Friday, September 05, 2014

Strictly Speaking, PolitiFact's Pants are on Fire

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's version of PolitiFact (a franchise rented from the Tampa Bay Times) has been recklessly careening down the road for at least four years now. Full of self-appointed sanctimony, the PolitiFact editors and reporters presume to determine fact from fiction in political matters.  But, instead of producing clarity and consensus on the Truth, the project has resulted in just more acrimony, finger-pointing and you-got-it-wrong confusion.  

It has been a wildly inconsistent feature, randomly selecting items to evaluate, some of which need no evaluation.  Who cares if Sen. Ron Johnson claimed  college students "are taking six years to get a four-year degree." Did someone else claim this wasn't true? Who cares if blowhard right-wing darling Ald. Bob Donovan said an alderman has never defeated an incumbent mayor? It's not like he has any chance to do it, so who cares?

While exploring the uncontroversial on a regular basis, the PolitiFacters mostly ignore the biggest peddlers of fake controversy and political lies -- wing-nut talk radio hosts.  According to the web page index, it appears that, of all the local purveyors of radio propaganda that poisons the political dialog across the state, only WISN's resident racist/sexist Mark Belling has been the subject of an article, and that was about some comments about Russ Feingold's garage way back in 2010. Journal Communications own (for now) resident Republican mouthpiece Charlie Sykes escapes without the project reviewing any of the many lies he has told through the years.  What is the point of have a clearinghouse for the disposition of political lies if you are not going to touch the trove of bullshit that is Milwaukee Talk Radio?

When not evaluating the trivial and the mundane and ignoring the obvious, PolitiFact sometimes dips its toe into what passes for the Big Issues of Our Time, with extremely mixed results.  The national PolitiFact project famously and foolishly declared Democrats' claims that Paul Ryan's stated plan to privatize health care for the elderly would "end Medicare" -- which, of course, it would -- "False" because, I suppose, whatever inferior program that resulted would still be called Medicare. They even called it (get this) the Lie of the Year in 2011. Nothing like getting something wrong and then making it that much wronger.

In Wisconsin, the PolitiFact project has served at times to legitimize and validate the excesses of the radical Republicans in Madison.  During their assault on state and local government, teachers and the very soul of progressive Wisconsin governance that began in 2011, the PolitiFact reporters and editors have always been there to lend a hand to put out the fire when someone pointed out the obvious result of the GOP jihad's many excesses. For instance, when the Democratic Governors Association pointed out in 2011 that Walker and the Republicans' assault on the right to vote in the form of a photo ID requirement would "deny Democrats the right to vote", they got the ooo-so-scary "Pants On Fire" rating.   Never mind that the law would actually prevent some Democrats from voting and that that is the very intent of such laws across the nation.  "Tut-tut", says the Lords of PolitiFact.  "Democrats still get to vote".  Well, sure.  Some of them.

But you don't want to be too hard on PolitiFact.  The project does have some of the best reporters still remaining at the soon-to-be foreign-owned (believe me -- I lived in Cincinnati for a year) "media content provider".  And they have slapped many "Pants On Fire"s and "False"s on Walker and company.  But one of the problems inherent in these kinds of mainstream media things is they think they have to be so damned even-handed.  So they find the off statement by some out-of-power Democrat and treat it like its just as bad as the lies of the in-power, gerrymandered GOP steamroller.

As Paul Krugman has said, even though one party (the Republicans) lies more and benefits from an alternate fact universe of lies on Fox News and talk radio, the straight press will not point that out.  Ominously dreading the 2012 political cycle (and, boy, was he right) Krugman wrote:
"And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased”. This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance."
To a large extent, the reaction to any given PolitiFact piece is driven my whose ox is being gored -- or, since PolitiFact's reputation is too weak and disrespected to matter much to anyone, whose ox has to swat mildly annoying flies.  Other than campaign operatives that might (might) brag about a "True" "ruling" (no kidding -- that's what they call it) or a "False" for the opponent, nobody spends more than two seconds pondering the implications of any PolitiFact conclusion.  The arbitrary sliding scale of "mostly" this or "half" that lets political worms like Scott Walker wiggle off the hook, giving way too benefit to those it is mandatory to doubt.  Far from being the Last Word about anything, PolitiFact is just another ball bouncing around the political court, kicked from here to there, mostly to the curb of indifference.

But for all its banality, PolitiFact, whether they get it right or wrong, at least usually sticks to the actual wording of the statements they are evaluating.  That was not the case on this past Sunday, when reporter Tom Kertscher slapped a "Mostly False" tag on the state AFL-CIO's Entirely True statement that Walker and the other radicals in Madison had given "a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools" in the 2013-15 budget.

Boy, I can do this one just sitting here...yep, the GOP enacted the up-to-$10,000 tax deduction to the parents of a kid in any private school...no income limit to take the deduction...millionaires with kids in any private school who had been just fine paying the full freight since the incorporation the the Village of Fox Point now get $10,000 off their taxable income... That was easy. True! Hey, maybe there should be a new board game -- the home version of PolitiFact.  Anyone can play.

But, hold on there, silly naive simple-statement-reading amateur.  When it comes time to break down his analysis, Kertscher has a whole different statement on his mind. "So, did Walker carve out a $10,000 private-school tax break strictly to benefit millionaires?" [Emphasis added.]

OK, that's not what the AFL-CIO said or meant.  It said millionaires got the tax break. By inserting the word "strictly" into the statement, Kertscher completely changed the meaning of the statement and, of course, what is now Kertscher's statement was "Mostly False".  Hell, it's "Pants On Fire".

So outraged was I by this uncharacteristic journalistic malpractice (PolitiFact's sins are of story selection and interpretation, not of usually of fact-twisting) that I lurched off the couch of my nearly 2-year hiatus from this blog; deciding not only to write but to do some reporting myself.  For the first time since I began posting on this thing in 2006, I actually checked with someone I was going to be writing about.  I emailed Tom, who nicely responded and handed it off to editor Greg Borowski, as is their policy.

For the sake of accuracy, I'll include Borowski's entire response:

Hi Mike:
Thanks for the heads up -- a courtesy, it seems, most don't apply before they write about us.
You asked about our "PolitiFact article ... about the AFL-CIO statement that Walker’s tax break for private school tuition benefits millionaires." However, I don't think your characterization of the union's claim -- that the tax break merely benefits millionaires along with, presumably, others -- is accurate.
Here is the statement we evaluated: "Scott Walker has given a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools."
The flier goes on to question why that money was not used instead for "the children who are being educated in public schools. Working families are still waiting for an answer." So, there is no mention that the tax break goes to everyone. Instead, it is framed around the idea that working class folks are the ones missing out.
With no additional information (and in the context of a flier that sends the overall message that Walker is favoring the wealthy at the expense of the working class), how else is the average voter to understand the claim, but that the tax break went strictly to millionaires?
Beyond that, I would simply offer that we rated this statement consistent with the nearly 800 others we have rated since we began four years ago.

Best regards,
Greg
So Borowski and/or Kertscher decided on their own what the AFL-CIO meant, ignoring the clear context presented by the union -- that whatever portion of this ridiculous handout is going to the millionaires takes away from working class kids in public schools.  I asked in a reply email whether the reporter asked the union if that's what they meant.
Did you ask them if they meant to even imply "strictly"? Did they deny it? You give Walker flacks all kinds of chances to weasel out of their often-false implications. Not here apparently.  The worst case is if you asked, they denied and you ran it this way, without telling us they denied. You wouldn't do that, would you?
Borowski did not answer and ignored the question in a reply. Cue the violins: "Going forward, I guess we should rate everything True because, well, the speaker and their supporters think it is." Yeah, sure, that's really what we are talking about, Greg. To quote you: Come on. The fact is what they said and what they meant was True. And your redrafting it in your own Walker-protecting image was Pant On Fire shit journalism.

You hope that the PolitiFact reporter and editor involved here were not affected by the Journal Sentinel's decades-long campaign against public schools.  After over 25 years of the failed voucher "schools" experiment -- where more kids have been harmed from being warehoused crap "choice" "schools", some started by rich vultures like Mark Neumann and Bill Bennett, than in any working-as-hard-as-they-can MPS school -- the Journal Sentinel continues its campaign to undermine public schools in Wisconsin.  And that campaign has always bled into the news coverage, which has largely ignored the horrors of poor parents being taken advantage of by charlatans posing as educators.

Maybe this twisting and reinvention of the facts to support even more state money to private schools is part of it.  All I know is, for whatever reason, PolitiFact Jumped the Shark with its "Mostly False" rating of a statement the union never made.

We rule this -- Pants On Fire. At least.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Christian Schneider and the Shame of the Journal Sentinel

Americans for Prosperity -- a Dark Money front funded by the pollution-and-power-addicted Koch Brothers of Kansas and New York -- are active in Wisconsin again, not that they ever left.  Hours after a sweat-inducing poll a month ago showing that the race for Wisconsin governor is currently tied, the Walker campaign (no doubt) coordinated with AFP -- which is neither a group nor are the check-writers involved concerned in the least for anyone's "prosperity" but the Koch's -- to drop $866,000 in Wisconsin media markets on slick advertising with people and/or actors pretending to be pleased by the havoc wreaked on the state by Scott Walker and the radical Republicans in Madison in the past four years.

"$866,000, six months before the election," you think. "Boy, that's a lot."  But, in the post-Citizens United era of limitless Republican money and the post-Randa-approved (for now) coordination of resources and strategy between the Dark Money entities and Walker's 24/7/365 campaign, you ain't seen nothing yet.  $866K is what they call chuckle money in the depressing bowels and ivory towers of the right-wing hierarchy and the state capitol.  If anyone complains about that kind of spending, they chuckle. Haha, as the kids text.  If you think that kind of coordinated spending to promote the effort to fool Wisconsin into electing Walker again the least bit interesting, just wait.  You ain't seen nothing yet.

Yes, the well-coordinated Dark Money of the Kochs, the Bradley Foundation and other of the self-serving rich will flow again to Wisconsin for the rest of this year because wealthy billionaires and corporate interests want to keep Scott Walker ensconced in its previously proud governor's office to serve and do their bidding.  And, for the purpose of the campaign, they are willing to do his. But the obscene spending by the silver-spooned elites to promote their selfish, destructive agenda is not the worst of the poison that pervades the current political environment in state in general and the southeast Wisconsin in particular.

No, the worst element warping the state to the right is our very own Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  In its news pages and especially on its opinion pages, the biggest newspaper in the state has completely abdicated its responsibility to be an honest arbiter of political discussion.  Hiding behind a veneer of reasonableness by taking some weak-kneed progressive stances on issues that will never progress -- their constant harping on redistricting reform is hilarious, none more so than to GOP leaders in the Capitol, who laugh out loud every time they read another one -- the newspaper has been lurching rightward in its news coverage and -- especially -- the opinion pages for years.  By promoting the disaster that is school "choice", encouraging the decimation of local control and the Milwaukee County Board and otherwise standing on the sidelines while the radical Republicans run amok in Madison, the once-proud (at least the Journal half of it) paper is now just a willing and useful tool for the hard-right Walker regime.

Following in the footsteps of its parent company -- which runs wing-nut poison through its radio stations not only here but elsewhere in the country and promoting and funding the Right Wisconsin propaganda and Sykes-vanity website -- those running the newspaper also seem to think their future is in right wing advocacy and nonsense.  In the years since the Journal and Sentinel merged publication in 1995, the increasingly right-wing editorial board of the newspaper has jettisoned its few liberal voices like Joel McNally and Eugene Kane to the dustbin of forgotten columnists and not bothered to replace them with anyone with a consistently progressive perspective, much less anti-Walker or pro-Barrett (now Burke) sentiments.

Instead, in their place are white-hot right-wing Walker-coordinated extremists like Patrick McIlheran and, now, Christian Schneider.  As chief clown in the right-wing parade for much of the '00s, McIlheran had free reign at the paper to make up any old nonsense he wanted.  Of course, that was until the anti-government zealot left the paper to begin his career as a federal employee, working PR and putting words in the mouth of Sen. Ron Johnson, the biggest buffoon in a Wisconsin Senate seat since Bobby Kasten.  From their elitist perch in Washington, RoJo and McIlheran have gone on to make beautiful music together, to the amusement of all.

It was around the time of McIlerhan's flight to federal pay, benefits and pension that the paper started running talking-pointed Republican press releases under the name of "Christian Schneider" on its opinion pages.  Schneider -- who, according to his LinkedIn page has never worked in journalism and whose only political experience is as a flunky in the state Capitol as a staffer for various Republicans -- was working for a Dark Money entity, the Bradley-funded "think" tank WPRI at the time his columns first started appearing in the paper.  His columns then had a disclosure at the end that Schneider worked for WPRI, which the paper laughingly referred to as "a non-partisan organization".  They did the same with Mike Nichols, who now runs the same right-wing organization.  Under David Haynes, the opinion pages have been just in love with WPRI, even to the extent of covering up its true nature.

And now, Schneider is an official columnist with the paper.  Part time, supposedly, and not being paid by WPRI anymore. Supposedly. Getting paid by other right-wing moneybags? Probably.  I mean, they all get paid -- that's why they spout this unoriginal tripe that they are too smart to believe.  I have the inclination but not the time to research what else Schneider is up to.  But here's something interesting that pops up on his LinkIn page: He offered a recommendation to someone who worked at the Alabama Policy Institute "as a fellow think tank employee" in March 2013.  As you can see from the link, API appears to be a fairly typical GOP Dark Money conduit.  I don't know if he is still working there or if he was officially an employee of the paper when he was.  I also don't know if Journal Communications still has an outside employment policy -- that appears to have been trashed a long time ago by Charlie Sykes double-dipping at WPRI and god-knows-where-else.

From the beginning until now, Schneider has consistently toed the Republican/Walker party line of the moment, when he wasn't writing it and developing it himself.  Schneider columns have always a dreary consistency -- he starts with something off topic that he thinks is amusing before diving into the talking-pointed tripe. Engaging recently on FaceBook with J-S associate editorial page editor Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, trying to smoke him out as to why Schneider was so prominently featured at the paper (and it's like pulling teeth to get anybody at the Journal Sentinel to talk about what the hell they are doing over there), he called him a "distinctive conservative voice".  What a laugh.  Schneider is about as distinctive from Charlie Sykes or any of the other Walker-coordinated voices in the free right-wing media as Rush Limbaugh is from Sean Hannity.

So, fine.  Marty Kaiser and David Haynes want to have a Republican voice above the fold on the opinion page every Sunday and other times of the week, without a counter-balanced progressive voice.  Whatever.  Those are their pages and their journalistic ethics on the line.  You would hope, as the biggest newspaper in the state, that they would want to play it a little more straight, be a more responsible corporate citizen and not turn the paper into the Wall Street Journal, at least until Australian Rupert Mudoch, David Koch or some other people buy them out and they can dive in without apologies.  Their choice; our loss as an informed electorate.

But, as the 2014 election for governor gets into full swing. Schneider's "work" at the newspaper has taken an ugly turn. He has dropped all pretense of being a casual conservative observer and dived headlong into a full-time campaigner for Scott Walker.  Of all the various forces, groups and voices the Walker handlers are coordinating with, Schneider is the most widely read, influential and obedient.  All of his columns are of a sickening piece, but, in the last month, four stand out as straight-from-the-campaign dictation.

On May 24th, Schneider boldly declared that Mary Burke is "the Candidate who isn't there".  It is a straight-up hit job on Burke, who, the Walkerites know all too well, is still relatively unknown to Wisconsin voters.  The Walker cronies on talk radio have been working hard since her name first got mentioned as a possible candidate to define her negatively before she gets a chance to define herself, and Schneider is more than willing to help, with a deliberately misleading and disingenuous review of her positions and ideology.  The piece runs above the fold on the front page of the Sunday opinion page -- not down the gutter on the back page where his column usually (but not lately) resides.

Exactly one week later, Schneider again is allowed a prominently-displayed hit piece on Mary Burke -- and this time, it's personal.  Accusing her of taking a "cheap shot" at voter-suppression-obsessed Republicans, Schneider just can't get over his fake outrage about anyone who would take a political shot at someone during a discussion of crime in Milwaukee.  This, from a member of the same right-wing media cabal that had been taking pot shots at Mayor Barrett and Chief Flynn for weeks, taking it as an opportunity to promote the overheated rantings of David Clarke (who, by the way, NOT a Democrat).  Before or since all of this double-barreled very personal attacks on Mary Burke, not one columnist or editor has come to her defense.

And then there is last week.  After an excellent piece about racist talk radio in Milwaukee and its (no doubt) coordinated effect on Walker's election and prospects in the New Republic on Monday morning June 16th, the entire right-wing media -- starting with the morning talk-radio puppets -- lept into action to defend themselves, but mostly Walker.  As if on cue (because he was), Schneider and his editors rushed a column onto the web site, attacking the writer (of course) and expressing shock -- shock! -- that anyone would accuse Our Governor of being a racist!  But Schneider misses the point, on purpose. Republicans have always used their useful stooges on talk radio to say the racist things -- code-worded and otherwise -- so the politicians themselves don't have to.  But the Walker-as-victim meme was part of the plan so, there he went.

On Thursday, June 19th, of course, the John Doe documents were released (the Walker stooges were instructed to call it a "document dump") and all hell broke loose in WalkerWorld and Christian Schneider was more than willing to join the fight against the forces of Truth.  Within hours of the release, Schneider was up with an article, trumpeting all the talking-points we heard from Walker and the other fellow travelers for the next week (still).  After seeing this, I again challenged Franzen as to why the newspaper runs such obvious rapid-response Walker campaign columns by Schneider whenever he (and the campaign) wants.

I related what followed on FaceBook after I called out Franzen and his newspaper.  This is my post on June 22nd.  Franzen has not responded or complained that I got anything wrong:
Christian Schneider hits the hat trick for Walker in the Journal Sentinel. Thursday: five minutes (seems like) after the "criminal scheme" documents are released, JSOnline zooms Schneider's rapid-response tripe onto its web page. Ernst-Ulrich Franzen promises in a comment to me here that the (no doubt) Walker-coordinated defensive piece would not run in the newspaper itself. Friday: Most of Schneider's "featured blog" crap is quoted in bold type on the edit page of the print version. Saturday: Franzen sends a comment that, ooops, the Walker-as-Schneider press release will run as a column in the paper. Sunday: There it is, in all its smarmy glory. 
You wonder what kind of conversations and lobbying went on in the editorial board to get the piece in the paper. You wonder what kind of deal the Kings of State Street have cut with Schneider and/or Walker and/or WPRI or whatever other Dark Money entity that allows Schneider to run, every week, pro-Walker and anti-Burke screed on a whim. You wonder why the paper has not bothered to try to get someone to consistently present the other side (other than their own very occasional editorials). You wonder how far the Journal Sentinel has fallen and how far it has yet to go into the abyss of right-wing advocacy.
It really is sad to see the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel slide into this kind of right-wing hole, all for the sake of a power-mad governor.  It is not worth the loss of credibility, prestige and community respect they have suffered in recent years.  But, as I said, it's their choice.  And our loss.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

All or Nothing for Scott Walker

Scott Walker's Achilles heel may be his star-struck need to be loved and noticed by national Republican heavyweights.

During the furor caused by the radical governor's decimation of Wisconsin government in the dark winter and spring of 2011, Walker was comically recorded giving warm platonic phone sex to a brilliant prankster pretending to be democracy-killer David Koch.  Walker, usually a publicly dreary on-message robot, became an effusive chatterbox with fake-Koch, even accepting an invitation to one of fake-Koch's imaginary Xanadu mansions in California after the smoke had cleared on Wisconsin democracy.

Walker apparently did the same thing in August of that year in a revealing and potentially incriminating email to the real Karl Rove.  Earlier this year, when emails were released from the Kelly Rindfleisch investigation from the time Walker was pretending to be Milwaukee County Executive, Walker's contributions were short and terse.  It was as if he could barely be bothered with his puny office drones and the details of the campaign that was being run out of his office in the Courthouse, much less (and I mean much less) his duties as county exec.

But in the email to Rove (the details of which are only hinted at in the too-brief excerpt quoted in the documents released this week), Walker is as giddy as a school-boy, bragging to the putrid Rove about how nicely everybody with dark money in the state was coordinating with his and other official campaign committees; "a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin".

There is more, of course -- much more.  Just the fact that RJ Johnson was (and still is) wearing (at least) two hats -- one with the campaign and the other as a conduit for the Koch brothers and other dark money as the main check-writer for the Club for Growth (which is a sham "organization"; neither a "club" nor are they much interested in anyone's "growth") is an outrageous F-you to anyone's previously universal understanding of the need for at least pretending that the "outside groups" (which are neither "outside" nor "groups" -- just different names and PO boxes laundering the same dark money) are not coordinating with the official campaigns.

[What would be even more interesting is the complete list of who the campaign was coordinating with in the free media.  Any complete list would have to include the wingnut talk radio circuit -- run in Milwaukee by Clear Channel and Journal Communication Inc. -- which seems to exist, especially in a panicked time like this, as a 24/7 Walker defense and promotion operation.  Every day, WISN and WTMJ provide hours upon hours of free advertising for Walker, always in sync with the campaign's message-or-the-day.  And Walker sometimes spends much of his day gabbing on the phone with his friends Jay, Vicki, Mark, Charlie and Jeff.  Also on the list would have to be the most prominently distributed Walker shill in the universe, Christian Schneider, a long-time Republican operative who, for reasons known only to the Journal Sentinel's clueless editorial board, has carte blanche to print Walker campaign talking points whenever he (and Walker) wants in the biggest (and most disappointing) newspaper in the state. But I digress.]

In his filing, the John Doe prosecutor laid out a very persuasive case for what the campaign coordination statute means, how it has been historically interpreted and why he has to investigate further.  But Walker and his handlers obviously took off on a radical path to completely ignore Wisconsin campaign law.  They didn't bother to rewrite it -- they just flaunted the law.  With the radical Republicans running amok in Madison, they certainly could have changed the law; or they could have gone to court for a declaratory judgement that the state's law was unconstitutional.  Instead, they just went ahead and coordinated and plotted and schemed in a manner nobody had dared to do, ever.

Walker's bevy of lawyers may have had some legal advice in their back pocket, in case they got caught (which they now have been).  But they didn't bother to tell anyone about it.  They developed their schemes in secret, hiding in broad daylight as the state was flooded with campaign-coordinated dark money.  The fact that they were coordinating messages and strategy was fairly obvious -- especially in retrospect -- but if you asked them back then, of course they would have denied it.

In fact, if Walker ever exits the cocoon of Fox News and talk radio where he has lived since Thursday and talks to a legitimate news reporter again, someone should ask him about the details of what exactly he was doing back then that he is now so proud of, now that the case is "over", as Walker falsely declared to his friendly interviewers in his desperate last couple of days..  "Was your campaign coordinating with the outside groups, governor?  When did it start?", etc.  I'll bet he doesn't answer the question -- he'd be crazy to do so.

The reason is because Walker and his lawyers know very well that the case is far from "over".   The lawyers for the dark money operators managed to convince one friendly federal judge and one state judge of their novel theory that the part of the state statutes prohibiting coordination between campaigns and outside groups, as written and as always interpreted, was unconstitutional.   But it is by no means guaranteed that the conclusion that dark money groups and campaigns can coordinate with dark money all they want as long as the dark money ads don't say "vote for Walker" will stand in the Courts of Appeals or even the post-Citizens United Supreme Court.

It is not Federalist Society activist Judge Rudy Randa who is going to have the last word on this -- it will be Justice Anthony Kennedy. As an excellent New York Times editorial noted this morning: "Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy promised in 2010 that there was nothing to fear from independent spending groups that raised unlimited dollars. Because they could not coordinate with political candidates, he wrote in the Citizens United decision, they 'do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.'" Having written that, how could Kennedy now follow the right-wing of the Court off the cliff by saying that anything goes for anyone with a checkbook and a candidate in their pocket? Hopefully, the bright line of campaign coordination with dark money is one the Fifth Justice will not cross.

Scott Walker better hope he does.  And the panic of Walker and everyone around him in the last few days makes clear he knows it. There is no middle ground for Walker.  There are only two ways this turns out.  It may be, sadly, that Walker and the forces of Dark Money will win, eliminating all hope for democracy in the United States and Walker can be Governor For Life.  The only other alternative? Scott Walker is going to jail.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

An Even More Historic Victory

Barack Obama's election in 2008 was an obviously enormous event -- the first election of a person of color as president in the nation's history.  His message of Hope and Change after the 8-year nightmare of the worst president in U.S. history, Junior Bush -- whose damage to the country was starkly but only partly evident at the very end in the near-collapse of the financial system -- resonated with an exhausted public.  With an over-the-hill and over-his-head opponent in John McCain -- shown to be even worse by his irresponsible selection of the ridiculous Sarah Palin as his VP and his knee-jerk reaction to the financial crisis -- the stars aligned, destiny called and Obama answered.

But, as historic as 2008 was, Obama's stunning landslide reelection on Tuesday was even more so.  Never before has a sitting president -- or any candidate -- been subject to the kind of personal and political abuse channeled through more radical-right media outlets for four whole years.  No candidate has been bombarded with literally unlimited spending by selfish billionaires and dirty industries, all intended to fool people into voting against their interests.  Never has the mainstream media been more complicit in validating, excusing and distributing Republican lies. Not since Jim Crow laws in the South has there been such a systematic attack on the voting rights of American citizens by highly-organized Republican legislatures, designed only to suppress the votes of traditionally Democratic constituencies.

Bill Clinton managed to survive the first draft of the new-age Politics of Personal Destruction, supported every hour of every day by right-wing talk radio, then in its relative infancy.  The journalistic fraud known as Fox News did not exist until after Clinton's reelection in 1996, just in time for Newt Gingrich's House to make a historical fool of themselves with the partisan impeachment fiasco.  The new right-wing media found its footing playing defense during the dark Junior Bush years, with the added dynamic of pretend "independent" expenditures rearing their ugly heads, with phony front "groups" like the Swiftboaters carrying the Bush campaign's dirty water to save his ass from losing to American hero John Kerry in 2004.

But the radical right wing really had it all together and smooth, setting themselves up to (they thought) trounce Obama out on his offensively-drawn (by racist nut-right cartoonist Michael Ramirez -- a regular in the post-Doonesbury Journal Sentinel -- and others) big ears in 2012.  There was no doubt about this one.  Obama's supposed European socialist "regime" would be rejected in a landslide, and the entire structure of Fox News and talk radio was designed to affect just that result, with a script drafted by Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee.  Especially after the Fox-hyped FreedomWorks-funded astroturf tea party took credit for swinging the House Republican in 2010, the biggest anti-Democrat machine in history was ready to roll right over Barack Obama.

Consider the elements of the unprecedented Republican advantage:

Fox News: Never before has an entire television network -- laughingly declaring itself a "news" network in the first place, and "fair and balanced" to boot -- been committed to the defeat of one man and the promotion of one political party. For five years (the smearing of Obama began the day he announced his candidacy in 2007), the president was mocked, dehumanized, marginalized and criticized -- on both opinion and "news" programs (believe it or not, Fox insists there's a difference).  The pro-GOP/anti-Obama campaign really picked up steam after the hapless Mitt Romney made it through the hilarious Republican primary process. Fox propped up Romney and nitpicked Obama every day in every way.  For all the rich pigs who tried to buy this election through supposedly "independent" SuperPACs, the swinish billionaire who had the biggest role trying to destroy Barack Obama was a foreigner: Australian Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News.

Talk Radio: The nation's free airwaves were filled for five years with all sorts of lies and smears of Obama, from the loudest national voices to the tinniest local pipsqueaks.  In Milwaukee, former respectable corporate citizen Journal Communications Inc. turned over most of its non-sports daytime programming on WTMJ to heavily subsidized Republican mouthpieces like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner, who gladly read GOP talking-points day after day after day.  (The company also runs nut-right local radio talkers in at least seven other "markets" across the country). Across town, mega-station behemoth Clear Channel runs out no less than three local right-wing talkers everyday on WISN, including veteran sexist and racist Mark Belling, to promote anti-Obama GOP tripe.  The balance of their day is devoted to three national Republican spokesmen, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levine.  There has never been anything like the kind of poison spewed into the political environment by the 24/7 talk radio industry.

SuperPACs: Fox News and talk radio are essentially free messaging for the GOP.  But, after the Citizens United decision by the right-wing of the US Supreme Court, the rich and their polluting corporations were also free to buy the commercials between the free programming.  Over the past four years, the anonymous rich spent billions trying to defeat the president through all sorts of ads lying about the president's record and intentions. Again, no presidential candidate has ever had to endure this kind of onslaught, even if the Dems were able to at least get close to parity on the airwaves in the weeks leading up to the election.

Voter Suppression: Republican legislatures and governors in various states have been on a tear the last two years, enacting Photo ID and other voter suppression laws that have been designed only to prevent vast  numbers of poor and minority voters from being able to cast a ballot.  Some of the laws, such as in Wisconsin, are held up for now by courts that have bravely upheld the Constitution's right to vote, unencumbered by unnecessary red tape.  But others are in place and are having just the effect for which they were intended -- although brave souls stood in long early-voting lines and went to court in Florida to stand up for their rights over the brutally anti-democratic machinations of Gov. Rick Scott.

Local Newspapers: The creeping demise of the local newspaper industry continues to facilitate the deterioration of the national discourse.  Some papers have ceased physical publication altogether, while most that continue to publish dead-tree editions are shadows of their former selves.  Locally, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel brags about Pulitzers won on mostly irrelevant topics while having its news, editorial board and opinion pages hijacked by a right-wing Republican think tank (The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute).  The paper played Romney's selection of radical right-wing congressman Paul Ryan as some kind of home-boy-does-good story, ignoring the damage his ascension would cause to the country.  In the last week of the campaign, the paper that endorsed the radical Scott Walker for governor -- twice -- announced that they would not make an endorsement in the presidential race.  They most likely did so because, in a series of candidates-and-the-issues columns, they mostly favored Obama's policies; but, being the right-wing shills they now are, would have surely endorsed Romney; and they could not stomach even their own hypocrisy if that happened.

And so the fates and stars aligned against Barack Obama like no other presidential candidate before.  Nobody had ever faced that kind of fierce, committed, coordinated, supposedly overwhelming opposition.  His victory this week is all the more incredible for that -- a truly historic event.

But, although he ran a great, well-funded campaign, the credit does not all go to Obama and his excellent team.  The credit really goes to the American people, who somehow saw through all the bullshit and did the right thing.  As a liberal and a progressive, it was easy for me.  But for many, it wasn't.  And they made the difference.  President Obama made history by winning reelection against unprecedented opposition. But it is those of us who voted for him who really made history, rejecting the campaign of Fear and Division, and voting again for Real Hope and Real Change.  Again.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Fox "News" and The Big Lie of Benghazi

Ever since the day he was elected in 2008, the Republicans and their various pliant, script-reading sycophants in the right-wing media have promoted an unprecedented stream of falsehoods and phony premises to try to prevent the reelection Barack Obama that, it appears, might occur on Tuesday.

For four years, they have set up straw men, lied, smeared, belittled, dehumanized and delegitimized the president -- or at least tried to. Although they managed to chip away slightly at Obama's well-earned stature and accomplishments in the face of the Historic Mess Junior Bush irresponsibly left for him to clean up, the frustrated Grand Boobahs of the Right will find themselves in the same place they did in 1996 after trying to pull the same shit on Bill Clinton -- on the outside, looking in to a White House controlled by Democrats for another four years, who will protect the country from their Evil Designs by fighting against their agenda and for their own every step of the way.

The Republicans have an increasingly sophisticated method to get even their most putrid, offensive anti-Obama messages into the mainstream of political discourse while maintaining what they think is a plausible deniability.  For instance, no self-respecting member of the GOP establishment would get within 100 yards of a drooling birther ranting in the public square or Fox News about Obama's birth certificate. And yet, you can bet the Dark Hand of Karl Rove or some other oily operative could be found, if only someone would look, slipping 10s and 20s into the dirty mitts of Orly Taitz to fund her demonstrably frivolous lawsuits.  Mitt Romney doesn't have to skip around the country calling President Obama a European socialist -- he's got hoards of talk radio stooges who do it for him every day.

And Mitt Romney doesn't have to spend any time trying to make the tragedy in Benghazi on 9/11/12 into some kind of political liability for the president.  He's got a fake news network that is more than willing to do it for him, 24 hours a day, for two months.

In the third debate, Romeny took the advice of his advisers to, well, not debate.  He rolled over and agreed with the president on numerous foreign policy issues, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Moderator Bob Schieffer set it up the Benghazi "issue" on a tee for him the first question of the debate -- and Romney passed, ignoring the question and rambling about "rejecting this kind of extremism" and other such blather.  Jaws dropped across the country as the astro-turfers in the tea party did spit takes in disgust because the guy they reluctantly hired to finish off Obama refused to take the bait.

But Romney knew what he was doing.  He didn't "go after" the president on Benghazi not for the right reason -- because there was nothing to "go after" him about -- but for the wrong reason: because he knew his surrogates on Fox News, talk radio and the other well-paid right-wing mouthpieces were going to do his dirty work for him.  He didn't say anything because he didn't have to.

And Fox News did not disappoint.  It's one thing for the Fox "opinion" show hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity to dutifully read their Rovian talking points like the obedient servants they are.  But, last I heard Fox was insistent that its "news" shows -- hosted by fake "journalists" like Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and the like -- are to be taken seriously as "fair and balanced" news.  Serious viewers laughed that one off years ago (Kelly, who I watch at noon almost every day, leads every show with "new questions" that have arisen about some Obama action or other, real and imagined).  "Fox" is to "News" as "military" is to "music". One has nothing to do with the other.

But the entire network -- especially the fake news shows -- have gone way beyond what they have done in the past to support the Republican cause.  Literally every show on the network has led with some kind of feigned "outrage" about the Benghazi tragedy every day for the past two months, throwing out code words like "cover-up" and "Watergate" like they were candy from a Mardi Gras float.  It has not been a running news story; it has been a campaign, uninterrupted  even for Hurricane Sandy. When Fox talking heads were not breathlessly bleating Benghazi hysteria, they were bloviating about how the mainstream media was not following their lead, thereby engaging in an enormous pro-Obama cover-up of their own.  The network's fake news programs have promoted phony memes in the past, but, in terms of feigned passion and commitment to the "story" over all platforms, this is a new level of alternate-fact-universe creation, even for Fox.

This is especially the case since there is no there there. In recent days, real news reports have emerged, describing in detail the events of the Benghazi tragedy, including timelines provided by the military, the CIA and the White House.   None of it leads any credence and in fact puts the lie to the various fictitious versions of the events developed by Fox and its always-undisclosed "sources".  Saddest of all was the exploitation of (and by) the father of one of the murdered CIA agents, Tyrone Woods, who pitifully did the talk-radio/Fox News circuit in the past weeks, complaining about insincere and limp-handshake condolences offered by Obama and Secretary of State Clinton at a private meeting (nobody who knows Obama or Clinton would believe such a farcical version of their ability to express sympathy) and asking for "answers" about what happened to his son.  When the Fox host would helpfully offer him a chance to take a direct hit at the president, Charlie Woods said, oh no no no, he didn't want to politicize his grief.  Yet, that was just what he was doing.

And Fox News hasn't stopped. Yesterday on his Sunday show, Chris Wallace -- about as close as Fox News gets to a real journalist, which means "not close" -- started with interview with Obama campaign chief David Axelrod by grilling him on Benghazi for five minutes.  It continues today -- whenever the idiots on Fox and Friends took a break from their phony Romney optimism, they would lurch into some kind of Benghazi rant or other.

The naked politicization of national tragedy has been the GOP's stock-in-trade since before 9/11/01, which Junior Bush and Cheney used to drive the Stupid War in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and all manner of insane power-grabbing by that despicable regime. The same people are driving this last desperate attempt by the Romney campaign to turn around their doomed prospects.  It's way past time to resign these bastards to the dustbin of history where they belong.




Saturday, November 03, 2012

Biden Rocks; America Wins

You know, it's not like I haven't tried to get this thing going again.  For instance, here is a piece of an abandoned post back in September:

"You say I got no feelings
This is a good way to deal with it."
                            -- "Lipstick Vogue", Elvis Costello 
I had this big plan to get back in the saddle and ride this thing [the blog, that is] in the run-up to the November elections.  I was going to the Elvis Costello show at the lakefront last Saturday [Sept 15th] anyway and thought I would work out some of the writing kinks from this blog's summer-long dormancy (but what a summer it was...) by doing a review of one of my all-time favorite artists in Milwaukee in a brand-new venue on a spectacular late-summer night.
But then, the unexpected happened. Elvis Costello and the Imposters came out and laid an egg.  He mailed it in.  Rushed and indifferent, it was as if he couldn't get off the stage and out of town fast enough.  Indeed, an off night with Costello -- like Springsteen, with his non-E Street Band on Election Night 1992, but not as bad -- is better than anyone else at their best, but, still. This is the guy, after all, who played Milwaukee with only keyboardist extraordinaire Steve Nieve 10 or so years ago and came out for four encores, including a brilliant acepella off-the-mic version of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" that is still reverberating off the walls of the Riverside. That was an engaged, dynamic evening of some of the best songs ever written.  
This one had some of the same songs, but none of the magic. It's as if he looked out at the half-empty seats of the instant white-elephant BMO Harris Pavilion (hard to tell what non-Summerfest acts they thought they could fill that with on a regular basis) and decided to, I don't know, do those things that rock stars do when they've landed in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It seemed like the bus was already warmed up and ready to go as the show started, running through 4 of his best known songs in the first 10 minutes...
By the time I wrote this, I was leading up to the fact that President Obama filled the venue exactly one week later. So I guess there might be some use for that place after all...

See? Aren't you sorry you missed all this great writing?

I do somewhat regret not putting my (literally) two cents in this year on important post-recall issues like, for instance, the Republican presidential primaries.   Sometimes I think that particular conglomeration of losers existed only for my personal entertainment; whether it was Michelle Bachmann peculiar form of alien channeling, Rick Santorum's whiny hysterics, Newt Gingrich's snootily, elitist, why-are-you-so-stupid assuredness, etc.  It was an occasionally amusing clown show, unless you considered how close one of them was to being the nominee of a major party.

Alas, we are not there, but here: 3 days before Election Day, with a rich, pampered elitist in magic underpants, Mitt Romney, trying to fool the American people into electing him.  And, just yesterday, I found myself in Beloit, helping the Obama campaign manage the press section gathered to hear Vice President Joe Biden at a middle school there.  An overflow crowd was treated to a great speech by Biden, who is one of the president's best assets.

Obama is blessed (if there is such a thing) with the valuable support of at least three extraordinarily talented veterans of a political generation almost -- but not quite -- past.  Each finding their niche, all have provided invaluable support for his steady governance, and, yes, his campaign.  His biggest star and the best hire by far is Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State.  She has expertly helped him transition our nation away from the belligerence of the internationally-destructive Junior Bush era towards a more positive, productive foreign policy.  She has dealt with crisis with a steady hand, kicked ass where she had to, and put us on an even keel with a forgiving world.

Another veteran of the same kind of slash-and-burn politics that have been used against him every day of his presidency is, of course, Bill Clinton. The former president, already settling into his role as the best ex-president ever (his humanitarian efforts in Haiti and the Clinton Global Initiative, to name just a couple, while the still-embarrassing Junior Bush gives closed seminars to the rich about how to send their money offshore to the Cayman Islands), has become Obama's best campaign surrogate. His incredibly effective Democratic convention speech wasn't a surprise to anyone who saw him here in Milwaukee in the closing days of the ill-fated Walker recall election (see that picture over there).  Speaking without notes that day, Clinton did an incredible riff on the need for politicians to work together to solve problems, rather than the kind of drop-the-bomb strong-arm tactics of the Walker Republicans.  At the convention and since, Clinton has been the most effective spokesperson for the saner political world that will never occur with the current GOP.  But, if they ever come to their senses, we'll be there.

But Joe Biden may, in the long run, be more integral to the success of the Obama presidency than anyone else. He has been in the room during every significant decision, from health care to Osama, adding heft and a wealth of Washington experience to the mix.  In his debate with Wisconsin's favorite twerp Paul Ryan, he proved himself to be a strong and no-bullshit advocate for America in general and the Obama administration in particular. Unsafe, out of the talk-radio/Fox News cocoon, the clueless Ryan looked like he wanted to crawl back into the dark hole from whence he came.  And Biden put him there.

In Beloit, Biden gave the best political speech I've ever seen in person -- as effective as Clinton, but not as subtle.  Focusing on Milwaukee Mayor and recall hero Tom Barrett standing in the front row (who yelled at me for letting the blog go dormant; ergo, my fairly urgent effort to get something out today), Biden frequently started his points with "Tom, you know when governments work together..." and the like.  There were lots of jokes and anecdotes about his mother saying "Joey" this and "Joey" that (OK, maybe that was a bit much).  At his best, he took apart the Romney/Ryan lies about Jeeps in China and other ridiculous fantasies of the Far Right with humor, effectiveness and truth.

Dare I say -- it looks good as I hit the "publish" button on Saturday night. States like Ohio and Wisconsin are going to come through and send Romney back to his career, making millions raping and pillaging the vulnerable businesses he pretends to care about.  Hopefully, Obama and Biden will bring along a continued Democratic Senate and, if we are very lucky and if lightening strikes and we win the lottery, throw the House Republicans out on their sorry ears.  As Bill Maher said on his show last night, "If it's Obama, America wins. If it's Romney, comedy wins."  As much as I like to laugh, I'll take a victory for America any time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Recall That Wasn't -- Part 1

There isn't a whole lot funny about the way the Recall campaign turned out, but one thing is the hilarious attempt by Scott Walker to strike a bipartisan, can't-we-all-get-along pose. Mr. Drop-the Bomb, Mr. Divide-and-Conquer, Mr. Bipartisanship-Is-Not-So-Good now wants you to believe he can pull people together to work for the good of the state.  The radical Republican party that once put out arrest warrants for its opponents somehow managed to get most of the multi-abused Democrats to show up at the governor's mansion on Tuesday to sip suds and chew brats.  Hey, no hard feelings, right?

Wrong, assholes. Walker and the Republicans remind me of the worst that prosecutors want to imagine about my domestic violence clients:  Historically abusive man [GOP] goes too far one night [dropping "bombs"; ignoring open meeting laws; moving votes in the middle of the night, etc.]. This compels his usually overly-patient partner [Democrats] to call the cops and have him arrested [recalled].  Man is released within hours and lawyers-up with the best representation money can buy [Michael Best, et al].  Although ordered to have no contact, a war of words escalates, with the man's family and friends loudly taking his side [talk radio, Fox "News", secretly-funded attack ads]. The character of the abused partner is disparaged (crazy bitch!) [crazy, dirty hippie protester; union thug] and clueless friends of the perp decide it's no big deal and wish it all away [Journal Sentinel].

But the DA thinks they have a case and proceed to trial [recall petitions produce recall elections].  On the day of trial, the victim fails to show up to avenge her injury [57% turn-out].  Relieved man, knowing he dodged a bullet, buys her flowers and takes her out to a nice dinner [beer, brats and bullshit], pronouncing how he's a Changed Man and That will never happen again.  Until it does, and worse [starting in January, if the Senate flips back].

Let's begin our postmortem of the recall efforts by proclaiming what nobody in what passes for a mainstream media in this state will admit: the flipping of the Senate to the Democrats, however brief, through two hard-fought recall cycles last year and this, is huge. The Democratic majority in the Senate for the remainder of this year will prevent any more bad shit that the radical Republicans had planned if they won all the recall races last week.  You just know, if that had happened, they would have called a special session, like, yesterday to jam more ALEC/Koch/Bradley-generated crap through their obedient caucuses. As it is, the petty, power-clutching Republicans won't even allow the Senate to convene to organize under the new leadership the Dems won last Tuesday.  In this poisonous, tyrannical environment, nothing coming out of the national-joke Wisconsin legislature for the remainder of this year is a very good thing.  As much as the increasingly right-wing Journal Sentinel likes to berate the recall process as "a waste of time and money", the Senate recalls have resulted (for now) in the end of unchecked Republican power in Madison.  Taking the Senate back through the recall process was not "a waste of time"; it was a monumental, historic and very useful accomplishment.

As for the Recall Walker effort, there are a lot of reasons it met with such disastrous results. Most of them, sad to say, lie right at the feet of the recall organizers and the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

There is only one question that should have been asked as the one-year anniversary of Walker's sad ascendance approached -- are we sure we are going to win this thing?  If the answer from the goddamn consultants (more about them later) was "we don't know" or anything less than a resounding YES, they had no business starting the process of circulating the petitions.  I'm guessing there was quite a conflict between the Wise Men in the DNC offices and the enraged cheeseheads here.  The national party showed from the beginning that they had no stomach for this fight; not because they won't fight, but because they could see this result coming, and probably advised the locals to skip it.

Perhaps spurred more by passion than reason (albeit very valid emotions and many very good reasons), the Wisconsinites surged ahead anyway.  It may well be that they had some polling way back then indicating high Walker negatives and a possible win.  But they should have been able to see the Citizens United fueled, talk-radio enabled, Journal Sentinel encouraged shitstorm coming.  And, if they didn't have a plan and a candidate that they knew would meet every challenge presented by a win-at-all-costs governor with no morals or scruples and access to more money than god, the state party leadership should have spiked it and focus on taking back the Senate -- which they accomplished anyway, almost as an afterthought and despite themselves.  That might not have stopped an independent movement to recall the most radical, destructive governor in Wisconsin history, but some damage to the party brand might have been avoided.

OK, so maybe the leadership figured they could not just leave all those people who took to the streets in Madison last year and the millions across the state that have felt the sting of the radical Republican agenda hanging.  Perhaps they felt they needed to follow through on the spontaneous outcry from February 2011 to try to recall Walker, win or lose.  Fine. Once in, though, the recall leaders and the party proved sadly inept.

There was an inkling of much they had their heads up their ass early.  I have been told by people who know these sorts of things that the party leadership went "on bended knee" to try to convince their preferred candidate to run against Walker.  Yes, it was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin. No, it wasn't Russ Feingold.  Apparently, everyone's first choice to take back the governor's chair was...Herb Kohl.  Now, I love me some Herb Kohl.  He has represented progressive Wisconsin effectively for 24 years in Washington and is a sweetheart of a guy.  But, politically, he's done.  At 77, Kohl is hardly the vigorous candidate we would need to go against the Walker machine.  If he wanted to do us all a favor, Kohl would have just run again for his senate seats and spare the indignity of Wisconsin being represented by both rodeo clown Ron Johnson and, possibly and ominously, Eric Hovde.

The find-a-candidate miscalculations didn't stop there.  I was told back in December by one of the prime movers of the recall movement that the candidate would be -- no doubt about it -- Kathleen Falk.  I also like and respect what I know about Falk.  In fact, her campaign set up phone calls with various political bloggers back in January or so, and I had a very interesting conversation with her.  It turned out we had a lot in common as far as law schools, public-interest lawyering, etc.  Her fire-in-the-belly and enthusiasm for the mission to oust Walker was palpable and she turned out to be a much better candidate than I expected.

After that conversation with Falk, I held off on putting up a post titled "Tom Barrett for Governor" long before he got into the race.  At the time I was writing that post in my head (where so many posts go to die), the Falk campaign had just come out with its declaration that, if she won, she would veto any budget bill that did not have the re-institution of collective bargaining rights for public employees in it.  It was foolish for the unions to insist on that kind of promise and foolish for Falk to agree to it.  The promise fed right into the right-wing lie that the recall effort was all about the unions (which it wasn't) and made her look like a puppet (which she wasn't).

Eventually, Barrett jumped in and he and Falk actually waged a fairly positive campaign against each other while keeping the focus on the need to dump the radical Walker regime.  In the primary, Barrett beat Falk soundly -- even in Dane County -- the former rivals joined forces, and it was left to Barrett face Walker and try to save the state.  It was not to be, and I'm unaware of anyone claiming Falk would have done any better.  If anyone is saying that, they're crazy.

Barrett may have got thumped anyway and hindsight is 20/20, but there were many bad choices made by the goddamn consultants running the campaign after the primary that may have made a difference.

More about that in Part 2.