The WPRI Journal Sentinel -- state's biggest newspaper now a conduit for wingnut hacks | Wis.Community

The WPRI Journal Sentinel -- state's biggest newspaper now a conduit for wingnut hacks

[img_assist|nid=72460|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=0|height=0]As journalists and students of political science and public administration are well aware, regulatory agencies -- such as those assigned to protect the environment or oversee financiers or watch drug companies -- are always at risk of being captured by the very special interests they are assigned to monitor. Similar risk now affects newspaper editorial boards that rely more and more upon a narrow, ideological point of view from some of the very organizations they are supposed to view with skepticism.

Nowhere is this development more evident than on the editorial pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, an amalgam of the former Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal. The Sentinel was for years an editorially conservative Hearst chain paper, while the Journal was moderate to liberal in tone. However, the Hearst strain of DNA seems now to have overcome whatever left-of-center genes the Journal had before the merger.

David Haynes, the paper's editorial page editor, continues to insist that his pages offer readers a "marketplace of ideas" where they can shop for opinion. Be that as it may, the underlying truth is that the newspaper's opinion pages remain largely in thrall to conservative voices and in particular to the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), a right-wing think tank that the newspaper bills as conservative yet non-partisan. [Imagine that: editors who ignore oxymorons.]

WPRI is a private organization that reflects and promotes specific public policy choices. It's more of an advocacy organization than a true think tank featuring actual scholars. The Journal Sentinel arguably has now been captured by its influence, to the point where the newspaper's editorial board and the views of WPRI often seem inseparable. Better, perhaps, to call it the WPRI Journal Sentinel.

The newspaper's editorials are still written by its own staff, and occasionally they take politically moderate points of view, but increasingly on the big issues the newspaper tilts conservative, endorsing controversial Scott Walker not just in past elections but also in the recall election -- even though the paper said in the past it would decline recall endorsements because it dislikes recalls. Walker is the exception that proves the rule, apparently, the same way the US Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore was, according to the court's majority, a one-time-only special.

The Journal Sentinel op ed pages are replete with contributions from WPRI staff, typically amounting to a pair of long-form columns in a single Sunday edition, consuming more print space by far than any other single individual or institutional entity excepting the editorial board itself.

The newspaper's parent, Journal Communications Inc. (JCI), also owns WTMJ-AM, a high-power radio outlet in Milwaukee that features a group of local right-wing talk show hosts, one of whom is Charlie (nee Charles J.) Sykes, a former reporter for the newspaper. Sykes also has served as a writer and editor for WPRI. WTMJ is now  the object of a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission from the Media Action Center, alleging political bias by Sykes and other talk show hosts on the station.

The crossover in staff between WPRI and the Journal organizations is thus not only eye opening, but also countermands the meme of the biased liberal media. But never mind; conservative critics on occasion still complain about the Journal Sentinel's imaginary lefty bias.

More and more, the Journal organization looks like the Wisconsin equivalent of the Fox News cable operation, a news organization that tilts heavily Republican. Even so, in Milwaukee, the local Fox TV affiliate, WITI, arguably takes a more balanced and aggressive approach to state politics than do the JCI outlets.

It isn't just the WPRI connection. The newspaper's Politifact operation is led by senior editor Greg Borowski, who previously as a reporter filled much front-page newshole hyping the threat of voter fraud. A long series of news stories basically parroted the continuing Republican Party meme of massive fraud -- a meme that eventually was dispatched by a bipartisan law enforcement task force. We're still waiting for the Journal Sentinel, or any other state news organization for that matter, to look into the potential threat of election fraud, perpetrated through the apparently easy method of hacking electronic voting machines.

But it's WPRI that stands front and center as the most blatantly conservative influence on the newspaper and its readers. WPRI is to Journal Communications and the Journal Sentinel as the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is to the Wisconsin Republican Party. ALEC drafts legislation like Scott Walker's anti-union law, and lawmakers enact it rapidly without significant change.

For its own part, WPRI offers up canned talking points to a newspaper that is now, thanks to staff reductions, unwilling or incapable of producing enough original opinion, either of conservative political flavor or any another. WPRI is an opinion mill, and the Journal Sentinel employs it wholesale. And in doing so, grants WPRI the appearance of credibility and a patina of approval.

WPRI's influence within the Journal Sentinel editorial pages is somewhat analogous to long-controversial "video news releases" that pollute TV newscasts, especially at the local station level around the country. Those "releases" are slickly produced by corporations and other interest groups and pretend to be straight journalism but always include an underlying point of view favorable to the originating special (and, almost always, corporate) interest.

WPRI is running a similar operation. No, its opinions are not, at least yet, disguised as news, but it dresses itself as a research organization, whose news releases on its own "studies" invariably show up in the Journal Sentinel's news pages. Indeed, on occasion the newspaper not only has printed front-page news about WPRI news releases but in the same edition carries WPRI-related opinion columns, not always on the same issue.

Indeed, a search of the Journal Sentinel's online archives shows that WPRI was mentioned in the newspaper's articles 100 times in a recent 60-day span. That's more than one hit per day. Does any Wisconsin-based progressive think tank have similar penetration into the J-S pages? No. 

That makes the Journal Sentinel an important cog in Wisconsin's right-wing noise machine.

Despite the Journal Sentinel's latest round of community columnist appointments (including a group of so-called and on-line only "purple" bloggers, including some left-of-center voices), the conservative coup that's overtaken the J-S opinion pages is striking. Yes, some alternative voices remain in the mix, for instance the occasional column from, progressive Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman. However, the blend is more ballast than balance.

This is reminisicent of how, on Fox News, conservative squawker Sean Hannity used to be presented as sharing equal time with his rather soft-spoken liberal co-host Alan Colmes, who eventually evaporated from sight. You can be forgiven if, upon inspecting the J-S op ed pages, you perceive the occasional appearance of liberal, progressive thought as nothing more than a similar beard for the paper's real intent.

Besides a regular print column from WPRI's Mike Nichols (a former reporter for the newspaper) and frequent contributions from WPRI contributor Rick Esenberg, a conservative lawyer who has been an activist in conservative political causes, the Journal Sentinel's new slate of columnists includes WPRI's Christian Schneider, whom the newspaper previously granted prominent ad hoc space on its op ed pages.

Schenider was given prime space in the newspaper several times in the past month to diss the recall election process, echoing the newspaper's own editorial board. Never mind the multiple issues that led to well over a million state citizens of very diverse backgrounds to sign various recall petitions. It was just a temper tantrum, you see.

That huge number of petition signees ought by default to have conferred a huge measure of legitimacy upon the process, but you didn't get a whiff of that from the Journal Sentinel. Recalls, in the view of Schneider and the J-S editorial board, are heavy handed, expensive and unfair -- except, apparently, when they're mounted by conservatives. Because then, the newspaper has openly or tacitly supported recalls.

For example, after a Milwaukee County government pension scandal in 2002, a conservative group mounted a recall campaign against county lawmakers, gaining the support of then State Rep. Scott Walker, who now regards the process as aberrant. You heard nothing from the newspaper then about how removing county elected officials was somehow aberrant. 

The rightward skewing of views sometimes goes right off the scale. Early last year, WPRI's Schneider observed in one column that former governor Jim Doyle "routinely feigned austerity, signing each budget with a sour expression ... . Yet while Doyle always complained about `deep cuts` he had to make, every budget he signed increased government spending, leaving the subsequent Legislature with cumbersome structural deficits to fill."

What Schneider ignored is that after succeeding Doyle, Scott Walker did exactly the same thing in his first budget -- feigning austerity while enacting record state spending. More spending, indeed, than Doyle or any other Wisconsin governor ever approved. Walker nevertheless laid waste to education and other important state programs, raising some taxes in the process.

Ironically, Doyle somehow dealt with a far bigger deficit than Walker without blowing up state policy or riling the masses, But Walker is the putative fiscal conservative, so from Schneider, other WPRI-centric columnists and the Journal Sentinel he gets a pass. That's even though Walker's budget balancing act was accomplished in part through refinancing, copying his tactic with the Milwaukee County budget: shoving debt well into the future, and increasing it in the process.

In another rant for the newspaper, Schneider imagined aloud that public employee unions "operated as their own sovereign nation" until Walker came along. Which no doubt explains why some state employee unions prior to Walker sometimes were forced to spend as much as three or four years negotiating two-year contracts with flat or modest compensation increases. So very powerful and sovereign!

Schneider and the J-S meanwhile have ignored admissions from Walker and other Republicans that balancing the state budget didn't require a functional end to collective bargaining but really was about silencing a key chorus of voices in opposition to Republican ideology.

Schneider also pretended that without the draconian pay and benefit cuts that Walker's so-called "tools" imposed on public workers including school teachers, there'd be big public employee layoffs. Nevertheless, we are now seeing unprecedented number of public employee layoffs, anyway.

Not many years ago, the Journal Sentinel as a matter of policy would not publish even the most noncontroversial news release -- for example, announcing dates for a community fair -- without first fact-checking the offered information.

Now, on matters of great importance to every resident of Wisconsin, the Journal Sentinel leaves its front door wide open to whatever questionable reasoning WPRI ships in its direction. This isn't journalism or informed opinion, it's a conduit from a political interest group -- a conduit every bit as offensive as the money pipelines that drench the state's electoral process in faraway tens of millions of dollars.

The irony is that the newspaper -- despite nearly halving its editorial staff in recent years -- remains a source of good reporting. The paper has won several Pulitzer Prizes in the past decade and still employes more than its share of quality journalists.

But, just as Scott Walker outsources public policy to private special interests from mining companies to insurers and manufacturers, the Journal Sentinel is rapidly outsourcing its independence and credibility to the same elites. For a news organization challenged by decreasing readership, this is part of a very big problem.

ADDENDUM: Coincidentally, Salon magazine just published a good article on how shrinking readership and shrinking newspapers have badly damaged democracy nationwide. The online article is at: 

Published

June 10, 2012 - 9:01pm

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