Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

On Saturday (before the scintillating finals of the Louder than a Bomb Slam Poetry!), my family and I went to Madison to protest the actions of Governor Scott Walker, who pulled a fast one last week, ending collective bargaining in a swift act of legislative sleight-of-hand that required no legislative discussion.

His actions are sure to be challenged by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. That body currently leans pro-Walker by a slim 4-3 margin, but an election of the critical swing jurist will be decided on April 5th, so many are hoping the balance of power will shift early next month. The Court could rule that the new law—particularly the way it was passed—is unconstitutional, according to the state constitution.

I have a few observations from our trip:
  1. It feels good to remember we are part of history. Let's reject "the great dates fallacy" which suggests that a few dates (the attacks on 9/11/2001; or the strikes on Pearl Harbor 12/7/41) are the only ones that matter. History is Now—and we are historical actors. Remember our discussion in class on this question: What would you do if you felt an injustice was being done? In this case I felt I had to act. My wife and I also felt it was important to show our children how democracy works—and we felt enormous pride that we were 4 of the estimated up to 100,000 people on hand.
  2. That number brings me to a second point. The estimate above comes from the Madison Police Department. But it was disputed by some conservative pundits—as major rallies always are. Here is a fascinating piece from our friends at On the Media on this topic:

    To me the exact number doesn't much matter.  (Almost everyone agrees it was a bigger gathering than any rally at Madison during the Vietnam War—and Madison was a campus hot spot of protest). In much of the coverage the dispute of the number muddies the importance of the rally—peaceful demonstrations in support of workers' rights.  
  3. Coverage of the events has been spotty at best. Usually the result is "broken news" if I may steal a phrase coined by James Fallows in his dissection of contemporary journalism. In that book Fallows laments the way most media polarize issues rather than seek truth. (All you junior themers, take heed!). 
  4. Here is one quick example: a story from the AP picked up by NPR and the Huffington Post. Examine the first two paragraphs carefully:
Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.

Protests have rocked the Capitol almost every day since Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking nearly all collective bargaining rights away from public workers, but the largest came a day after the governor signed the measure into law. Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people—along with 50 tractors and one donkey—by late afternoon. No one was arrested.  (Bold, mine).

"Clogging"? I felt the march was incredibly orderly and protestors followed a path created by police. (Truly, the 'P' Stairwell during passing period is a much more menacing scene). It was a Saturday, remember, so no legislative business was delayed and business was robust. Rather than angry screams, I heard pleas for change: "Hey, Ho, Scott Walker Has Got to Go" was the angriest chant I heard.  Note the numbers in the final paragraph as opposed to the misleading "tens of thousands" in the opening sentence. To say nothing of the "No one was arrested." Why would anyone be arrested? This is Wisconsin. The only arrest you might reasonably expect would be the arrest of a Milwaukee Brewer on charges of impersonating a major league baseball player. 

As a critical consumer of media, I saw that the article was written with the help of Dinesh Ramde, a stringer and UWM grad whose only previous work experience was in business.  His previous articles for the AP also leaned toward the sensational., so I shouldn't have been surprised, but my personal experience refuted much of his article.


Dani C. said...

Doc OC,

First off I have to say, I love the line "The only arrest you might reasonably expect would be the arrest of a Milwaukee Brewer on charges of impersonating a major league baseball player". As a die hard Cub fan, I really enjoyed that.

It's really interesting how the media put such a negative twist on the peaceful protests at Madison. After the two paragraphs you posted the article goes on to say that protestors carried signs and "yelled thunderous chants of 'this is what democracy looks like'". The article spins these chants negatively by saying they "yelled thunderous chants", when I think that chanting these words shows what america stands for. Our democracy is about giving the people say, so why would a citizen sharing their voice peacefully be negative? The article really puts a negative connotation on a great piece of America's freedom.

Kristen O. said...

O'Connor and Dani,
Not only was I surprised by the negative connotations in the article about the protests in Wisconsin, but I have also been surprised by the lack of media coverage as well. This is a major, current event, as we can clearly see by the 100,000 people that went to protest on Saturday. And yet, in my opinion, it has not gotten the major media coverage that it should. It makes me wonder, why would the media choose to not report on such an important issue as this? I'm not saying it hasn't gotten any coverage, but I feel there could have been so much more.

Miles T-G said...

"connotation", examining tone, listen to this, Bo'C!!!(#goodstuff)

I agree and disagree with your claim of it not getting enough attention in the media. I believe it warrants more coverage, however let us not forget about Libya and the Middle East as well as the tragedies in Japan. There is coverage, it's just not getting the full percentage of nightly news it would be were there not so much else going on in the world.

I leave you with one bit of advice:
leave the Cubs or Die (Hard) without ever seeing another pennant, let-alone a World Series title. I'm no Sox fan, not a fan of baseball at all, just a realist.

Max Rice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Rice said...

The Huffington Post picked up an article that is right leaning? What the h? Although I am an avid reader and fan of the site, often do the articles have a strong bias and/or are written in a sensationilist manner (too frequent are the headlines highly exaggerated attention grabbers) . Which to me is perfectly fine, because sites/blogs such as the huffington post are not responsible for reporting the objective news nor are required/compensated by the government to do so like network news stations are (someone really ought to sue/prosecute the executives of those networks). Which is why sites such as the huffington post should never be ones primary source of information but should be coupled with multiple other sources of at least somewhat objective news. And if one approaches the site as such, the biases should be easily spotted and not fundamental in forming an opinion on whatever issue.

Leland L. said...

The Huffington Post is written by thousands of obscure bloggers, and as their services are unpaid, their goal is not necessarily journalistic integrity, but rather, as Max pointed out, a sensational headline. Not only are they trying to attract the readers, but create a name for themselves. While much of the site is written and curated by a paid staff, this article could easily have been written by someone attempting to create a name for themselves in the blogosphere.

David said...

I am in agreement with Leland's post and will borrow some facts from his post for mine. (Thanks Leland!) I think that this article is trying to create a story for people to be wowed by. They are trying to make it seem like a huge protest was going on, like Vietnam. When was the last time a huge protest happened? I mean, small ones happen every day, but a huge national-coverage kind of protest was the Vietnam war. Everyone knows about it. So they tried to compare it, so that the people could hear a story, not a boring unemotional factual piece. Some scholars like ourselves like knowing the facts, but you don't gain a loyal audience by being dry and boring. So, clearly this piece wanted to gain an audience and blow up the story so that people would want to read about it, follow it, and see if anyone got arrested. Gaining readership.

Doc OC said...

The AP is not the Huffington Post. It's a global news service that provides "fast, unbiased" coverage to the news. The AP website goes on to say that on any given day, half the world's population gets its news from the AP.

I was more surprised that NPR posted the AP story on its website.

While the title is not sensationalistic, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the shape of the article.

Check out this coverage of the same event by a foreign outfit, The Bangkok Post:

Jackie said...

I find it really interesting that the article from Bangkok describes the protesters in a better light than the one from the AP. The Bangkok article states that the protesters used "Cheers and bells" in protest rather than yelling "thunderous chants" like the AP articles suggests. I feel like the AP article makes the protest seem more urgent in comparison to the Bangkok article. The Bangkok article displays the basis of the protests while the AP article demonstrates more of the protesters' anger and frustrations.

Max Rice said...

Well of course the ap describes itself as "one of the largest and most trusted sources of independence news gathering" just as McDonalds claims they have the best hamburger and Toyota claims that their cars have functioning breaks. Besides how many other independent news gathering organizations are they competing against (I can only think of reuters off hand). But anyways, I dont think the media problem is just a domestic problem contrary to common thought, the AP actually publishes more articles each year overseas then is does here (although I'll admit that one article from Bangkok seemed pretty balanced). The problem, in my eyes, is that the media has through a houdini-esque slight of hand shifted a much needed debate over how to fix our nations school systems into another dumbed down version of the "big vs small government" debate filled with the same old rhetoric, heard by the same old faces, while using the same old talking points they used to commentate on whatever the last "big thing" on the 24 hour news cycle was. The mainstream media has framed this rally in such a way where the republicans/democrats will take their respective sides and once again nothing will be solved and separate the masses even more.

The Winnetka Greaser said...

I mainly take issue with dangerous adjectives such as "clogging" and phrases such as "no one was arrested". I myself was in Madison to protest on that Saturday, and there, as OC pointed out, was no need for any arrests. Everyone was peaceful, respectful, positive and orderly. police kept everyone in order, no one stepped out of line, and frankly, apart from some very funny, witty and inventive protest signs, there was nothing really or intentionally malicious or even aggressive about the protests. it was simply the people excersising their right to democracy. It becomes dangerous on the media's part when peaceful protests that are both significant and historical in current American society are spun into "clogging, screaming, angrily chanting protesters" by irresponsible hands.

trevork said...

When I visited Madison inside the capital I found letters taped to the walls asking for Scott Walker to change the bill. I read through two letters, both of which were incredibly respectful. I found this interesting because this was at the beginning of the protests (which I then imagined as not completely respectful and peaceful). Also, the police I saw were sitting down on chairs talking to each other relaxed and calm. Not at all worried about the protests. People who do not go to the protests however will read the news and not understand how peaceful the protests are and will have a completely skewed perception of what is actually happening.

HenryD said...

I would definitely say that happiness does not determine someone's social class. Last October, I had the privilege to volunteer at a single room occupancy residence in Rogers Park Chicago called the Jonquil Residence. Here's the link:

It was clear to me that each resident was lower class because of their income, which was substantially lower than most and was not steady, as well as their living conditions, which consisted of a poorly heated 12' by 12' room. Despite this, residents greeted me with a smile and thanked me for cleaning and weatherizing their windows. There was not a single resident I met who seemed unhappy with their life. To me, happiness is not a factor in social class because of this.