Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Wisconsin Elections: A Cure For Lazy Journalism

Wisconsin Residents: Did you know that August 14 is primary election day in Wisconsin? Did you know that on that day voters will be choosing candidates for Governor and United States Senate for the establishment political parties (Democrats and Republicans) and third parties? Did you know that in Wisconsin you can only vote in ONE party primary? (i.e. If you want to vote for a Democrat in the crowded field for Governor, you CANNOT then vote for a Senate candidate in the Republican primary.). Do you know who are the candidates running in each party primary? If you know at least some of their names, do you know what they stand for?
If you vote in the Democratic Party primary on August 14, 2018 these are the candidates. Do you know their names and what they stand for? Has mainstream journalism helped you get to know the issues and where candidates stand on them? 
Over the years I have found that even people I consider to be "politically aware" answer "no" to many of the above questions, or at best offer up a lukewarm "yes." High numbers of uninformed or under informed voters is a sign of civic distress. Such distress is not a new phenomenon, but it's arguably gotten much worse over the years. There are many reasons why, but given that this is a "media rants" blog, I only feel qualified to comment on the role of the political journalism. To put it bluntly, political journalism in Wisconsin--by which I mean the reporting and editorializing produced by the establishment, corporate media that reaches the largest number of readers/viewers/listeners--does not cover elections in our state in a way that provides meaningful information and commentary capable of provoking increased voter participation. In a word, the quality of journalism concerning elections in Wisconsin is LAZY. (It's also vapid, scandal obsessed, and privileges "insider" views--but those are all byproducts of the laziness.).

I'm going to suggest a cure for lazy campaign journalism, but first let me clarify what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that establishment journalists are bad people who purposefully dumb-down campaign news coverage so as to benefit the anti (small-d) democratic forces that rule Wisconsin. Most journalists are well meaning and do their jobs as best they can given the real institutional constraints they face. Chief among those constraints are the lack of resources dedicated to news gathering/investigative reporting and the fear of offending advertisers--factors that completely frustrate any kind of "outside the box" style of journalism.

Lazy political campaign journalism typically centers around the following boilerplate themes:

*Which candidates have the most money?
*Which candidates have the potential to raise the most money?
*Who's ahead in the Marquette poll?
*Who's ahead in any other reputable poll(s)?
*Who won the Convention straw poll?
*Should only candidates with large campaign bank accounts be invited to debates?

There's also an obsession with anything even remotely scandalous in candidates' backgrounds; usually just an accusation from an opposing candidate or opposing party spokesperson is enough for the "scandal" to get coverage. And critically, campaign journalism is sourced almost entirely by political insiders with some kind of vested interest in the story angle.

Note that the boilerplate themes tell readers/viewers/listeners almost nothing worth knowing about the election or the candidates. This year the journalism has been excruciatingly bad, which is especially tragic given that the Democrats had so many qualified candidates enter the race. We're heading into the August 14th primary knowing primarily that: Tony Evers leads in the polls, only four of the Democrats running for governor will probably be able to raise the funds necessary to compete against Scott Walker, Democrat Matt Flynn has been under pressure to withdraw from the governor race because some victims of priest abuse claim that Flynn was unethical in his performance as an attorney for the Milwaukee archdiocese, the one viral video of primary season features Democrat Kelda Roys nursing her infant child, and that Scott Walker is one of the most unpopular incumbents in the country. Really gets you fired up to want to work on a campaign, eh?

Spattered throughout the products of lazy journalism are candidates views on issues, but that is typically an afterthought. Moreover, the explanation of the issue at hand is either absent or not sufficient, so that the independent voters (who are the majority) cannot really be sure what a candidate being "for" or "against" something actually means. Later in this post I will suggest that the initial months of campaign coverage should say almost nothing about the candidates and instead just provide in-depth examinations of the major issues facing the state, the incumbents' records on those issues, and the competing policy options. That way, when the media finally does get around to covering the candidates, their views on issues might actually make sense.

Let me provide just one example of the kind of journalism I've been critiquing. In July of 2017 Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik announced that he would be seeking the Democratic Party nomination for governor. Like most voters, I knew absolutely nothing about Mr. Gronik. The Capital Times' coverage of his campaign announcement was typical: In the story we learn that Gronik sent out a fundraising email critical of Scott Walker, that Walker and Lt. Governor Kleefisch have over 3 million dollars on hand, that Gronik wants his supporters to contribute $5 or more in a grassroots fundraising effort, that the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed an Ethics Commission complaint against Gronik (for reasons that are not clear) over the way he handled a political nonprofit that he created. The story was later "updated" to clarify that the Commission had dismissed the complaint. The story includes a quote from Republican Party spokesperson Alec Zimmerman, who calls Gronik an "out-of-touch con artist." The story does include Gronik's rationale for running and his stands on some issues, but the overriding theme is that he's trying hard to raise money while the Republicans claim he is out-of-touch and possibly corrupt.
Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik was an example of a candidate victimized by lazy journalism. Early coverage of his campaign focused mostly on his prospects for fundraising and baseless GOP cheap shots at him. Like most candidates, he was forced to find some kind of gimmick to generate attention; at the GOP convention in Milwaukee Gronik showed up with a rolling billboard critical of Scott Walker. 
If you search the Wisconsin media for stories on all the candidates entering the race for governor, you will find all of them meet the same basic pattern. The candidate's prospects for raising money, the candidate's reason for running, and the cheap shot from operatives in the opposing camp. I struggle to try and understand how any of these stories help me as a voter. Am I supposed to be impressed that a candidate has money or a slick way of raising it? Are put-downs from political hacks on the other side supposed to have any credibility?

That last point--allowing political hacks to get in a free cheap shot at a candidate--is one of the real defining characteristics of lazy political journalism. My guess is that the reporters and their editors allow it out of some twisted sense of "balance" and/or fear they will be accused of a "liberal bias" if they don't do it. But whatever the reason, the end result is to put every challenger on the defensive before they even have a chance to begin campaigning. So here's what the Republicans were given space to say about each of the major Democratic Party candidates for governor in stories that announced their campaigns:

*Mike McCabe: A "phony" who led an organization that took money from billionaire George Soros.
*Tony Evers: Stands with teachers who circulate porn in schools.
*Mahlon Mitchell: A "union boss" who protects big government special interests.
*Matt Flynn: A "dirty defense attorney."
*Kathleen Vinehout: Authored one of the biggest tax increase proposals in state history.
*Kelda Roys: Too liberal even for Madison.
*Paul Soglin: Extreme liberal who wants to take our state backwards.

Of course political hacks are free to take cheap shots at anyone. My point is that there is no good reason--journalistically or ethically--to privilege their cheap shots in stories that purport to be informing us about why a candidate is seeking office. In establishment newspapers, the political hacks ought to have to write letters to the editor to get their word out, and be subject to the most rigorous fact checking possible. On television and radio there is no good reason to include hacks as part of coverage, as all they do is sow division and create confusion. Mainstream media ought not enable that kind of nonsense, no matter what side of the political spectrum it is coming from.

A Model for Covering Campaign Season: Maximize Voter Education, Minimize Political Hackery

Suppose the establishment media woke up one morning and decided to cover campaign season with a sense of journalistic integrity and civic responsibility. What would that look like? Anyone who approaches this topic seriously has to come to the conclusion that responsible campaign journalism would at a minimum do two things: (1) maximize voter education and (2) minimize political hackery. Currently political journalism is hack driven; it relies on dueling press releases from self-serving parties, the major consequences of which are to dumb down coverage and reinforce the already existing sense of cynicism most people feel toward politics AND journalism.

An alternative model consists of three stages of campaign coverage:
1. The pre-primary stage.
2. The primary season stage.
3. The general election season stage.

I am especially interested in races for governor, but the model can also be applied to presidential, US Senate, state legislative races, constitutional offices (Attorney General, Treasurer, etc.), and even local races. The model really doesn't require that news organizations spend any additional money or hire more journalists (although that would be nice.). All it really takes is establishment media owners and editorial staff having the guts to ASSERT INDEPENDENCE from the political hacks that seek to control the way candidates and issues are talked about, and to DECLARE ALLEGIANCE to (small-d) democratic principles and meaningful civic engagement.

Stage One: Pre-Nomination Signatures

In Wisconsin, as in most states, candidates for governor do not officially get on the primary ballot until they submit a required number of signatures. In 2018 the candidates had until June 1 to submit the required number of signatures to get on the August 14th primary ballot. Before that June 1st date, literally anyone could have announced an intention to run for the office. Indeed on the Democratic Party side, by early 2018 there were close to twenty candidates declaring an intention to run. Even though it should have been clear that not all of these candidates were serious, and that not all of them would get the required number of signatures necessary to be placed on the ballot, the establishment media covered them all essentially the same--using various versions of the boilerplate themes mentioned above plus the obligatory cheap shot from a GOP hack. This mostly nonsensical coverage mostly benefited incumbent Governor Walker, as he and his operatives were able to deploy the narrative of a chaotic Democratic Party unable to unify around anything other than dislike of Walker. There seemed to be an assumption in all of this coverage that the typical voter (a.) knew something about the issues mentioned by the candidates in their statements as to why they were running, (b.) knew Governor Walker's positions/actions on those issues, and (c.) understood that there were multiple options for dealing with those issues.

Allow me to suggest that before the nomination signatures are due, there really should be very little coverage of candidates. If establishment newspapers, TV, etc. want to provide links to candidate websites and social media handles, that's fine. Let the hyperpartisan websites, blogs, and social media carry the candidate hackery at this point in the election season. For media that reaches large numbers of voters, the pre-nomination signature stage ought to be less about candidates and more about voter education. That would include:

*Foundational stories about the ABCs of voting: how and where to register, obstacles to voting (voter ID, change of address, etc.), offices that will be on the primary and general election ballots, requirements for voting in a partisan primary, etc. For political junkies, this kind of coverage almost seems "common sense," but that is because such junkies inhabit bubbles occupied really by only a small number of people. Talk to average, everyday people in your neighborhood and you will find that there is widespread confusion out there about the ABCs of voting. For stories on the ABCs of voting, mainstream media should partner with nonpartisan good government groups like Common Cause in Wisconsin to get out the most current, accurate information about how to vote. 

*In-Depth Coverage Of Issues: This would be the most critical part of pre-nomination signature coverage. Wisconsin's budget is driven by six main funding areas: K-12 education, health coverage, road construction, state aid to local government, prisons and the criminal justice system, and the University of Wisconsin System. In the pre-nomination signature stage, we should be treated to rigorous journalism telling us what the current level of funding is for each area, how the funding has changed over time, how Wisconsin compares with other states, and as much nonpartisan, independent analysis as possible.

In addition to the budget drivers, election coverage at this stage should focus on other issues identified by voters as important. The Marquette Law School Poll or the St. Norbert College Wisconsin Survey would be suitable, reliable sources from which to identify issues that mainstream media could then explain in more depth. Those issues for 2017/2018 include:

*Tax Reform
*Marijuana Legalization
*The Opioid Crisis
*Gun Control
*Raising the Minimum Wage
*How to Handle Wisconsin's Worker Shortage
*Wisconsin's Shrinking Middle Class
*Should we Restore Collective Bargaining
*Environmental Protection
*Campaign Finance Reform
*Rural Broadband Access
*Human Trafficking
*Police Reform

If in the  pre-nomination signature stage the media covered the election in the manner I am suggesting, the candidates who most benefit would be those doing what candidates should be doing at that point: traveling the state, meeting voters in local town halls, shaking hands door-to-door, communicating with county political parties, and everything else associated with grassroots politics. They would be freed from the pressure of finding some kind of gimmick to get media coverage, because the media would have made it clear that they are not interested in gimmicks. They would even be freed from the obsession with fundraising, because the kind of media coverage I have in mind will ultimately privilege ideas and hard work over "connections" and ad buys.

Stage Two: The Primary Season 

In Wisconsin in 2018, this stage would have started on June 1st (the day nomination signatures were due) and ended on August 14 (the date of the primary election.). During this stage we know exactly who will be on the ballot. Media coverage should do the following:

*Provide in-depth biographies of candidates.
*Interview candidates and get their views on each of the issues mentioned in Stage One.
*In races where there is an incumbent (such as this year's race for governor and the race for US Senate), provide clear information about what the incumbent has done on each of the issues presented.
*Organize each candidate's positions on a chart where they can be listed side-by-side against all the other candidates on the ballot. For newspapers, print the chart every day leading up to the election and/or make it easily available on the website. For television, radio, and other media, make sure your viewers/listeners know how to get access to that chart.

During this stage of the campaign there will of course be town hall forums, debates, and other events where candidates get to share their views. Should any candidate deviate from the positions they have already taken (as pointed out in the issue chart), good journalism should expose that. Voters need to know if a candidate panders to different audiences or in any other way walks back from the position s/he has already taken. 

Notice that in both Stage One and Stage Two,  there is NO ROOM AT ALL for political operatives and other cheap shot artists who want to dumb down the election to benefit their side. The operatives are free to send letters to the editor, troll media websites, pollute political blogs, etc., but they CANNOT be allowed to continue to frame the coverage of the campaign season if we want to have any kind of integrity in our politics.

Notice also that media coverage as envisioned here has no interest AT ALL in how much money a candidate has raised. If she or he has gotten enough signatures to be on the ballot, that's enough to warrant serious coverage by the media.

Finally, if mainstream media insist on covering polling data, it should only be after Stage Two coverage in which each candidate has had the opportunity to have his or her views stated fairly and in comparison to other candidates. I daresay that if we had this kind of media coverage model in place, Andy Gronik and Dana Wachs (candidates who dropped out because of low poll numbers) would still be in the race.

As with Stage One, Stage Two media coverage largely benefits hard working, grassroots candidates willing to get out and make his or her case directly to the voters. 

Stage Three: The General Election 

The results of the August 14 primary will determine the nominees for each party. At that point the mainstream media should do anything possible to make sure that all the voters of the state get an opportunity to hear the candidates. Mainstream media should work with the League of Women Voters to facilitate one debate between the candidates in EACH of Wisconsin's congressional districts. That would guarantee that the issues of concern to ALL the state's residents--urban and rural--would get a fair hearing. Establishment media should come to an agreement that if a major party candidate refuses to participate in at least one debate in each congressional district, that lack of participation will be reported widely and repeatedly all the way up to election day. 
Candidates for governor and United States Senate should have at least one debate in EACH of Wisconsin's 8 congressional districts. That would help increase the chances that the needs of ALL the state's residents get addressed. 
During the general election season, it is common for candidates to hurl accusations of corruption or unethical behavior at each other. Typically, just the ACCUSATION is enough to get an above-the-fold headline or the lead story on the evening news. In the model I am proposing, corruption/ethics accusations will undergo the highest level of journalistic vetting and scrutiny before being reported. It's not right that a candidate could lose an election because of an "October Surprise" that later turns out to be bogus. 

Conclusion: The Urgency of Reform 

It's hard to exaggerate how badly we need to reform election coverage journalism. There seems to be a clear and disturbing correlation between the low quality of journalism and the low voter participation in elections. The issues facing our state and nation are too serious to continue tolerating the civic distress brought on by the toxic combination of special interest candidates, lazy journalism, and low voter turnout. 

I don't pretend that my reform suggestion is perfect or can be easily implemented in an environment where political journalism has been stuck in a mediocrity rut for an entire generation. My hope is that what I have proposed can at least start some conversations among the powers that be that control mainstream news in our state. I honestly believe that the kind of journalism I am proposing would greatly increase digital subscribers for newspapers that do it, so they could avoid the pathetic threats to hide their content behind a paywall unless you pay up. 

If you think the current election season journalism is okay or the best that can be done under the circumstances, fine. But please don't act shocked when voter participation continues to plummet, and people we elect continue to place the needs of well-connected special interests above The People.