I tend to avoid programs produced by major network news divisions like I would the galloping herpes, but I do occasionally tune into CBS Sunday Morning. In its better moments, Charles Osgood helms a tranquil, reflective magazine foregrounding the people, places and things that define what’s best about American culture. At its worst, of course, it’s just another fair and balanced mainstream media medicine show, with a comment from Ben Stein.

This morning we got a frustrating dose of worst, as the producers decided to have a look at what’s happening in Wisconsin. You could have written the script without knowing any of the important details, because coverage like this isn’t informational, it’s ritual. Predictable tough-guy posing from Governor Scott Walker, Tea Party Darling, and then some comment from teachers and union members, the people in the crosshairs. There – “both” sides have been told. Journalism accomplished.

Except…except…CBS didn’t provide some important details, nor did they put a microphone in the face of anyone likely to do so for them. So, let me try to add a little texture, with a couple of caveats: first, yes, it’s complex; second, I’m not an economics expert, so I’m going to link and quote to those who know more than I do. In the end, my purpose isn’t to prove that X is definitively true about Wisconsin, but instead, to ask how come you aren’t hearing these details. How come you’re watching “balanced” news reports that omit such critical facts?

  • In a nutshell, Walker transformed a $120M surplus into a deficit through special interest spending for his political friends and tax cuts for businesses. As The Cap Times explains:
  • To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes — or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues — the “crisis” would not exist.

  • More specifically, TPM notes that “more than half of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker’s initiatives”:
  • $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.
  • $48 million for private health savings accounts — a perennial Republican favorite.
  • $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.
  • Not only that, Walker has chased investment out of the state to the tune of at least $810M.
  • In an e-mail exchange earlier this morning, Paul Rosenberg of Random Lengths News explained that “[a]pparently these measures don’t take effect until next fiscal year, so they actually AREN’T increasing the current year shortfall. But, as I noted, the Cap Times commentary highlights an unused cache of $73 million, more than twice what’s being sought from public sector workers.”
  • The idea of Walker and the legislature teeing up corporate tax cuts is especially remarkable, given that “the share of corporate tax revenue funding the state government has fallen by half since 1981 and, according to Wisconsin Department of Revenue, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes.”

Rosenberg, who shares my frustrations with the state of the press, also backtracks the governor’s original press release, uncovering some important double dealing. Let me go ahead and plug in a longish section from Paul’s e-mail on this subject.

Salient points:

(1) Stated Deficit:

“The state of Wisconsin is facing an immediate deficit of $137 million for the current fiscal year which ends July 1. In addition, bill collectors are waiting to collect over $225 million for a prior raid of the Patients’ Compensation Fund.”

(2) Piddling amount gained by raiding public employee benefits:

“First, it will require state employees to pay about 5.8% toward their pension (about the private sector national average) and about 12% of their healthcare benefits (about half the private sector national average). These changes will help the state save $30 million in the last three months of the current fiscal year.”

(3) ENTIRE deficit covered by single non-controversial item:

“The budget repair will also restructure the state debt, lowering the state’s interest rate, saving the state $165 million.”

(4) Which carries with it a severe time-constraint:

“Since the state is required to make debt service payments by March 15th, the bill must be enacted by February 25th to allow time to sell the refinancing bonds. This provision will reduce debt service costs by $165 million in fiscal year 2010-11.”

There are, of course, all manner of other bells and whistles in this bill, but the whole “fiscal emergency” narrative–which is clearly questionable at best on other ground–is put to bed with this simple set of facts.

To cop a phrase from Brad DeLong, “Oh why can’t we have a better press corps?”

If just ONE major news outlet knew how to CRITICALLY read a press release, none of this rightwing hysteria could have gotten off the ground. When I was managing editor at Random Lengths News, teaching interns to critically read press releases was one of the basics, since incoming press releases went into a file from which we drew potential “news briefs,” and it was always important to spot slant, spin and contradictions in order to assess what other information sources we might want to contact for a more accurate story–if, indeed, we were going to run anything at all. So when I say this is a basic skill, I mean a BASIC skill.

Oh yeah, and one more thing:

(5) The destruction of workers’ rights is not only fiscally irrelevant, it does not even come into effect until AFTER the end of the current fiscal year:

“Collective bargaining – The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

Right. And herein lies the piece that ought to have any good journalist scratching his/her head. To wit – why is so much energy being devoted to busting union power in Wisconsin? Even if Walker were able to completely annihilate all unions in the state, it would have zero effect on his ginned-up budget “crisis,” right?


As I allow above, this is a complex situation. And it’s an evolving situation, with more facts and analysis emerging as it unfolds. How much of this were you aware of? If the answer is somewhere between “none” and “not much,” why? Is it unfair to ask our nation’s largest and richest news organizations to present the details you need to make an intelligent decision? Are you not bright enough to process facts? Do they not think you’re bright enough? If the latter, what do you think about the journalism establishment’s decision to make your mind up for you like you’re a three year-old?

If Walker Really Wants to Solve the Problem, There’s an Obvious Solution He Isn’t Talking About

If you want to get serious about Wisconsin’s fiscal issues, you have to take a hard look at one of the biggest drains on the state economy: the United States of America. In 2007 (the most recent year for which we have data, I think), Wisconsin contributed $43,778,325,000 in taxpayer revenue to the federal government. Washington, however, only returns $.86 per dollar to the state in benefits and services. That comes to $37,649,359,500. If you don’t have a calculator handy, that means that the state is losing $6,128,965,500.

Whoa. Check that again – Wisconsin is losing better than $6 billion a year – that’s billion with a “B” – and we’re cluttering up the Capitol over $137 million?

What I want to know is why the Tea Party counter-protesters in Madison (what few there were) aren’t demanding that Walker and the legislature do the only fiscally responsible thing and begin talking secession. The case has already been made that California, Washington and Oregon have an incentive to secede, and the same should go for other donor states. Like Wisconsin.

Am I right? Well, Rosenberg observes that Walker’s “plan is to destroy public service unions that work for cities and counties as well as the state. So state supremacy over local governments is part of his mix, as is rejecting federal stimulus money. I don’t think you’re stretching things all that much.”

I’m sure we all look forward to the more penetrating follow-up story next Sunday morning.


Thanks to Jeremy Woodburn and Paul Rosenberg for their valuable contributions to this story.

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About the Author

Sam Smith

Samuel Smith lives a double life. Okay, triple life. By day he makes a living as a marketing consultant specializing in high-level strategy, branding, corporate communication and merging media and practices. In his "spare time" he's the executive editor of Scholars & Rogues, where he writes about everything from politics to music to sports to literature. Finally, he's an author of poetry and fiction whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like storySouth, Poet & Critic, New Virginia Review, Cream City Review, High Plains Literary Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Pemmican and Uncanny Valley. He holds a BA at Wake Forest and MA from Iowa State, and somehow endured the torturous process of earning a PhD in Communication from the University of Colorado.

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