstream news outlets, has had even more questions about Republican-friendly, national front groups supporting candidates like Walker, and with largely anonymous donations that are swamping labor union spending by 12 to 1. What about those, uh, "operatives"? Or are readers instead to regard them as merely "concerned citizens"? You see, Mother Jones, like many progressive institutions, thinks campaign spending is way too under-regulated, which largely benefits well-heeled conservatives.
While he's written about it piecemeal in earlier columns, not once does Bice take pains in today's piece to note that Walker, who's been very critical of out-of-state support for Democrats pushing his recall, has gathered a record amount of campaign cash from ... out of state! In fact, the public recently learned that, according to his official calendar, Walker's campaign fund-raisiing trips across the nation apparently have consumed a vast amount of his time in office since the petition drive for the recall campaign got underway.
The Journal Sentinel and Bice himself have covered such activity, but in less dramatic fashion than today's top-of-the-fold, page one outing on Falk. And, overall, similar analysis by mainstream media in Wisconsin has been paltry at best. The most we tend to get is "they all do it" type of stories. That has even afflicted President Obama, who recently dropped his functional opposition to Super PACs supporting him, noting that if he didn't, and the GOP continues to rely heavily on such support, that would amount to his campaign's unilateral disarmament, against a foe with the campaign spending equivalent of concealed carry.
Republicans love to suggest that Democrats as in the case of Falk or Obama are being hypocritical in this regard, but the reality is that, thanks to awful decisions by courts and legislatures on up to the US Supreme Court, Democrats don't have much choice in the matter if they're to remain competitive (former union leader and political candidate Ed Garvey is one idealist who thinks the Democrats could win by in fact unilaterally disarming, but the reality is that most voters would never hear about such a principled stand, since the Democrats would then not have anywhere enough campaign cash to break past the GOP nosie barrier).
Meanwhile, news media love to write stories suggesting that, with regard to political campaigns: They all do it. Yes, they do. Trouble is, Republicans make Democrats look like amateurs when it comes to relying on shadowy, independent campaign spending in the range of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. It's like comparing kids who swipe candy bars from convenience stores with armed bank robbers and then concluding, "They all do it."
And while a $1.6 million TV ad buy on behalf of Falk certainly is impressive and newsworthy, that buy pales in comparison to the TV campaign spending Walker and his allies already have mounted. It would be fair-minded for news media to be consistently comparative in these kinds of stories but that is not how Bice's column tends to be structured. In his "no quarter" style, there's grist for everybody's mill, but no one need consider what is for them politically incorrect grist, because that usually shows up on other days.
Unfortunately, the way today's Bice's column reads, the uninformed or underinformed voter is encouraged to assume that union suport of a political candidate and especially out-of-state union support is in itself some kind of illegitimate activity. They're running a "front group," dontcha know -- sounds bad, even if such entities are entirely legal. Another particularly silly moment occurs when Bice pursues questions about how the independent group could possibly have obtained imagery of Falk in government buildings without her campaign's help.
Bice ends with the egregious comment that, "It's the era of non-stop campaigns," a message that services his newspaper's editiorial page dislike of recall elections, but which ignores the "permanent campaign" strategy that's been around at least since the days of Richard Nixon. The real permanent campaign of today is the one that denigrates the political opposition for trying to play by rules it did not invent, and which the other side uses with alacrity.
By the way, Bice's second item today focuses on the Milwaukee County judge campaign between an incumbent who is a Walker appointee and a challenger who has received support from unions and who -- horrors! -- signed a Walker recall petition, although that was perfectly legal and although she was not in elected office at the time. A campaign consultant for the incumbent, Judge Nelson Phillips, issued a statement saying, "We need to win this election, both for the Bench and for the Governor."
Phillips disavowed the statement. It's balanced coverage on Bice's part, but then again, in this case "balance" is tacitly equating the two activities. To many of us, however, the conservative and news media custom of outing anyone who signs a recall petition is just vote suppression in another guise. Here's one possible rule of thumb for signing petitions, paraphrased from a common 1960s protest theme: Not to sign, is to sign.