Let Them Eat Cheese: Media Weigh in on Wisconsin’s Labor War

News media in Wisconsin take for granted that the state capital city of Madison will be the site of medium-sized protests, late-night legislative antics and accusations of gubernatorial power grabs. While many of those fights over the last few decades were over substantive issues, it was still not the type of doings that energizes large crowds.

The dynamic and sometimes tragic Vietnam War protests in Madison that many older reporters had covered early in their career – and middle-aged reporters studied in school – had a “remember when” air to them. Hearing about the Vietnam era in 2010 was like hearing about the Great Depression in 1970. You got the importance, but looked for current relevance.

Then, Wisconsin’s newly elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, announced a budget-repair plan in February that would take away many collective bargaining rights most public sector workers around the state had held since before Vietnam. Reporters and editors in Wisconsin pondered, “Hmm . . . we bet this brings tens of thousands of people out to protest.”

This anticipation was bolstered by several strong possibilities. The people affected would have the means and time to take on the political powers of the day. There would likely be more unusual legislative maneuvering. A bright national media spotlight would shine on an ambitious new governor.

Wisconsin newspapers, blogs, radio outlets and television stations, which usually stuff statehouse news deep into the newscasts, immediately paid attention. A Milwaukee TV station, which typically likes a title for its continuing coverage, called it “Capital Chaos.”

Some national outlets, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, were also on the announcement right away,  as Walker’s plan went beyond what other conservative governors were proposing in their states. Reporters for Wisconsin Public Radio started pitching and filing to National Public Radio. NPR and other national media sent in their own reporters, or more of them, as the number of protesters inside and outside the State Capitol building did indeed reach the tens of thousands.

For a few days, television networks led evening newscasts with stories out of Madison. The evening cable talk shows paid attention.  The late night skewers of the news, including Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, did their thing, often with a cheesy Wisconsin flavor. On the social media front, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported people bonding, or breaking up their relationships, depending on one’s view of the collective bargaining dispute.

Along the way, there were new questions for Wisconsin reporters – questions already dealt with by some media in other states. A quick list:

• What to do when some key players leave?  When 14 Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to slow down Republican discussion of the budget repair bill, were the lawmakers “on the lam” as some reporters called it, or were the senators simply meeting in another state?  How closely should the media pursue lawmakers?

• When a blogger from Buffalo, “buffaloed”  Gov. Walker into thinking Walker was talking to billionaire businessman David Koch, a large financial donor to Walker’s 2010 campaign, electronic media wrestled with airing audio of the discussion, because Walker apparently didn’t know he was being recorded. Some outlets aired or posted audio clips, some didn’t.

• Reporters for Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and other public broadcasters in the state decided to disclose they would be affected by parts of the budget repair bill. But how often do you repeat that disclosure before the audience says, “Yes, okay, we KNOW.”

• In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, and threats to some Wisconsin public officials, reporters in the state capitol faced additional security requirements and wondered, how long will this last?

• When the Wisconsin State Assembly debated the bill for three days, reporters, editors and others said, “When and where do WE sleep, and who will wake us should there suddenly be action?”

• Who’ll take a bet on which Democratic senator will come back to Wisconsin first?

Going forward, there are additional questions; – would any lawmaker be recalled by angry voters; would State Capitol building security ever go back to normal; would Wisconsin’s Governor become a lasting national figure; would unions continue to protest at his stops around the state; would a more financially balanced state budget trigger the private sector confidence the governor promised;  what’s the effect Wisconsin is having on the 2012 race for president?

These may not be the life and death questions of the Vietnam Era. But the state media, and national reporters who keep an eye on Wisconsin, once again have plenty on their plate – besides cheddar.

Chuck Quirmbach has been on the news staff of Wisconsin public radio since 1980. As employees of the University of Wisconsin-extension, he and his fellow WPR reporters would be affected by some of the changes Governor Walker proposed.

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