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Surprised by Solidarity in Wisconsin: Media erred in assuming public shared their distaste for unions

April 26, 2011

(This article is re-posted from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.)

One of the early assumptions in media coverage of the Wisconsin protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed anti-labor legislation was that the public wouldn’t sympathize with “overpaid” public-sector workers. But soon enough, reality intervened.

The New York Times’ Matt Bai (2/27/11) recommended that “taking the fight to the unions is a good way to bolster your credentials as a gutsy reformer with voters who have been losing faith for years in public schools and government bureaucracies.”

In the March 7 Time, Amanda Ripley wrote that hating public workers is a historical fact: “Since the beginning, Americans have resented government workers’ asking for money. The distrust ebbs and flows, but the less financial security we have, the angrier we get.”

And CBS’s Jim Axelrod (2/18/11) declared, “Unions don’t have any sort of upper hand when it comes to public opinion these days.”

But those assumptions took a hit when a Gallup Poll, reported on the front page of USA Today (2/23/11), found a surprising tilt in public opinion:

Americans strongly oppose laws taking away the collective bargaining power of public employee unions, according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll. The poll found 61 percent would oppose a law in their state similar to such a proposal in Wisconsin, compared with 33 percent who would favor such a law.

That wasn’t all. When Gallup asked about “reducing pay or benefits the state provides for government workers,” 53 percent opposed such cuts. A New York Times poll (3/1/11) further undermined the media narrative on public workers: 60 percent of those polled opposed stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights; 56 percent opposed cutting pay or benefits of those workers in the name of deficit reduction.

So what to make of this disconnect between pundits and polls? Self-professed “union guy” Bill O’Reilly at Fox News Channel offered one solution: Union households shouldn’t be polled. As he explained (3/1/11):

The New York Times headlines today reads, “Majority in Poll Back Employees in Public Sector.” But the poll is misleading because 20 percent of the responds say they are from union households. If you subtract them, those who favor cutting benefits win the poll. Wow, New York Times.

In case it wasn’t clear, by “subtract them” he means exactly that—union households shouldn’t count in polls of the American public. Or, as he put it, “I’m just taking it out of the mix.” The logic here is hard to parse: Should the elderly be excluded from polls on Social Security? Or people of color left out of surveys on civil rights laws?

Most corporate media reporters and pundits presumably wouldn’t agree with O’Reilly’s novel idea about how to “fix” the “problem” with public opinion. But they act as if they do: Media discussion about workers’ rights rarely includes much input from workers and their advocates. On ABC’s This Week (1/20/11), a roundtable debate about Wisconsin and budgets featured a right-wing Republican politician, right-wing pundit George Will and the right-leaning ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl—with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile on the other side. The ABC website headline on the panel was actually “Unions vs. Tea Party.”

In the heat of the Wisconsin debate, labor leaders sent out word that none of the Sunday morning talk shows had booked a guest from a labor union; shortly thereafter, NBC’s Meet the Press added Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO to its February 27 panel discussion (Huffington Post, 2/24/11).

In Madison, a Numbers Game

The Wisconsin story, we were often told, comes down to numbers: a giant multi-billion dollar budget deficit and a Republican governor trying to fix it. But does it add up?

Careful readers may have been confused by much of the reporting on the scale of the problem in Wisconsin. The current deficit was $30 million, though a “far greater shortfall of $1.5 billion is expected next year,” according to the Washington Post (2/19/11). The two-year projected deficit was even larger: $3.6 billion. But as Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy told CounterSpin (2/25/11–3/3/11), those figures, which came from Gov. Scott Walker’s office, represented funding requests from various state agencies—wish lists that were never likely to be granted unaltered.

Yet media coverage stressed that Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining was purely a fiscal move. It was “a key piece of his budget-cutting strategy” (Washington Post, 2/19/11), or “essential to help balance the budget” (New York Times, 2/19/11). On NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams announced (2/17/11) that “the state is broke,” so the governor “is proposing drastic cuts he says will save billions of dollars.” NBC reporter Kerry Sanders chimed in: “Walker says he will cut up to $3.6 billion from the budget, in large part by eliminating unions’ collective bargaining powers to negotiate wages and benefits.”

But would these cuts really reduce a “large part” of Wisconsin’s supposed $3 billion budget deficit? Not really—according to some estimates from Walker’s office, the health/pension cuts might save $300 million (USA Today, 2/23/11).

Some coverage suggested that anti-Walker protests really opposed fiscal responsibility, as when NBC reporter John Yang (2/18/11) claimed demonstrators were “denouncing Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to attack a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.” On ABC World News (2/17/11), Chris Bury explained that protesters were “raging at the governor’s plan to rein in a $3.6 billion budget deficit.”

Of course, the problem wasn’t that Walker was fixing the deficit. As many were pointing out, Wisconsin had faced a larger projected deficit in 2009 without resorting to such drastic measures (, 2/22/11). If anything, the protests were trying to argue that Walker’s plan wasn’t really about deficit-cutting at all—an argument made all the clearer with the late-night March 9 Republican ramming through of a bill containing only the non-fiscal changes Walker was pushing, like the attack on collective bargaining.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 11:36 am

    Nice piece Jeff. Good take on how the media’s echo chamber infect discourse and how it is often wrong. Kinda like the insistence that we are all enthralled by the weddings of royals.

  2. April 26, 2011 12:29 pm

    Yeah, the folks at FAIR do great work and it gives us a sense of how this struggle is being framed in the commercial news media.

  3. Jan permalink
    April 30, 2011 7:32 pm

    Great piece. Bet the republicans are squirming now. They just hate the good old fashioned truth….people want job security and a living wage. Too bad the press is so controlled by the Right wing. Sometimes I feel like a should be wearing a black arm band in memory of the truth that has been murdered by the republicans.

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