When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker decided to use a battle over his state's budget deficit to go after public-sector workers, a lot of folks in the mainstream media thought this was a smart move. People are tired of "overpaid" government workers and their cushy benefits, according to conventional wisdom. And, after all, Walker had to do something. The state was "broke," the TV broadcasters told us.
Then came a news flash: workers weren't buying it--and were sticking together.
The Wisconsin Republican's gamble was that the public would swallow Walker's argument that teachers and public workers were the ones who needed to sacrifice in order to dig the state out of the hole caused by the massive recession. If you were reading the average newspaper, this made sense. USA Today told us that workers employed by governments make more in wages and benefits than workers at private companies. Most research says this simply isn't true, but it's a handy Republican talking point.
One New York Times writer explained 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." Time magazine told us that hating government workers is an entrenched American tradition. They even compared New Jersey's union-bashing Republican Gov. Chris Christie to--get this--Winston Churchill, someone who's just trying to tell us truths we don't want to hear.
So the storyline was set: Wisconsin's workers were braving the cold and filling the streets of Madison, but the rest of us simply couldn't relate to their fight.
Then reality intervened.
Some of the very same media outlets that had told us that Walker picked a smart fight started conducting polls asking Americans where they came down on the battle in Wisconsin. And wouldn't you know it, Americans are siding with Wisconsin's workers. Take away collective bargaining rights? Sixty-one percent of Americans don't want Walker's union-busting in their own states. Cutting the pay of state workers? Most say that's a bad idea.
Now, not everyone liked this news. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly couldn't believe the polls--and went so far as to suggest that shouldn't have included union households. Would O'Reilly "fix" polls about Social Security or Medicare by excluding senior citizens?
The truth is that the public often sees these things differently than the big media. Many journalists are disconnected from the concerns of working-class Americans. So a politician's attack on working people didn't feel like an attack on people like them--it sounded like a clever strategy.
That's no surprise. The corporate media's coverage and analysis of core economic issues, including spending priorities and global trade, rarely include working-class perspectives.
Even as Walker's union-busting politics have spread to Ohio, Michigan, and other states, labor unions had to mount some serious efforts just to get their side heard in the TV debates. Think about that--the biggest labor story in decades, and TV news outlets weren't interviewing labor unions?
This fight is far from over. Let's hope the nation's editors and TV news producers have learned a key civics lesson: Americans don't think workers should suffer for budget problems they didn't make. Just ask them.
Photo: Madison, Wisc., Feb. 18, 2011 (Teresa Albano/PW)