The Journal Sentinel’s Missing Endorsement

Journal Communications Building Milwaukee Wisconsin
Photo by Royalbroil (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Having opted out of explicit political endorsements two years ago, preferring to err on the side of some newfangled neutrality (as if such were possible), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Board has essentially censored itself. This limiting of its critical intelligence leads to some strenuous maneuvering to avoid any appearance of “express advocacy.” What the editors hold up as a virtue (journalistic objectivity) in practice becomes a failure of journalistic responsibility: to weigh the facts and moral attributes and come to a public conclusion. If the state or the feds or some well-heeled buyer of advertising asked the Journal Sentinel to keep quiet about some major issue affecting Wisconsin, would the editors go along? I doubt it.

After reading the latest non-endorsement editorial a number of times I am left with this impression: the newspaper does not offer us any reason to vote for either candidate. Neither one is politically right or wrong. Instead, we are given “what if” scenarios on the possible styles and “challenges” for both politicians. Burke, it seems to me, comes out worse in a back-handed way.

Gov. Walker we learn has been both “refreshing” and “sincere” in his decisive decision-making, if somewhat misguided, but we still have no idea whether or not his sincere decisions have earned him another four-year term in Madison. If Walker is reelected, we are told to “brace ourselves” because more regressive/conservative legislation will be likely. Thanks for the warning, dear editors, but what would be far more bracing and helpful is the state’s largest newspaper sticking its neck out to possibly prevent the election of a man likely to sign such legislation, or for that newspaper to at least be honest about supporting him.

Mary Burke, should she win, will be, the editors say, most likely in over her head because she has never been governor before and has no “statewide experience.” She lacks (like, we’re told, President Obama) the necessary political gumption and will need to acquire the instincts to dodge “the vipers” in the Capitol and the toughness to grind them “beneath the heel of her boot.” Can an inexperienced governor, who just happens to be a woman, stand up to such alpha males as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, “two of the best politicians in the state” ? The Editorial Board is “skeptical” about Burke’s chances against these fine political specimens, who, by the way, are deplored in print the very next day by the same Editorial Board for “vindictive politics” related to the GAB .

The Journal Sentinel editorials on the election leading up to the Board’s “final thoughts” were not, as I read them, in Gov. Walker’s favor, especially the editorial on Walker’s signature piece of legislation: Act 10.  Here’s a sample:

“The legislation was the evil twin of cuts in aid to municipalities and school districts. Cities, towns and schools were expected to recoup the lost dollars by unilaterally changing the rules to require bigger payments for benefits and pensions from public workers and other non-negotiated changes . . . Walker stirred up a whirlwind that served Republican partisans but not the state. It’s too bad Walker cannot step into our time machine and go back to that day in December four years ago. Wisconsin would be better for it if he could.”

One can argue, of course, that had Scott Walker not been elected governor in the first place, Wisconsin would be even better off. We’d have more public transportation (trains), more access to federal health care funding, better-funded schools, a stronger economy, less threat of a huge strip mine, a more effective DNR, more support for a minimum wage, abortion rights, gay marriage and clean energy. The JS Editorial Board did address the need for better environmental, transportation and energy policies going forward. But having endorsed Walker when he first ran for governor, and supporting him in the recall election, it would be instructive for the entire state to know before election day whether or not the newspaper now regrets those decisions and why.

The Journal Sentinel’s self-censoring cloak of objectivity is a defensive reaction to claims of political bias from both sides, but especially conservatives who have grown to illogically distrust mainstream media reporting, except for AM radio, Fox News and the Wall St. Journal. Two years ago, JS Editorial Page Editor David Haynes tried to justify why endorsing candidates is too much of a burden on its readers:

“In their minds, the endorsements color everything else we do, no matter how often we criticize the folks we recommend. To these readers, our mission is suspect; and some of them confuse our political news coverage with our editorial recommendations.

This loss of credibility is a high price to pay to conjure a ghost of newspapering past that we have come to believe is of little value today.”

Sorry, David, but this remains nothing short of a surrender to stupidity and paranoia. The Journal Sentinel loses far more journalistic “credibility” by withholding judgment in the most critical elections. A newspaper is not some neutral social media platform, a mere “marketplace of ideas.” All ideas, as we know, are not equal. Newspapers and other forms of journalistic media exist to reveal the truth, both of fact and analysis of that fact; they are educational institutions meant to challenge readers, not to spare them from shock and anger. Why does the paper not then cease all editorial writing? I’d argue that if democracy and newspapers, print or digitized, are not obsolete, neither is taking a well-considered stand on who exactly should be representing the people of the state and nation.

Postscript: And here’s why not clearly endorsing a candidate sows confusion as well as “scathing criticism”, courtesy of the Journal Sentinel itself.

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