Sunday, March 29, 2009

Welcome to the public sector

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 29, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Now that you're a have two new rules to follow in your dealings with the press.

The Ody Fish rule: When you are asked a question, never, never, never, ever lie. There are three acceptable responses:

I don’t know the answer. I do know the answer, but I cannot tell you what it is. And the answer is....

The Owen Coyle rule:

Regard everything you say to anyone anywhere in any circumstance as something that will appear on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.

There are a few other things that are worth knowing about the status that attaches to becoming a legitimate “beat.”

You now have a new constituency. The public. The press is the connection to this new constituency.

There are two major components in journalism. Editors assign reporters, write headlines, decide how prominently stories will be displayed. This will range from above the fold on page one to buried somewhere near the classified ads in the least prominent part of the paper. You have no control over this placement or these headlines and neither do reporters.

Reporters may get the story wrong or misquote sources, but editors are invisible and the real bane of your existence.

Reporters like candor and will respond viciously when overdosed with “no comments,” which are actually comments by their very nature.

Reporters are only as good as their last story and their beats are their life blood. It’s hard to think of them sympathetically, but not keeping their needs and priorities in mind is a big mistake. They need you more than they will ever admit. This need can be reflected in accuracy if not affection. They misquote. You clam up. They suffer.

Editors overreact to what they decide are big stories. Think of all the stories that didn’t get reported in New York while reporters and photographers were massed in front of Bernie Madoff’s apartment building on 64th Street.

Reporters have an incurable instinct for the capillary. They think, for example, that everyone but them is overpaid, and will pounce on anything that smells of big money going to places and people who they regard as undeserving. Take the money and the perks if you wish, but in your quasi-public status be assured you will pay a price in unwelcome publicity.

If you or your organization become sensational enough to attract the attention of the talk radio screechers, you will have entered a whole new coverage zone. These people are in show business. They take the information produced by journalists and blow it so far out of proportion that it is unrecognizable.

They are a blight on the information landscape. They are not journalists.

You are in a more exposed but not uncontrollable position. You can be candid. You cannot be stupid. You will survive.

Good luck.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Missing the mark

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 22, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Earmarks are fast becoming the “Madoff” or, worse yet, the “A.I.G.” of contemporary politics. An undeserved fate.

Consider that government budgets are a combination of entitlements, programs, and “earmarks” disguised as or incorporated into entitlements and programs.

The difference between these earmarks and those added by legislators in the next stage of the budget process is that they are proposed by the executive branch and the bureaucrats who construct the executive budgets. The legislators’ earmarks are toxic. The executive/bureacrats’ are not.

The way to detoxify the legislators’ contributions is with line-item vetoes.

This idea gets shot down in Washington by legislators who are protecting their branch's rights. The fact that it does no such thing is assiduously ignored. What happens without a line-item power is that the earmarks grow like cancer, which is bad, and executives sign a budget bill that they must have which is loaded with pork.

Earmarks which have to pass a line-item veto test fulfill several roles in the budget bill process which are at least useful may even be desirable. These earmarks give individual legislators a chance to bring worthy but overlooked priorities to the attention of the executive branch and the legislative leaders. Some pork is or can be made into bacon.

They also give legislators a way to get insistent constituents and interest groups off their backs and legislative leaders a way to buy essential votes from the philosophically obtuse and/or the members of the inevitable sleaze caucus which is present to a greater or lesser extent in every legislative body.

The earmarks get added to the budget bill. The earmarking legislators vote for the bill. If the earmarks are unworthy the legislative leaders make sure they are accessible to an executive veto. If the executive doesn’t find them worthy, they are vetoed. The vetoes are sustained. A leaner budget bill becomes law.

The government gets an essential budget bill. The legislators either get their earmark or get a story and an excuse to mollify their constitutents. The system works.

Only purists or poseurs like the late Senator Bill Proxmire, who made enemies of his 99 peers and a reputation for pettifogging frugality with his infamous “golden fleece” awards, are inconsolable.

Get the line-item veto where it doesn’t exist, and get the benefits of earmarks which are endemic, incurable, and maybe even desirable.

Follow Bill Kraus on:
twitter / wmkraus

Monday, March 16, 2009

Save the news gatherers

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus
The crisis in news gathering and dispersing isn’t about newspapers. It’s about news gatherers.

News is produced by reporters and editors who are expensive and in a congenitally inefficient business. It’s about hanging out, being there, being everywhere. Watching and writing about what happens if and when something does.

Their management’s response so far to saving newspapers has been to reduce the numbers of reporters and editors, which saves money and diminishes the coverage which is the reason for their existence.

What is the point of doing that?

What the country needs is more reporters in more places reporting on more things and fulfilling the essential journalistic function of making the powerful turn square corners and giving the unpowerful the information to call the powerful to account as, if, and when necessary.

Simple enough.

Except the revenue flows needed to pay for them aren’t flowing the way they once did.

The traditional combination of subscribers and advertisers no longer works.

Advertisers have gone elsewhere. Subscribers are getting their news from the free sources provided by the suicidal newspapers which give away what they should be selling and/or the faux sources that litter the blogosphere.

Newspapers are shrinking, disappearing, merging, going broke, and what Jefferson described as the sine qua non of democracy is more non than ever.

There are sporadic responses from the increasing numbers of no longer working journalists. A group of Wisconsin writers who specialized in environmental coverage (one of the first non-essential specialties to get the axe) is trying to expand and distribute through other, as yet undecided, means news about this subject. A former investigative reporter is assembling a group of the newly outsourced in hopes of rebuilding this really essential and really expensive journalism and selling it back to whatever remains of the newspaper business. These I know about. Other news substitutes are probably being spawned as well.

Maybe this is the future. A free-standing collection of news gatherers whose work is available, at a price, to whatever media survive the advertising holocaust.

It is possible, it may even be desirable, that the news business will find something akin to the iTunes solution that has brought order and money to the people who create and perform music, another sector that was in a kind of Internet-induced chaos not so very long ago.

It is even possible that the terminal newspaper business will face the realities and find new ways to get paid for what it produces and, at the very least, quit giving away with one hand what it is trying to sell with the other.

This imperfect democracy has survived wars, depressions, natural disasters, chicanery, even stupidity, but a largely uninformed, ignorant, inattentive populace can bring it down.

Save the reporters so they can save the country? I think so.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Zealots with hearts of gold

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There is a movement afoot in Wisconsin to give the board of the Department of Natural Resources the power to hire and fire the secretary of that department.

This is a back-to-the-future move to a system of governance in Wisconsin that was in place until 1968. The major departments of state government (now called cabinets) were governed by boards or commissions not the elected governor. The governor, who was nonetheless responsible for the work of and results achieved by those departments, was one step removed from the direct supervision of the operating managers of those departments.

The governor did have the power to appoint those commissioners and board members, but since their terms were staggered the governor did not get putative control of the agency for several terms. Even this control was subject to the immutable law of government that every appointment creates 10 enemies and one ingrate.

A commission headed by the legendary Bill Kellett decided, properly, that since the governor was a.) elected to govern and b.) held responsible by the voters for the management of state government, the governor should have the authority to go with that responsibility, which would include hiring and firing the people running those departments.

Thus cabinet government came to Wisconsin. The governor appoints cabinet secretaries. The state Senate approves those appointments.

None of the 13 governors I have known disputed the wisdom of the Kellett Commission’s conclusions and recommendations. Nor would any scholar of governance and management. Authority and responsibility must be commensurate.

So what has brought this discredited idea back to life?

Distrust and dislike of the governor?

Distrust of elected officials?

Distrust of democracy?

Not likely.

What seems to be in the forefront of the move is a desire by large numbers of citizens whose organizations make the worthy case for environmental issues and programs to increase the spending on, attention to, and priority for these issues and programs.

This is suspiciously like the efforts of other zealots who are determined to put their special issues above the more important but general issues which voters elect officials to promote and protect.

Many years ago a man named John Gardiner said, in effect if not in fact, that the people are the least organized and most endangered sector of society.

What government by special interest has got us is what the New York Times’s Bill Safire predicted it would get us 30 years ago: hardening of the arteries.

The environmentalists’ hearts are true, their issues are important, and their cause is indisputably honorable, but they and it are not the whole thing. They and it may not even be the main thing in some cases.

The proposal is anti-democratic at best and elitist at worst.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Right and Wrong

A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 1, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Judge Barbara Crabb has turned her relentless logic on our judicial elections. Our first exposure to this admirable trait was when she told the state of Wisconsin, in effect if not in fact, “You cannot ban gambling and indulge in it.”

Her ruling on the rules surrounding judges and politics is equally logical. The rules are that judges cannot run as partisans or do partisan things like make donations or join parties. Judge Crabb says, “Who are you kidding?"

She points out that most judges get the job in the first place by appointment. These appointments are made by governors who are partisans and are unlikely to stray far from their list of political loyalists when looking for candidates for these jobs.

Even those few judges who are elected to open seats do not come full grown from the brow of Jove. They have some kind of political history and credentials.

It follows then that any voter who is interested and semi-conscious will know where the state’s judges are coming from politically and ideologically.

The attempts to deny this reality started when rules about non-partisanship were promulgated in 1913. These were reaffirmed in 1968 and strengthened again as recently as 2004.

In the new world of special interest politics, Judge Crabb says, party affiliations are not the problem anyway. The remedy to this new, more powerful threat to objectivity is a combination of disclosure and recusal. A judge who takes a campaign contribution from, say, the organization that is interested in school choice should reveal that and recuse him or herself if, as, and when a case on this subject comes before him or her.

Well and good, even though it may cause some difficulty in rural Wisconsin, where a judge is likely to have a friend or contributor involved in a lot of otherwise routine litigation.

The problem with following the judge’s logic so literally and single-mindedly is it goes against the probably unattainable ideal we seek from judges: a kind of impartiality which approaches pure disinterest.

We don’t always get it. It may even be, like the song in Man of La Mancha, an impossible dream.

It is worth aspiring to nonetheless. It's something every judge should have as a goal or a code of conduct.

The excesses of partisanship are unavoidable in the legislative and executive offices where we vote for people who share our beliefs.

What we want when we enter a courtroom is not favor but fairness.

A dispassionate judiciary is a worthy idea. Overt partisanization is not.