Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Plagiarism", And Other Walker Lies

long time ago -- about 23 years or so -- I tried my hand at drafting a policy paper for a political candidate.  Well, not really a policy paper, as much as a tri-fold pamphlet for handing out at events and such.

The candidate was Joe Czarnezki, then a state senator running for County Executive against Tom Ament in 1992, who famously ended up winning and was eventually driven into retirement by a hysterical Journal Sentinel campaign against some pension revisions, which begot Scott Walker, which begot you-know-what...but I digress.

I don't know how I hooked up with Joe, who has since pleasantly evolved into the very affable and competent Milwaukee County Clerk.  I see him on the first floor the Courthouse once in a while.  We last chatted about the excitement surrounding the same-sex marriage weekend, when Joe and his staff stepped up with extended hours to provide licenses to many loving, deserving couples.  I was at the Public Defender at the time of his campaign and I remember sitting around a table in a law office with about 8 other people, excited to be in a politician's brain trust or idea circle, or whatever they call it.  Somehow I got tasked with putting together the candidate's crime pamphlet.

I don't remember how I did it, but I do think I finished the damned thing.  I imagine I did the same thing I would do now if given that assignment -- look at how other campaigns have handled the issue and seeing if Joe's views were the same or different.  I sure didn't try to do it from scratch.  This was pre-user-friendly-internet -- Compuserve and AOL were around, but no search engines to speak of.  You could do cut-and-paste in Word Perfect (and I still do -- "legacy program", my ass) but not really of other people's stuff on web pages.

So I was on my own to try to find something -- anything -- that would show me how to write this kind of innocuous politi-speak.  The idea was to say something "tough on crime" (like there is somebody who isn't)  that doesn't create controversy.  Which is to say: nothing.  And, I don't remember anything about the finished product, but I'm sure I accomplished just that -- nothing.  And I probably did it by finding some other candidate's piece somewhere and using it -- copying, paraphrasing, using it, whatever.

And, in races from school board to President, that's what everybody did.  And does.  There is no controversy in the majority of political issues in American campaigns.  Everyone says the same things in pretty much the same way, but they still feel compelled to say it anyway.  There is no reason to recreate the wheel when you are talking about, oh, jobs or rural development or whatever.  So, at, say, the governor level, you get some dweeb on the lower level of your consultant's agency to throw something together. No big deal.

But when you are the increasingly-desperate Scott Walker campaign (or, more likely, a campaign-coordinating "think" tank) with a bunch of kids in the opposition research boiler room with time on their hands and directions to find anything -- anything! -- to "define" (read: defame) or embarrass the thus-far Teflon-coated Democratic candidate, the policy papers that no voter with any sense would bother to read get poured over, researched and googled.  When you can't find anything to criticize in the plans -- and these things are so innocuous and substance-free on purpose, they can't be challenged except on the grounds that "it put me to sleep" -- you look for errors of fact (always ironic for the fact-free Walkerites) or devious sources of ideas in the hopes of making some kind of noise to stir up your stupid, knuckle-dragging base.  "Look, Mary Burke encourages that communities 'organize' to produce and save jobs! 'Organize'! Just like Saul Alinsky!"

So just imagine when Dweeb 314 in the bowels of the "Club" for "Growth" -- as discussed before, a Dark Money front that is neither a "club" nor are the functionaries operating under that name interested in "growth" of anything but the fatcats' fat wallets -- finds this sleep-inducing passage in the Burke jobs policy paper:
 "Supporting the development of public-private partnerships by working to match small farmers with business professionals to help farmers improve management, develop new markets plans and improve use of risk management tools and risk-reduction strategies."
Bold stuff, that.  No one could have possibly written that kind of dreary policy language on their own.  The dweeb explores his trove of useless knowledge...Yes! That failed candidate in Tennessee in 2009!  He looks up the jobs paper of the beyond-forgettable Ward Cammack and...there it is! The exact same sentence!  Paydirt! That cushy job in the WEDC is as good as his now.

Only one problem...who gives a shit?  Candidates of like mind borrow and trade ideas and language all over the place every day.  Anyone coming up with something original, even by accident, knows it might be cribbed and is usually honored when it is.  Somewhere in Nashville or wherever, Mr. Cammack is not jumping around screaming for a royalty check.  He's probably still sitting around waiting for someone to call to see if he cares.  So the value of Dweeb 314's magical discovery is only as good as who you can get to repeat it enough that Walker flunkies can have something negative about Burke to talk about.

But Republicans have nothing if not a ready-to-help right-wing media willing to eat and regurgitate anything they are fed. The campaign's first stop was the throw-it-up-against-the-wall-maybe-something-will-stick website Buzzfeed and its "reporter" Andrew Kaczynski, a veteran Republican oppo researcher, er, dweeb.  Kaczynski was more than happy to help the Walker campaign set up its smear of Mary Burke by running with the "news" that Burke had a few innocuous phrases in her jobs plan that might have been slightly familiar to a failed candidate in Tennessee and a couple other people whose consultants worked with the same writer.

You can almost hear the pretend-reporter on the phone with the Walker staffer..."Really, you think it might be helpful?...but everyone in politics recycles this kind of just did it last week...well, alright, if you think you could use it for something..."  So Kaczynski dutifully runs something, no doubt based on the GOP research and probably without attribution to his source. [It's hard to tell exactly, since the first post he wrote on this was interestingly scrubbed and replaced with this after Burke let the drafting consultant go.]

All expected from the right-wing media.  This whole thing would have been a drop in the poison bucket for talk-radio and other fellow travelers of the radical governor, who would make wild, ridiculous accusations of "plagiarism" for a day before moving on to the next talking point on the campaign's script.

Enter the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and reporter Dan Bice.

Bice's stuff is always interesting reading, even when he is, as in this case, too willing to be led by the nose by obvious charlatans.  He has made a nice recovery from the days of The Spice Boys, where he was chained to the snarky political bent of his partner, Cary Spivak, who has long since been shuffled off to other pages.  Now, Bice plays it straighter, but, as the go-to guy for political dirt, he can still be spun into running the thinnest of stories from the most questionable sources.  For instance, he has a bad recent habit of citing stories from Dark Money-funded fake-news sites like "Wisconsin Reporter" and "Media Trackers".

So, for whatever reason, Bice bit on the Burke-cribbed-some-language story, legitimizing the fake concern of the tut-tutting Republicans, happy to have anything other than Walker's failed, radical administration to talk about.  While he blamed his first long article -- complete with quoted and highlighted passages of the above and other such innocuous passages -- on the Buzzfeed "reporting", his second piece a few days later went straight to the horse's, er, mouth, taking new "less egregious" passages straight from the Walker campaign.

While careful not to use the word "plagiarize", Bice's validation of the non-story gave rise to a flurry of overheated insincere fake "outrage" by the Usual Suspects in the Republican party, talk-radio (but I repeat myself) and, of course, the Journal Sentinel's in-house Walker shill, Christian Schneider, a life-long Republican staffer who knows first hand what a joke it is to make an issue of political language-borrowing. The elitist Schneider used his column to call the drafting by Burke's consultants "a serious offense...demonstrat[ing] her bankruptcy of ideas and her reliance on media experts to build her plans.  A Walker stooge complaining about another candidate's "bankruptcy of ideas" and "reliance on media experts" that's funny. Walker is the most inauthentic, unoriginal, consultant-dependent Dark Money sock-puppet in Wisconsin history.

But, the newspaper ran news articles about the "controversy" for five days straight (including Burke apparently failing to properly recite the dictionary definition of "plagiarism" to the reporter's satisfaction -- she didn't do that bad; you try it.)  The absurd running focus on the non-story by the newspaper led to all the predictable results -- a J-S editorial, Walker campaign ads, ludicrous calls for Burke to quit the race by state senators and the King Dweeb of the RNC, Reince Priebus, etc.

All of this happened not because there was any substance to it, but because Dan Bice decided to trot out what he knows is Walker campaign bullshit in the newspaper.  Bice at least noticed me tweaking him on Facebook. "Mike, do you really think this is not a story?" he asked in a comment to one of my snark-posts.  (Answer: Of course it's not.) In another, he has a fine glass of Journal Sentinel Whine: "I'm getting it from the right and the left. Time for a promotion."  That's the last refuge of the J-S reporter or editor up against the wall. "Everyone complains, we must be doing something right." Except that the complaints on the right are mostly made up to smear the mainstream media when the facts don't go their way (which is always).  We complain when the paper gets spun by liars and cheats and when they bend over backwards to be "fair" by trying to get an equal number of negative stories to both sides.  But both sides are not equally responsible for poisoning the political dialog of the state and country with over-amplified lies.  That would be the Republicans.

The paper has managed to go a couple of days now without mentioning the Story That Wasn't.  And it must not have tested well for Walker -- even he and his talk-radio buddies seemed to have moved on, for now.  Last week, it appears that the Walker campaign sent out directions to its pliant sycophants in the right-wing media to try to change the subject by again playing up the smear of straight-arrow DA John Chisholm by the obviously delusional and vindictive Michael Lutz. That smear was also prompted by a Bice story (originally "reported", natch, in a Dark Money "legal news" website) was only slightly mitigated by his after-the-fact reporting of the many reasons not to believe Lutz about anything.

Chief Walker collaborator Charlie Sykes late last week actually had the lying Lutz, on his Walker infomercial program, spinning his ludicrous fantasy of a DA's office rife with blue-fisted rage. Then, the ever-helpful Christian Schneider -- The Shame of the Journal Sentinel -- used his featured Sunday column today to promote the same lies. Throughout his dreadfully-written piece, Schneider ignores the fact that the 7th Circuit this week confirmed that states have the right to enforce their non-coordination statutes, which Walker and his campaign clearly violated and continue to violate every day. The special prosecutor (long-since not John Chisholm) has the right to investigate and prosecute. Schneider uses a tortured "Fight Club" analogy, claiming that he knows that the "active ingredient" in the investigation to be a "personal vendetta" or some such nonsense.  But he knows that the active ingredient in John Doe II is The Truth, from which he and Walker are constantly running.

We can expect much more of this facts-be-damned Burke-bashing and Walker-protecting in the coming weeks from the pliant right-wing media and the clueless Journal Sentinel.  In the meantime, if anyone finds that crime piece from the Czarnezki campaign wants to borrow some or all of it, be my guest.  You might want to check with Joe first.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Strictly Speaking, PolitiFact's Pants are on Fire

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's version of PolitiFact (a franchise rented from the Tampa Bay Times) has been recklessly careening down the road for at least four years now. Full of self-appointed sanctimony, the PolitiFact editors and reporters presume to determine fact from fiction in political matters.  But, instead of producing clarity and consensus on the Truth, the project has resulted in just more acrimony, finger-pointing and you-got-it-wrong confusion.  

It has been a wildly inconsistent feature, randomly selecting items to evaluate, some of which need no evaluation.  Who cares if Sen. Ron Johnson claimed  college students "are taking six years to get a four-year degree." Did someone else claim this wasn't true? Who cares if blowhard right-wing darling Ald. Bob Donovan said an alderman has never defeated an incumbent mayor? It's not like he has any chance to do it, so who cares?

While exploring the uncontroversial on a regular basis, the PolitiFacters mostly ignore the biggest peddlers of fake controversy and political lies -- wing-nut talk radio hosts.  According to the web page index, it appears that, of all the local purveyors of radio propaganda that poisons the political dialog across the state, only WISN's resident racist/sexist Mark Belling has been the subject of an article, and that was about some comments about Russ Feingold's garage way back in 2010. Journal Communications own (for now) resident Republican mouthpiece Charlie Sykes escapes without the project reviewing any of the many lies he has told through the years.  What is the point of have a clearinghouse for the disposition of political lies if you are not going to touch the trove of bullshit that is Milwaukee Talk Radio?

When not evaluating the trivial and the mundane and ignoring the obvious, PolitiFact sometimes dips its toe into what passes for the Big Issues of Our Time, with extremely mixed results.  The national PolitiFact project famously and foolishly declared Democrats' claims that Paul Ryan's stated plan to privatize health care for the elderly would "end Medicare" -- which, of course, it would -- "False" because, I suppose, whatever inferior program that resulted would still be called Medicare. They even called it (get this) the Lie of the Year in 2011. Nothing like getting something wrong and then making it that much wronger.

In Wisconsin, the PolitiFact project has served at times to legitimize and validate the excesses of the radical Republicans in Madison.  During their assault on state and local government, teachers and the very soul of progressive Wisconsin governance that began in 2011, the PolitiFact reporters and editors have always been there to lend a hand to put out the fire when someone pointed out the obvious result of the GOP jihad's many excesses. For instance, when the Democratic Governors Association pointed out in 2011 that Walker and the Republicans' assault on the right to vote in the form of a photo ID requirement would "deny Democrats the right to vote", they got the ooo-so-scary "Pants On Fire" rating.   Never mind that the law would actually prevent some Democrats from voting and that that is the very intent of such laws across the nation.  "Tut-tut", says the Lords of PolitiFact.  "Democrats still get to vote".  Well, sure.  Some of them.

But you don't want to be too hard on PolitiFact.  The project does have some of the best reporters still remaining at the soon-to-be foreign-owned (believe me -- I lived in Cincinnati for a year) "media content provider".  And they have slapped many "Pants On Fire"s and "False"s on Walker and company.  But one of the problems inherent in these kinds of mainstream media things is they think they have to be so damned even-handed.  So they find the off statement by some out-of-power Democrat and treat it like its just as bad as the lies of the in-power, gerrymandered GOP steamroller.

As Paul Krugman has said, even though one party (the Republicans) lies more and benefits from an alternate fact universe of lies on Fox News and talk radio, the straight press will not point that out.  Ominously dreading the 2012 political cycle (and, boy, was he right) Krugman wrote:
"And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased”. This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance."
To a large extent, the reaction to any given PolitiFact piece is driven my whose ox is being gored -- or, since PolitiFact's reputation is too weak and disrespected to matter much to anyone, whose ox has to swat mildly annoying flies.  Other than campaign operatives that might (might) brag about a "True" "ruling" (no kidding -- that's what they call it) or a "False" for the opponent, nobody spends more than two seconds pondering the implications of any PolitiFact conclusion.  The arbitrary sliding scale of "mostly" this or "half" that lets political worms like Scott Walker wiggle off the hook, giving way too benefit to those it is mandatory to doubt.  Far from being the Last Word about anything, PolitiFact is just another ball bouncing around the political court, kicked from here to there, mostly to the curb of indifference.

But for all its banality, PolitiFact, whether they get it right or wrong, at least usually sticks to the actual wording of the statements they are evaluating.  That was not the case on this past Sunday, when reporter Tom Kertscher slapped a "Mostly False" tag on the state AFL-CIO's Entirely True statement that Walker and the other radicals in Madison had given "a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools" in the 2013-15 budget.

Boy, I can do this one just sitting here...yep, the GOP enacted the up-to-$10,000 tax deduction to the parents of a kid in any private income limit to take the deduction...millionaires with kids in any private school who had been just fine paying the full freight since the incorporation the the Village of Fox Point now get $10,000 off their taxable income... That was easy. True! Hey, maybe there should be a new board game -- the home version of PolitiFact.  Anyone can play.

But, hold on there, silly naive simple-statement-reading amateur.  When it comes time to break down his analysis, Kertscher has a whole different statement on his mind. "So, did Walker carve out a $10,000 private-school tax break strictly to benefit millionaires?" [Emphasis added.]

OK, that's not what the AFL-CIO said or meant.  It said millionaires got the tax break. By inserting the word "strictly" into the statement, Kertscher completely changed the meaning of the statement and, of course, what is now Kertscher's statement was "Mostly False".  Hell, it's "Pants On Fire".

So outraged was I by this uncharacteristic journalistic malpractice (PolitiFact's sins are of story selection and interpretation, not of usually of fact-twisting) that I lurched off the couch of my nearly 2-year hiatus from this blog; deciding not only to write but to do some reporting myself.  For the first time since I began posting on this thing in 2006, I actually checked with someone I was going to be writing about.  I emailed Tom, who nicely responded and handed it off to editor Greg Borowski, as is their policy.

For the sake of accuracy, I'll include Borowski's entire response:

Hi Mike:
Thanks for the heads up -- a courtesy, it seems, most don't apply before they write about us.
You asked about our "PolitiFact article ... about the AFL-CIO statement that Walker’s tax break for private school tuition benefits millionaires." However, I don't think your characterization of the union's claim -- that the tax break merely benefits millionaires along with, presumably, others -- is accurate.
Here is the statement we evaluated: "Scott Walker has given a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools."
The flier goes on to question why that money was not used instead for "the children who are being educated in public schools. Working families are still waiting for an answer." So, there is no mention that the tax break goes to everyone. Instead, it is framed around the idea that working class folks are the ones missing out.
With no additional information (and in the context of a flier that sends the overall message that Walker is favoring the wealthy at the expense of the working class), how else is the average voter to understand the claim, but that the tax break went strictly to millionaires?
Beyond that, I would simply offer that we rated this statement consistent with the nearly 800 others we have rated since we began four years ago.

Best regards,
So Borowski and/or Kertscher decided on their own what the AFL-CIO meant, ignoring the clear context presented by the union -- that whatever portion of this ridiculous handout is going to the millionaires takes away from working class kids in public schools.  I asked in a reply email whether the reporter asked the union if that's what they meant.
Did you ask them if they meant to even imply "strictly"? Did they deny it? You give Walker flacks all kinds of chances to weasel out of their often-false implications. Not here apparently.  The worst case is if you asked, they denied and you ran it this way, without telling us they denied. You wouldn't do that, would you?
Borowski did not answer and ignored the question in a reply. Cue the violins: "Going forward, I guess we should rate everything True because, well, the speaker and their supporters think it is." Yeah, sure, that's really what we are talking about, Greg. To quote you: Come on. The fact is what they said and what they meant was True. And your redrafting it in your own Walker-protecting image was Pant On Fire shit journalism.

You hope that the PolitiFact reporter and editor involved here were not affected by the Journal Sentinel's decades-long campaign against public schools.  After over 25 years of the failed voucher "schools" experiment -- where more kids have been harmed from being warehoused crap "choice" "schools", some started by rich vultures like Mark Neumann and Bill Bennett, than in any working-as-hard-as-they-can MPS school -- the Journal Sentinel continues its campaign to undermine public schools in Wisconsin.  And that campaign has always bled into the news coverage, which has largely ignored the horrors of poor parents being taken advantage of by charlatans posing as educators.

Maybe this twisting and reinvention of the facts to support even more state money to private schools is part of it.  All I know is, for whatever reason, PolitiFact Jumped the Shark with its "Mostly False" rating of a statement the union never made.

We rule this -- Pants On Fire. At least.