Panelists at a June 1 event on the challenges of covering Scott Walker (left to right): Jessica Arp, Patrick Marley, Matthew DeFour, Michael Wagner.
Photo by Gordon Govier / Society of Professional Journalists, Madison chapter
It was the label that dared not speak its name. The assembled scribes reached for euphemisms, none more artfully than Matthew DeFour, state government reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.
DeFour, at a panel discussion Monday night, was responding to audience questions about the Wisconsin governor and Presidential aspirant’s record of saying things that aren’t true. He used an analogy, in which the media are describing Walker holding a blowtorch and working with metal. “Are you looking for us to say, ‘Oh, he’s a welder?’ ” DeFour asked. “I don’t think you’re ever going to see the newspaper call him a straight-out welder. We’re not going to be like, ‘Governor Walker, he’s a giant welder.’ We’re not going to do that.”
Fair enough. DeFour and other reporters discussing their coverage of Walker explained that they do put the facts into context and point out inconsistencies. That is their job, and they do it well. And Walker gives them plenty of material to work with.
The event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sponsored by the Madison Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, was titled “Challenges amid the Chaos: Reporters on Covering Scott Walker.” It brought together DeFour and two other reporters, Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jessica Arp of WISC-TV in Madison, as well as University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism and political science Professor Michael Wagner.
Walker’s relationship with the truth was a recurring theme. The questioner to whom DeFour responded had asked about the high number of “Pants on Fire” ratings given to Walker over the years by PolitiFact Wisconsin, a project of the Journal Sentinel and national PolitiFact to test the accuracy of political statements.
The questioner thought Walker had gotten a dozen such ratings, indicating the highest level of untruthfulness. Actually, in the interest of factual accuracy, Walker’s truth-tested statements have received the “Pants on Fire” designation ten times, along with thirty-eight statements rated “False” and twenty “Mostly False.” That’s sixty-eight ratings on the false side of the ledger, compared to forty-six statements deemed “True” or “Mostly True,” with twenty-five “Half True” ratings in the middle.
Among the “Pants on Fire” ratings are Walker’s claims about Wisconsin’s record of job creation and his initial explanation that the removal of key language from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement was a “drafting error.” (Walker’s office has denied requests for some records regarding this change, drawing two lawsuits alleging violations of the state’s open records law, including one by The Progressive.)
DeFour, in discussing Walker’s track record on honesty, said he was surprised when he spoke to people in other states—who “don’t know Governor Walker as well as people in this room, people in Wisconsin”—say they support Walker because “they think he’s an honest person.”
The audience broke into laughter. “I was expecting that kind of reaction from this room,” DeFour continued. “I think your expectation, maybe everyone’s expectation, is that when I’m at these events and I’m talking to people, when somebody says, ‘You know, I really like how honest this guy is,’ I think your expectation is that [I should say], ‘Actually, he’s a welder.’ [And] I don’t think that’s my responsibility.”
The panelists seemed intent on saying that honesty is in the eye of the beholder, when the whole idea of PolitiFact is to offer a definitive assessment. DeFour credited Walker with being “an extremely good politician,” with a gift for framing issues in a way that appeals to the whatever group he’s speaking to. “I think that’s just how politics works.”
Marley, speaking next, conceded the panel was starting to sound like politicians, giving “political answers.” He said of Walker: “He is a politician, and I don’t know that his relationship with the truth is markedly different than that of many other politicians. … Their job is to make their case to try to get as many votes as they can. Our job is to translate that into the facts.”
Arp agreed it was “not my job” to say whether Walker is honest. “My job is to tell you what he said and you get to decide whether you think he is honest or not.” She also praised Walker’s political skills: “This is someone who knows what to say and how to say it to get his point across everyday.”
Wagner weighed in similarly, saying “I don’t know whether Gov. Walker is an honest person because I don’t know what he thinks.” He agreed that the role of media is to point out the facts, and let readers draw their own conclusions. He gave an example:
“[Walker] has not been wild about ethanol in the past, and the more time he spends in Iowa the more he’s warming up to the joy that ethanol brings to all humans on his great planet,” Wagner said. “Is that dishonest?” Wagner framed how this change of heart might be reported: “This is what he said about ethanol at Time A; this is what he says now. What happened in-between? He decided he’s running for president. You can use that information anyway you wish as you decide what to think about the governor.”
The panelists gave Walker generally good marks for accessibility, while noting that his availability to Wisconsin reporters who have perhaps traveled long distances to question him has at times been limited. DeFour told of waiting for Walker outside a National Rifle Association event in Charleston, South Carolina, in March, when two Walker aides became uncharacteristically chatty. Meanwhile, Walker exited without being seen.
“I really think they were running interference,” DeFour said. “I really feel like the only reason they were talking to us was just to kind of like, you know, distract us, while he snuck out the back.”
The panelists also addressed questions about a stalled John Doe probe into alleged improprieties involving Walker’s campaign and recent articles about a highly questionable $500,000 state loan given by Walker’s economic development authority to a well-connected applicant who has not paid it back. Neither issue, they said, has captured the national media’s attention.
But Arp noted that the race among the multitude of Republican Presidential hopefuls has not yet evolved to where the candidates and parties “are eating their own.” The John Doe probe and failures of the economic development authority could yet emerge as issues that are used by other Republicans to attack Walker.
Who knows? As the campaign plays out, someone might even call Walker a welder.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.
Image Credits: Gordon Govier / Society of Professional Journalists, Madison chapter