Media Bias was on full display last week in reaction to news coming out of Wisconsin. Reporters’ assumptions that conservative politicians are cheating the system led them to report significant factual errors regarding Gov. Scott Walker and a “criminal scheme.” In reality, failed legal arguments were being publicly exposed for the first time as a federal judge forced prosecutors to attempt to damage Walker in the public eye when they could not in court in this once secret conservative witch hunt. The media’s coverage of Scott Walker reveals egregious bias and their blatant disregard for the facts.
Let’s walk through some of this false reporting.
A Google search for “Scott Walker” reveals it is hard to tell what reporters were actually publishing in the minutes following the release of the John Doe Documents. Reporters raced to proclaim their knowledge of what was taking place in Wisconsin, but few captured the whole story or put it in a truthful, accurate context. Since the first wave of stories, reporters have updated their reports numerous times as readers and editors pointed out significant errors. Thankfully, cached versions of some of the stories were saved, so it is possible to go back and look at the errors they made. Their changes or updates are basically admissions of error.
At the national publication Politico, James Hohmann quickly posted a short blog post, proclaiming in his headline, “Prosecutors: Scott Walker part of ‘criminal scheme.’” His first paragraph initially read:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday, The Associated Press and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. (words underlined were later removed)
Now it is updated to state,
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for Republicans trying to beat back efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday. (changed words in bold)
Hohmann initially left out the key fact the Walker e-mail to Karl Rove was in May 2011 and State Senators were the only ones under recall at that time. Since Walker was not under recall in May 2011, he was not contacting Karl Rove “in response” to efforts to recall him. Walker’s recall began in November 2011. Politico’s initial characterization was simply not true.
But the New York Times took the bias a few steps further. Monica Davey and Nicholas Confessore’s June 19 headline read “Prosecutors in Wisconsin Say Gov. Scott Walker Had Central Role in Fund-Raising Scheme.” It began:
Prosecutors in Wisconsin assert that Gov. Scott Walker placed himself in the middle of an elaborate effort to illegally coordinate fund-raising between his campaign and numerous conservative groups during efforts to recall him two years ago, according to records of their investigation unsealed on Thursday.
The allegations by five county district attorneys, released as part of a federal lawsuit over the investigation into Mr. Walker, his aides and the conservative groups, suggest that Mr. Walker’s campaign expressly coordinated with the outside groups, including Wisconsin Club for Growth, to the point that campaign advisers also controlled some of the groups."(words underlined were later removed)
However, now it reads:
"Prosecutors in Wisconsin assert that Gov. Scott Walker was part of an elaborate effort to illegally coordinate fund-raising and spending between his campaign and conservative groups during efforts to recall him and several state senators two years ago, according to court filings unsealed Thursday."
The allegations by five county district attorneys, released as part of a federal lawsuit over the investigation into Mr. Walker, suggest that some of the governor’s top campaign aides directed the political spending of the outside groups, most of them nonprofits, and in effect controlled some of them." (changed words in bold)
First of all, Walker did not “place himself in the middle” of an effort to illegally coordinate, so the authors changed it to say he was part of an effort, which is still misleading. Second, as noted above the e-mail to Rove wasn’t sent when Walker was being recalled. Third, the authors initially said the Walker campaign expressly coordinated with outside groups and then changed it to his aides directed political spending. The authors purposely used the word express, even though there was no express advocacy involved and had to correct their error as to who was doing it.
In the world of campaign finance, there is a huge legal difference between general issue advocacy and express advocacy. By getting it wrong, the New York Times made up allegations which were untrue and factually incorrect.
The original version of this story incorrectly described the nature of a federal appeals court ruling on a lawsuit seeking to block a state investigation into Scott Walker’s fundraising. It also incorrectly described the decisions by courts that have ruled on the issue of whether it is illegal for a candidate to coordinate with outside groups engaged only in issue advocacy.
His “correction” unsurprisingly downplays his errors. Scherer initially said “a federal appeals court recently overturned Randa’s ruling, leaving the law very much in doubt.” That is completely false and undercuts the true narrative that the investigation is basically dead since two judges have ruled the prosecutors don’t have the evidence a crime has been committed to continue a John Doe investigation. Judge Randa’s ruling was not overturned. Furthermore, the law is not “very much in doubt.”
Scherer’s second error relates to him initially stating, “[a] number of judges in a number of courts, both state and federal, have yet to agree on whether or not the specific facts of coordination in this case amount to crime.” Again, two judges rejected the prosecutors’ legal arguments that there was coordination to investigate.
The constant throughout all of these pieces was a complete disregard for determining the facts before writing about the documents. It wasn’t just these three authors either. Within the first hours of the documents being released, the internet was blowing up with similar false information.
These reporters engaged in embarrassing journalism. They took the prosecutors narrative and the hopes of the Left and ran with a storyline aimed at destroying Scott Walker. When presented with the facts, many reporters covered their tracks and updated their stories but kept the same misleading headlines and narratives that were based on incomplete information. The media’s blatant disregard for the facts should make you question what else are they getting wrong.
Matt Batzel is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin and the National Executive Director for American Majority, Inc.