The Media’s Dilemma in Wisconsin

Posted on February 20, 2011


It’s an age old mainstream media dilemma. How to make a gigantic left of center protest look as if it’s balanced by a paltry and manipulated group of right wingers holding another viewpoint [or in media parlance, “the opposing view”]. They’ve had about sixty years to get good at it, but they’ve never really improved. The bs is still as cheesy and obvious as it was in the days when the New York Times was doctoring photos of anti war demonstrations to make them seem counterbalanced by the pathetic number of war supporting anti-demonstrators.

Reuter’s had to follow a pro-Union demonstrator into a bar, the only place where tea partiers seemed to have anywhere near the numbers as their labor counterparts. The Reuter’s article is headlined: “In Madison Two Sides in Bitter Fight Agree Over Beers”

When the two sides in Wisconsin’s bitter battle over the future of the state’s unionized public employees converged on the Capitol on Saturday for dueling rallies, the fear was trouble would break out.

It’s only later in the article that we discover that one side of this fight numbers nearly sixty thousand (a conservative estimate), while the other “side” numbers less than five thousand. That’s some divided nation. 92% of the demonstrators in Madison were cheering on the unions. While 8% got bussed in, screamed their little heads off, and then apparently knocked off for a beer. It is after all the weekend.

Despite the great disparity in numbers, the opinions were given equal weight by the article:

Begolli said he agreed with the bill’s supporters that, in the state’s current budget crisis, public employees can help by paying more for their health care and retirement benefits. But he says the part of Walker’s bill curtailing collective bargaining by unionized state employees is “not about fiscal issues. It’s an attack on unions.”

Dave Andera, a 59-year old investment adviser from Milwaukee, has no problem with that. He thinks public workers should not be unionized and believes Walker is following in the progressive footsteps of the state’s great Robert La Follette by facing down organized labor.

That being said, the Reuters article may have represented some of the better reportage: here’s an LA Times article that doesn’t even bother to note that the pro-union demonstrators outnumbered anti-union demonstrators by 13 or so to one. The same dynamic is visible in this Wall Street Journal article, which goes beyond the call of duty in making the demonstrations seem of equal size and intensity.

I don’t totally vouch for the photos below, but the highlighting does seem to make a lot of sense, given that every report mentions that the groups were kept segregated, and that there were at least 30,000 pro-union demonstrators on Friday.

You’d think that media outlets would be embarrassed about this kind of thing by now. Or at least would have found a better way to hide the fact that they’re balancing the opinion of a few people with a vast majority who have differing views, and making them seem to be on equal footing. But be it McCarthyism, war or  health care, they just keep on doing it! It’s a disease, like alcoholism.

Not to get into the specifics of this fight, which has been co-opted six ways from Sunday by institutional unions, politicians and the Obama administration, and is a better barometer of what is wrong with our nation’s unions, rather than what’s worth saving about them. While it’s a view shared by many, in one form or another–that institutional unions are corrupt and incapable of fighting for workers in non-union jobs, but that unions are still a good idea and perhaps the nation’s salvation–the media doesn’t do threesomes.