It was 12 years ago, February 2011, that newly-elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faced a deluge of media venom after proposing to curtail public employees’ extravagant taxpayer-funded benefits as part of a larger plan to rein in overall state spending. The national media quickly became a mouthpiece for left-wing union protests, as reporters smeared Walker as akin to abusive dictators in the Middle East, while turning a blind eye to the nastiness of the protesters.
The broadcast networks jumped into the fray after Democratic state legislators fled Wisconsin rather than lose a vote on Walker’s budget. It was the third day of demonstrations that saw protesters occupy the state capitol building and chant outside the homes of GOP senators. But instead of decrying this as a threat-to-democracy insurrection, enchanted reporters likened the mob to the ongoing “Arab Spring” demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and other authoritarian states.
And in the media’s telling, it was the conservative Walker who was ripe for being deposed: “From the Mideast to the American Midwest tonight, people are rising up. Citizens’ uprisings are changing the world,” NBC’s Brian Williams intoned on the February 18, 2011 Nightly News.
“The images from Wisconsin — with its protests, shutdown of some public services and missing Democratic senators, who fled the state to block a vote — evoked the Middle East more than the Midwest,” New York Times reporters Michael Cooper and Katharine Seelye echoed in an article published February 19. “The parallels raise the inevitable question: Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?”
Ever imaginative, the next morning CBS’s Bob Schieffer cribbed the Times’ spin as his own in a question to Paul Ryan on Face the Nation: “Is Madison, Wisconsin, Congressman, the Tunisia of American politics now?”
Over on ABC that same day, This Week host Christiane Amanpour hit the same liberal-pleasing note but at least used different words: “People power making history. A revolt in the Midwest and a revolution sweeping across the Middle East....Populist frustration is boiling over this week — as we’ve said, not just in the Middle East, but in the middle of this country as well.”
“What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman railed in his Monday morning column (February 21).
It didn’t matter that Walker had received a big mandate from voters the previous November to control state government spending and revive the private-sector economy. “Since when does Scott Walker represent the people?” Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift wondered on the February 26 McLaughlin Group.
It had been only six weeks since the media made a show of scolding conservatives for the role their rhetoric supposedly had played in the grave wounding of Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords (a shooting perpetrated by a psychotic unconnected to the Tea Party or any other political cause). Yet network reporters didn’t offer a murmer of disapproval for the nastiness of Wisconsin’s union protesters.
Some signs depicted Scott Walker as Adolph Hitler; others likened Walker to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (“Scott Stalin”) and just-deposed Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak (“Walker = Mubarak”). Another protest sign drew a cross-hairs over a picture of Governor Walker's head, with the caption “Don’t Retreat, Reload; Repeal Walker.”
At the time, MRC’s Scott Whitlock and I examined all 53 ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news stories, segments and anchor briefs on the Wisconsin protests from February 17 (when they first drew major national coverage) through February 21. We found that “while eight of the 53 stories (15%) visually displayed one or more of the signs described above, none elicited a single remark from the network correspondents.”
That week, Massachusetts Democratic Representative Michael Capuano actually seemed to encourage left-wing violence as he argued: “Every once in awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody.” The networks failed to notice this incitement when it happened, and a Nexis search of the following ten days shows they never got around to reporting it. (Capuono did, however, apologize.)
On Sunday, February 27, thugs assaulted Fox News reporter Mike Tobin and threatened to break his neck. The next morning, The New York Times pretended as if the protesters had been purely peaceful: “Union leaders say one of the strengths of the demonstrations has been that despite harsh language and personal attacks directed at Mr. Walker, the protesters had been loud but nonviolent.”
In a rare move, both MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz were both slapped with “False” ratings by PolitiFact by perpetuating left-wing falsehoods about Walker’s budget. “People who earn $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year might have a 20 percent of their income just disappear overnight,” Schultz thundered on his MSNBC show February 15.
“There’s no indication it will be that high on a wide scale, particularly for state workers earning as much as $50,000 per year,” PolitiFact chastised. “If Schultz can provide evidence of a large-scale 20 percent impact, we’ll review this item.” Schultz died in 2018, apparently having never supplied the evidence to back up his claim; 11 years later, PolitiFact’s “False” rating remains.
“[MSNBC’s] coverage has been partisan and rabble-rousing to the point where it seems as if cable show hosts like Schultz are exploiting the anger of the situation, rather than reporting the story and trying to bring context, clarity and understanding to a troubled situation,” Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik, no conservative, derided in a February 18 column.
The protests continued for more than three weeks, dragging on because Democratic lawmakers had fled the state to create a stalemate in the state senate. But on March 9, Republicans used procedural tools to finally pass Walker’s budget; the next morning on Today, NBC’s Ann Curry called it an “outrage” — “We turn now to that outrage, you just heard about in Wisconsin, where the Republican-controlled senate voted last night to cut collective bargaining rights for public employees....”
On MSNBC, Morning Joe panelist Donny Deutsch seethed that the Democrats’ weeks-long thuggery and obstructionism had been finally thwarted: “This is a fascist regime. There’s something wrong here. Very, very wrong....I think the tactics, the approach, the totalitarianism of this does not feel right.” Yet which side was resorting to mob intimidation to thwart the work of the people’s elected representatives?
Democrats attempted to recall Walker in a special election, which was eventually held in June 2012. MSNBC’s Schultz threw everything he had at it, hosting 237 anti-Walker guests in a three-month period, vs. just a single guest who supported the Governor.
Despite the unprecedented national media onslaught, Walker won, prevailing with virtually the same margin as he had when he was first elected in 2010. “This is not going to be an easy night for many broadcasters who are liberal,” Schultz mournfully told his audience the night of the election. “To say that I’m shocked and stunned is pretty much an understatement.”
What was truly shocking was the brazen partisanship so many in the national media showed throughout their coverage of the entire affair.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.