The Awl's Abe Sauer has been in Madison covering the ongoing demonstrations against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair" bill. And after an eventful weekend, he had the occasion to size up the general tenor and competence of the overall coverage of the events in the traditional media.
It probably won't come as much of a surprise that he found it to be badly wanting. His macro point on the matter is, I feel, spot on:
If the events in Wisconsin prove one thing, it is that the mainstream media has become journalistically irrelevant when it comes to national issues and coverage. Broadcast media is incapable of explaining anything outside a macropatriotic framework and has proven allergic to anything that puts off even the slightest whiff of the class warfare that scares away big-market advertorial. Meanwhile, the other side is cable news' partisan echo chamber of regurgitated self-assurance, where no blow is too low and no fact needs sourcing before being leveraged to make a prearranged point. Cable news reporting on Wisconsin is like going to a whorehouse and then bragging to your buddies about this girl you seduced.
Along the way, Sauer dives into a few specific examples of the widespread "media malpractice" he's been witnessing in person and examining in print and on television. One institution that Sauer specifically singles out for criticism is the New York Times, with a special focus on A.G. Sulzberger, the son of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., who began a reporting career for the Gray Lady in February of 2009.
Scorn for A.G. Sulzberger is nothing new in the media blogosphere, where many consider A.G.'s career to be a pure product of nepotism. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan has, since A.G. came aboard as a reporter, made himself a mini-cottage industry of snarking out the young heir.
In Wisconsin, however, A.G. has played a very special role, thanks to a very special mistake, which required a very special correction.
At issue is an article that Sulzberger wrote (with Monica Davey) titled "Union Bonds In Wisconsin Begin to Fray." That piece centered on a man named Rich Hahn (identified in the original as "Rich Hahan") who very helpfully provided the grist for the "union bonds begin to fray" mill. Hahn, pinpointed as a "union man in a union town," presented himself as a supporter of Scott Walker's effort to "cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin."
As Sulzberger recounts:
Rich Hahan worked at the General Motors plant here until it closed about two years ago. He moved to Detroit to take another G.M. job while his wife and children stayed here, but then the automaker cut more jobs. So Mr. Hahan, 50, found himself back in Janesville, collecting unemployment for a time, and watching as the city's industrial base seemed to crumble away.
Among the top five employers here are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations.
"Something needs to be done," he said, "and quickly."
As you might imagine, Walker, who's hoping to sow politically advantageous divisions between private and public sector unions, was a big fan of the piece. We know that to be true thanks to Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast, who, in a now-infamous prank phone call in which he pretended to be David Koch of the Koch brothers, got Walker on tape, praising Sulzberger's piece:
SCOTT WALKER: The New York Times, of all things--I don't normally tell people to read the New York Times, but the front page of the New York Times, they've got a great story--one of these unbelievable moments of true journalism--what it's supposed to be, objective journalism--they got out of the capital and went down one county south of the capital, to Janesville, to Rock County, that's where the General Motors plant once was.
IAN MURPHY as "DAVID KOCH": Right, right.
SCOTT WALKER: They moved out two years ago. The lead on this story's about a guy who was laid off two years ago, he'd been laid off twice by GM, who points out that everybody else in his town has had to sacrifice except for all these public employees, and it's about damn time they do and he supports me. And they had a bartender, they had--every stereotypical blue collar worker-type, they interviewed, and the only ones who weren't with us were ones who were either a public employee or married to a public employee. It's an unbelievable--so I went through and called all these, uh, a handful, a dozen or so lawmakers I worry about each day, and said to them, everyone, get that story and print it out and send it to anybody giving you grief.
Of course, there was one huge problem with Sulzberger's story: Rich Hahn was not a "union guy." Not at all. And that forced the Times to run this doozy of a correction:
A front-page article on Tuesday about reaction among private-sector workers in Wisconsin to Gov. Scott Walker's effort to cut benefits and collective-bargaining rights for unionized public employees referred incorrectly to the work history of one person quoted, and also misspelled his surname. While the man, Rich Hahn (not Hahan) described himself to a reporter as a "union guy," he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not himself a union member. (The Times contacted Mr. Hahn again to review his background after a United Auto Workers official said the union had no record of his membership.)
Here's a fun fact, courtesy of Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution: the New York Times wrote a post for their Caucus blog on the Ian Murphy prank call. At no time do they mention the fact that Walker specifically cited A.G. Sulzberger's error-ridden piece during that phone call. What makes that especially interesting is that their write-up of the prank call was penned by -- wait for it! -- A.G. Sulzberger.
Sauer and Schwarz aren't the only people who've pinched Sulzberger over his coverage of the conflict in Wisconsin. BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow points readers to this item from David Cay Johnston of Tax.com, who, in a lengthy piece, sounds off on the "economic nonsense" about "who 'contributes' to public workers' pensions" that "is being reported as fact":
The fact is that all of the money going into these plans belongs to the workers because it is part of the compensation of the state workers. The fact is that the state workers negotiate their total compensation, which they then divvy up between cash wages, paid vacations, health insurance and, yes, pensions. Since the Wisconsin government workers collectively bargained for their compensation, all of the compensation they have bargained for is part of their pay and thus only the workers contribute to the pension plan. This is an indisputable fact.
Among the reports that failed to scrutinize Gov. Walker' s assertions about state workers' contributions and thus got it wrong is one by A.G. Sulzberger, the presumed future publisher of The New York Times, who is now a national correspondent. He wrote that the Governor "would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now."
Wrong. The workers currently pay 100 percent from their compensation package, but a portion of it is deducted from their paychecks and a portion of it goes directly to the pension plan.
One correct way to describe this is that the governor "wants to further reduce the cash wages that state workers currently take home in their paychecks." Most state workers already divert 5 percent of their cash wages to the pension plan, an official state website shows.
In this case, the Times has not seen fit to offer a correction.
Beyond all these mistakes, the Times knows it's capable of doing much better--their most egregious sin of all. Let's go back to Sauer's piece:
The pathetic part is that the Times has one of the nation's best labor issues reporters actually in Madison and it's sending him to file reports like "Delivering Moral Support in a Steady Stream of Pizzas." The author, Steven Greenhouse, is an authority on labor and worker rights and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and "World of Hurt," a deep investigation into New York's workers' compensation system, which won an award for The New York Times. I ran into Greenhouse last week while he was writing that pizza story.
Greenhouse's presence in Wisconsin raises one interesting question about Sulzberger's recent byline. In the "Unions Fray" piece, it's Sulzberger's reporting from Janesville's GM plant that required a later correction, noting that "While the man, Rich Hahn (not Hahan) described himself to a reporter as a 'union guy,' he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not himself a union member." But more curious is the fact that, just a year ago, Greenhouse wrote a long and excellent investigation of Janesville's GM plant for Granta ("Janesville, Wisconsin"). In it, Greenhouse looked at the the plant closure, the unions, and all the factors at play. So why send Sulzberger out to find interview subjects in a place where Greenhouse already had deep and relevant connections?
Maybe because Greenhouse might have come back with a piece that described the relationships between public and private sector unions with greater nuance? Or a piece that demystified any misunderstandings between the two? These are just my guesses.
Regardless, the New York Times thinks the best use of their resources is to have their labor reporter on the pizza delivery beat while the publisher's son learns on the job, to the lasting delight of Scott Walker.
From the Capitol Dome: Media Malpractice in Madison [The Awl]
In Madison: Scott Walker Packed His Budget Address With Ringers [The Awl]