From the Capitol Dome: Media Malpractice in Madison

by Abe Sauer

The Capitol in Madison has become Kafkaesque. On Sunday, an order that the building be cleared by 4 p.m. brought hundreds (maybe thousands) flooding into the dome in the afternoon. A good many of these protesters had taken the measure that identified them as prepared to be arrested: ACLU’s phone number written on a body part, in ink.

But then, nothing happened. The night passed. Some were lulled into believing the order had come and gone, and left in the morning, confident they would be allowed entry later. This included Teaching Assistants’ Association co-head Kevin Gibbons, with whom we spoke last week.


Capitol officials have created a bit of a paradoxical disaster for themselves. After failing to enforce the clear-out order Sunday night, the doors were locked Monday morning. This is in all likelihood a direct violation of the state constitution. The authorities would have been more within the rule of the law to arrest 800 people Sunday night than to lock out 200 people Monday morning. But the doors remained locked all day. Defending Wisconsin has already filed a lawsuit.

Rumors of barricades have been greatly exaggerated, with one flimsy Photo-with-Mall-Santa nylon strap extended on one side of the crowd, ostensibly to create a space for staffers to enter. It is ignored by everyone. The mix of protesters and sheriff’s deputies and Madison police at the doors remains extremely civil, with many standing on the steps next to the officers and leading chants, speeches, what have you.

During the day, when most people are at work, the crowd is more heavily made up of students and a certain strain of “professional” Madison protester. But after about 4 p.m., it swells by hundreds, with teachers, trades workers, cops and other supporters.

If anything, the police don’t know anything more than the protesters do. Yesterday, Monday afternoon, I was told that I needed Monday’s press credential pass (color coded by day) to enter the capitol. When I asked where to get those credentials, the officer told me to go to room 235 Southwest. I asked the Ozaukee County deputy if he saw the ridiculousness of that process and he nodded his head: “Yeah. It doesn’t make any sense.” When I asked him who he’s getting orders from, he said he wasn’t sure. He thought it’s maybe the University of Wisconsin police, but it might also be the Capitol Police. Needless to say, he doesn’t know who’s in charge and he doesn’t actually know the rules for letting people in and out, except that I’m certainly not allowed in without the proper credentials. “What to do just comes over the radio,” he said.

Looking for another entrance, I ran into Jonathan Grieser, rector of the capitol square’s Grace Episcopal Church. His face was awfully ruddy, making him look especially… rectorish. Father Grieser, in Madison just since 2009, described the political climate as “much different than I was used to.” He said that the church has been open to all protesters and on Saturday was jammed with at least 500 who came to pray and receive warmth. Of the goings-on, he said he is sympathetic and that “scripture is clear on the rights of human beings to a livelihood. It’s clear God is on the side of the oppressed and poor.” He added:”It is my responsibility to remind everyone of that.” A young woman came and introduced herself to Grieser; she was from the Interfaith Worker Justice advocacy group.

At the other side of the building, I met Dominic, a member of IATSE, the union of professional stagehands, motion picture technicians and allied crafts. He has been out here almost every day for two weeks. I asked if he saw the union shout-out during the Oscars on Sunday night. “No,” he said. “I was working.”

Yesterday, Larry Meade, human hot air machine and husband of UW-Madison law professor and pundit Ann Althouse (the Midwest’s Michelle Malkin), posted a video in which he accused the police department of a conspiracy and lambasted the current media organization landscape. In the video (which, in bizarro world, is shown every hour on Fox News), Meade gets in the face of the police and demands entry, claiming he isn’t media: “I’m private media.”

The irony of denying Althouse’s husband access to the capitol without official media credentials is that the credentialed media has done a pathetic job of covering the events. Outside Wisconsin’s own official news organs, the nationals’ approach to covering the protests borders on malpractice. When Paul Krugman is bothered to get into the Times CMS to post “a blog” comparing the job you’ve done in Wisconsin to the one you did in the buildup to the Iraq War, well, you’ve done a pretty bad job.

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.

One illustration of the heretofore respectable mainstream press’ complete abdication of its responsibility is The New York Times. While the Times has covered the protests, it has not done so with anything nearing its abilities.

On February 22, the Times ran a story: “Union Bonds in Wisconsin Begin to Fray.” The front-page piece was written by none other than A. G. Sulzberger himself, who managed to ask his driver to check the GPS to discern that his byline should be “Janesville.” The piece was so favorable to Walker that the Governor himself a day later said to a man he believed to be David Koch, “I don’t normally tell people to read the New York Times. But the front page of The New York Times has a great story… one of these unbelievable moments of true journalism… objective journalism.” This is the same Scott Walker who, in two successive days, Tweeted links to reporting done by a 22-year-old at the Heritage Foundation, which he assessed as “Gr8.”

But the frustrating part isn’t that the Times is having a Sulzberger take out an anti-union grudge under the guise of journalism.

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?

Yesterday, I personally got to see the media’s negligence in action, as a CNN crew ignored a large solidarity protest of police officers to instead wander to the edge of another small gathering and shoot from a distance. At about 5 p.m., a long line of protesters carrying “Deputies for Democracy” and “Cops for Labor” signs loudly made its way around the capitol. The CNN news crew literally did not even acknowledge the demonstrators as they marched past, American flag and all.

About 20 minutes later, the CNN crew meandered up toward the police line where a small group of protesters were peacefully facing the police guarding the doors. The CNN crew set up 25 feet away and shot, at best, three minutes of video, and then turned around and went back to their trucks, 200 yards away across the street, by all the other media trucks.

Later that night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper spent his time covering Charlie Sheen.

Walker will give his budget address today. The speech comes as the Republican leadership begins to tighten the screws on the protesters and anyone else that refuses to go along with this bill. Yesterday, Senate majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald sent out a memo declaring that not only would timesheets of any employee of a missing senator now need to be personally approved by him, but that “all copy machines access codes shall be deactivated for any Senator who is absent….”

Also, Republican Senators Lazich and Honadel introduced legislation to make prank phone calls illegal.

This is how this fight is more of less going to go from here on. The philosophical battle will still be represented by the occupation of the capitol, but the war will be won through a pitched battle of administrative memos, issue media, push polling and FOIA requests. I’ve already filed a few of those last myself. It’s going to be ugly. For instance, Sunday evening, protesters rallied when rumors circulated that moderate Republican Dave Schultz would vote against the bill. A more sober Monday saw Schultz possibly blackmailed back into voting yes.

Monday night, only about 100 to 130 demonstrators remained in the dome. Musician Jeff Burkhart was one, tweeting that he was inspired by a 60-year-old named Mildred who “decided to stay the night without a ride home, on a yoga mat.” Burkhart celebrated with bedding given him by the TAA.

One of those TAA members is Ashley Anderson, who told me around 11 p.m. that the dome was “mellow,” consisting of ISO members, some teachers from AFT, and then SEIU and AFSCME people. She added, “everyone is in the rotunda ground floor. The police are standing around really restricting other areas. And, yes, people are staying the night. They are quite determined. Most of the people here were the people who were ready to get arrested last night.” She then had a sleeping bag race around the rotunda. Anderson says that those who want to know what’s going on should follow her on Twitter.

She sent us a photo.

The freezing overnight temperatures did not keep everyone away. Tens of protesters hunkered down and spent the night on the concrete in temperatures that dipped down to 15 degrees.

By morning, the Capitol was again allowing in a limited number of people, according to some kind of a one-out one-in policy. The governor’s budget address is today at 4 p.m. CST, and nobody is yet sure who will be allowed in and who will not. But while the public is kept out there is one group that is certainly still being allowed in: Lobbyists.

Then, late this morning, Judge Daniel Moeser issued a restraining order forcing open the capitol for the time being.

For reliable coverage of goings-on, follow the #wiunion Twitter tag. For more focused reports, the Isthmus’s Daily Page feed and WisPolitics are both robust without being totally overwhelming. You can reach Abe Sauer at abesauer at gmail dot com.