Sunday, January 25, 2009

The state of the paper

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 25, 2009
By Bill Kraus

In January of 2009, Madison’s Capital Newspapers ran a small item announcing that another 12 jobs had been eliminated, mostly in the newsroom.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy.

The New York Times borrowed a lot of money from someone they once characterized as a Mexican drug lord and sold most of their headquarters building—so they could lease it back and have a place for their office and the money they spent to build it.

None of the papers whose troubles had been announced in 2008 did not say they were doing better. As a matter of fact, if you have a couple of bucks and want to own a newspaper you might talk to Sam Zell in Chicago or whoever answers the phone in Miami.

It goes without saying that what you would be buying is the right to lose money.

All of this is both deplorable and frightening. It is also predictable and uncorrectable.

The first sign that I saw that everything was not as it should be in the newspaper business was over 30 years ago when I was told that the then powerful Milwaukee Journal would not deliver their papers to me in Stevens Point anymore.

I asked why not. The answer was couched in more businesslike terms but came down to telling me that their mostly Milwaukee-based advertisers weren’t interested in displaying their merchandise to people in Stevens Point.

I suggested that by becoming a regional newspaper they were giving up power for money. I heard from another source that they didn’t disagree, but they didn’t change their decision to retrench either.

A few years later I was in the governor’s office and discovered that if a story appeared in either of the Milwaukee papers, but especially the morning Milwaukee Sentinel, that story would be on the governor’s agenda that day.

These papers still had 10 reporters covering state government, and the fact that no one in Stevens Point knew this or cared hadn’t registered in Madison. Yet.

It has now. The Sentinel is gone. The Journal Sentinel bureau is a shadow of its former self.

The power to set the public agenda has shifted to the likes of talk radio screamers who admit to being in some business other than journalism.

The information part of our working democracy is not working.

Thomas Jefferson said if you have to choose between the right to vote and a free and omnipresent press, choose the latter. Lee Dreyfus never worried about the peoples’ intelligence, just their knowledge, their information.

Both would be appalled about what has happened in January of 2009.

Everyone with the possible exception of the sanguine techies (*) is or should be as well.

* The techies believe the Internet supplants the press, blogging is journalism, and anyone addicted to the newspapers’ format can read them online. The facts are that the Internet is a marvelous resource but is like drinking out of fire hose as a news source, blogs are built on journalists’ reporting—as this one is—and the online editions will last only as long as the reporters do.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New directions for campaign reform

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 18, 2009
By Bill Kraus

Mike Sheridan, the new Speaker of the Assembly, has proposed a rule prohibiting fundraising by the members of the Assembly during the budget process. This is the first sign that somebody in power thinks the heretofore invincible, insular incumbents should be more concerned about their image, about how they are perceived than they have been.

The newly minted Government Accountability Board is proceeding apace on its mission to level the electoral playing field by requiring 3rd parties who are participating in elections to follow the same disclosure rules the candidates do.

The newly minted Government Accountability Board is proceeding apace on its mission to level the electoral playing field by requiring 3rd parties who are participating in elections to follow the same disclosure rules the candidates do.


The evidence from the three states that have opted for full public funding of state elections indicates they think they are getting something worthwhile for their money. There are reportedly more candidates, more competitive races (in Wisconsin one third of the legislative seats are uncontested, and because of sweetheart redistricting another third may as well be, and truly only 10 percent of the seats are really up for grabs), and a noticeable if subjective improvement in quality in their public officeholders. The chances of this happening in Wisconsin, however, is low to nonexistent.

Two of the three states that have full public funding also have an initiative and referendum system, which is a high price to pay for change, including this one. The other state, Connecticut, got a public funding bill passed when the governor went to jail for campaign malfeasance and the lieutenant governor who succeeded him spent all of her chips during several late-night sessions to get a bill to do this through a very reluctant legislature.

Republicans didn’t like spending limits and public funding when the state could afford it. Their “welfare for politicians” rhetoric was effective even then despite the reports from Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. The prospect of adding even the few millions it would take to what promises to be an extraordinarily unpalatable budget bill are somewhere below zero.

Somewhere In Between

The Legislature must sign off on what the Government Accountability Board has proposed. While the Republicans have always contended that they think the best regulation is full disclosure, they did not advance the bill the Senate sent them on this subject last year. There is some suspicion that the Democrats who controlled the state Senate then felt safe in sending a far reaching disclosure bill to the Assembly knowing it would die there, which it did. There is a clear indication that Mike Sheridan’s Assembly is no longer a safe haven for campaign reform measures. The ball is in Senator Decker’s court. We’ll see what we will see.

We all know that the Right To Life lobby will fight to the death (you should pardon the allusion) to keep the names of the donors to their campaign spending operation secret. The manufacturers’ association is at a serious disadvantage in raising money against their mortal enemy, the teachers’ union, and would be worse off if they had to report whose money was being used for their political ads and activities. The Club for Growth, Greater Wisconsin, and the Coalition for American Families, are perhaps less menacing but equally devoted to keeping their donors’ anonymity intact. No one knows where "cause" money from elsewhere or even from Wisconsin (from the tribes, to mention one below the radar source) is coming from or going to. These are formidable opponents of disclosure and the fairness that would ensue. The Government Accountability Board’s action is not a slam dunk.

There is one potential place where full public funding of campaigns might be considered even in these bleak economic times. The members of the Supreme Court have asked for it for their races. It seems it’s too late to do anything about this year’s election, so the bill (which is almost in the chump change category) wouldn’t come due until 2010, and the welfare for politicians sloganeering doesn’t resonate as loudly here where it can be countered with “How do you feel about lawyers giving money to judges?”

Lastly, there is a discouraging word from afar. The Democratic members of the New York state legislature who were so gung ho about campaign finance reform measures when they were in the minority are in the majority now. “Not so fast,” seems to be the word out of Albany.

Surely this will not happen in Wisconsin. It is worth noting though that a combination of recalcitrant Republican leaders and their duplicitous Democratic peers have kept reform and reformers at bay for almost two decades now.

Could it be a new day? There’s hope.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Finding transparency

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 11, 2009
By Bill Kraus

For good reasons the economy or, more accurately, restarting the economy is on the top of everyone’s short list for 2009.

Let’s not, however, lose sight of “transparency” as a worthy companion or, at worst, a number two on the list.

The multiple curses of covert operations, cover-ups, non-disclosure of political contributions are well known and deservedly under attack.

Has there been a successful and honorable covert operation anywhere recently except in your friendly neighborhood movie theater?

Has anyone who tried to cover up bad news had a better outcome than those who simply fessed up, apologized, atoned, and moved on?

Does anyone who insists that it is important for political contributions to remain anonymous have a cause that isn’t somewhat more than mildly suspicious and self-serving?

In 2008 a whole new category of catastrophes traceable to the lack of transparency emerged.

Would his clients be better off if they had asked Mr. Madoff what he was doing with their money and if they had been smart enough to get as far away from him as fast as possible when he clammed up?

Would the country be in such economic distress if our friendly bankers would have explained why they were giving mortgages to customers who had no hope of making the payments?

Would their business success have been undermined by hedge fund managers if they had fully disclosed what they were doing with all that money and what downside risks were attached to these activities?

These are rhetorical questions with obvious answers.

What is less obvious is the collateral advantage that comes with disclosure and transparency.

It affects behavior.

One of the first things you learn when you enter the public sector is that whatever you do and say is likely to end up on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. Most public servants (Illinois’s governors notwithstanding) tend to be a lot more careful about what they do and say.

The transparency that is part of these jobs is annoying, exasperating, inhibiting and often infuriating.

There are indisputable undesirable side effects to transparency.

It is, nonetheless, essential.

It is an essential predecessor to trust for one thing, and trust is the rock on which our entire political, social, economic system is built.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What remains of New Orleans

By Bill Kraus

Everybody knows that half the people have left along with most of the business headquarters.

The remaining economic engines are tourism and the port. If John McPhee’s prediction that the Mississippi, which doesn’t want to go to New Orleans anymore, gets its way and moves to Texas, New Orleans will become sort of a Disneyworld on steriods.

The French Quarter is the main tourist attraction. It was charming once. It now is Las Vegasy. Lots of neon and blatant porn. The streets are full of non-drinking tire kickers who do not crowd the joints that line Bourbon and the other famous streets of the district.

Katrina’s visit left empty spaces and boarded up buildings in its wake. There is restoration activity by a lot of energitic developers and contributors including Brad Pitt. Their efforts are impressive, but seem to be spitting into the wind. There will be three restored homes on a block next door to five that are still boarded up and carry the post-storm markings which indicate, among other things, the numbers of dead bodies found inside.