Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Private Editor, No. 3: A Study in Contrasts

Wisconsin Assembly Passes Anti-Union Bill (NYT February 26, 2011) Excerpts

Over shouts of protest from Democrats, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Assembly passed a bill in the early morning hours Friday that would strip state employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. But there was no sign that a stalemate over the proposal would end, as Democrats in the Senate remained out of the state after fleeing to prevent their own vote on the proposal. The 51-to-17 vote just after at 1 a.m. drew boos and shouts of “Shame! Shame!” from Democrats who said that leaders had abruptly cut off debate and prevented more than a quarter of the legislators from casting votes… Democrats said the early-morning vote showed that Republicans had little interest in negotiating. They “rushed a vote in seconds, cheating Democratic representatives of the opportunity to vote against this horrible legislation” …“Then they fled the chamber surrounded by armed law enforcement agents.” Republicans said the Assembly debated the bill long enough during a three-day Democratic filibuster. Mr. Walker said in a statement, “The 14 Senate Democrats need to come home and do their jobs, just like the Assembly Democrats did.”

Final Votes in Congress Cap Battle on Health Bill (NYT March 25, 2010) Excerpts

Congress on Thursday gave final approval to a package of changes to the Democrats’ sweeping health care overhaul, capping a bitter partisan battle over the most far-reaching social legislation in nearly half a century…The Senate voted after running through an obstacle course of Republican amendments and procedural objections, which kept lawmakers working through Wednesday night until 3:30 a.m. Thursday…Republicans, raising procedural challenges, identified small flaws that struck out two minor provisions. Those changes forced the bill to be sent back to the House one more time…The Senate approved the measure shortly after 2 p.m. Senators cast their votes standing individually at their desks, a ceremonial gesture reserved for historic occasions….The vote came after Senate Democrats defeated more than 40 Republican amendments intended to delay or derail the legislation…Exuberant Democrats celebrated the vote in the corridors of the Capitol. Republicans, reacting somberly, said they would carry their opposition to the bill into the fall campaign….In a floor speech, the House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, derided the legislation as “a sloppy mess that the majority of the American people believe should be repealed and replaced.”

I find these two accounts a study in contrasts.

The Wisconsin account draws a picture of beleaguered Democrats denied their right to cast votes (symbolic given their small numbers) after the Republicans abruptly cut off debate (after a three –day filibuster, no less.) and rushed a vote in seconds. The cowardly Republicans then fled the chamber (unlike the heroic Democrat senators who fled the state) protected by armed guards. The article simply states that the Democrat senators fled the state “to avoid a vote” without commenting on the unusual anti-democratic nature of such an action, other than to report the Governor’s call for them to return and do their jobs.

The account of the passage of the “historic” health care legislation shows House and Senate democrats fulfilling a historic mission navigating the “obstacle course” of minor Republican amendments and procedural objections designed to delay or derail the legislation. The article admits the historic nature of the legislation (Senators standing in a gesture “reserved for historic occasions”) without noting the questionable procedural gyrations used to pass it using budget reconciliation. The House Republican leader’s characterization of the legislation as “a sloppy mess” is reserved for the end of the piece.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Private Editor No. 1: Wisconsin Demonstrations

I get my news from a limited number of sources. I read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the weekly edition of the Economist. I do not have time for anything else. I do not watch TV news with the exception of The Panel on Fox News.

I intend to use this series to report on news items that I personally regard as slanted or biased. I will not engage in any analysis. I’ll just report the facts.

Today’s NYT lead article “Wisconsin Leads Way as Workers Fight State Cuts” gives a one-sided picture of the Wisconsin demonstrations. The article consistently describes the protesters as “under assault” and “under attack” by Republican governors, who are “taking aim not only at union wages but at union power.” Wisconsin is described as a state not facing serious budget problems. The governor is acting ideologically rather than out of fiscal concerns. The protests are not orchestrated but “erupt” and parallel democracy demonstrations in the Middle East. The reporters ask: “Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?” There is no mention of coordination by the Democrat party; all quotes are from union officials, who are described as running the show. The article twice notes that the Tea Party is organizing its activists to “cut the power of unions” in a number of states and informs readers that the Tea Party turned out 300 to 500 counter demonstrations in Columbus, Ohio.

The Private Editor: The World According to the NYT No. 2: The Secretive Koch Brothers

The New York Times employs a public editor to police its articles. I have found this self policing (usually on Sundays) by two different public editors lacking to say the least. I have therefore appointed myself to the post of “private editor,” to comment on pieces that I find slanted or biased. This is my second report.

In today’s NYT, page-one readers are directed to the page A17 article: “Billionaire Backers” about the brothers, Charles and David Koch, who are described as “leading the fight against unions,” who, according to a Democrat representative, are “proof of the expanding role played by nonprofit groups with murky ties to wealthy corporate executives as they push a decidedly conservative agenda.”

The article points out that the Koch brothers and their employees contributed $2 million in the last election cycle and that their Americans for Prosperity, with 70,000 donors, has a budget of $40 million.

The account quotes the “well-funded” Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, that the cuts “represent the start of a much-needed nationwide move to slash public-sector union benefits,” but goes on to add that he did not mention that his non-profit group “was created and financed in part by the secretive Koch brothers.”

The article quotes the president of Common Cause: “It is not that these folks don’t have a right to participate in politics. But they are moving democracy into the control of more wealthy corporate hands.” Phillips rejoinder is found near the end: “For the last two decades, government unions have used their power to drive pensions and benefits and salaries well beyond anything that can be sustained. We are just trying to change that.”

My objections to the article:

First, the Americans for Prosperity speak quite openly about their goals and activities in Wisconsin, contrary to the article’s subliminal message imparted by the adjectives “secretive” and “murky.” There is a clear statement that the Koch brothers have no direct financial interest in the outcome.

Second, the political contributions of the Koch brothers and employees ($2 million) and of the Americans for Prosperity (a $40 million budget) are thrown out as exceptionally large numbers without a frame of reference (The AFSCME made political contributions of $20 million, and organized labor combined contributed $400 million).

Third, only in the last lines are readers told begrudgingly by the authors: “Just as unions organize to fight for their priorities, conservatives are entitled to a voice of their own.”

The media slant in this article is quite subtle. It imparts the message that sinister billionaires are calling the shots behind the scenes with political contributions that overwhelm good people who stand on the side of what is right.