OnMedia: Which side are you on?
It's the chorus from an old union song of the same name, "Which Side are You On?"
And it's not a question reporters consider when they're covering a polarizing issue like the Madison protests against Gov. Scott Walker. In fact, it's something reporters are trained to suppress when they're doing their jobs.
But reporters and news organizations are being confronted with versions of that question by some partisans on both side who are, by nature, looking for one-sided reporting to back up their points of view.
The anti-Walker protesters had MSNBC's Ed Schultz, who was airing his TV show from Madison last week. Schultz is a talk radio host with a strong point of view, and he backed the protesters.
But Schulz isn't a reporter; his show isn't news. It's opinion.
Madison's also full of reporters whose job it is to report what they see -- not what their personal opinions are.
Channel 12 has had veteran reporter Nick Bohr on the front lines in Madison since the beginning of last week. And Bohr faced abuse from some protesters Friday night because Milwaukee's ABC affiliate shares call letters with WISN-AM (1130), the conservative talk radio station.
The two WISNs haven't been located in the same building for years, and WISN-AM is owned by Clear Channel Communications, while WISN-TV is owned by Hearst -- and there's no connection between the two.
That led Bohr to tweet:
"Allow me to correct a misperception among attendees hassling us. Mark Belling's radio station was sold by WISN-TV's owners in the mid-90's."
I spoke with Bohr by phone Monday. He said that a protester was interrupting his live shot on Friday evening, trying to rile up other protesters against him. Things calmed down when orange-vested "marshals" organizing the protest showed up to quiet things down.
"They stood there during the whole rest of our live shots" Bohr told me. "We didn't ask 'em to. But we didn't mind that they were there."
There have been few such incidents for Bohr who spent all last week at the Capitol and was back there Monday. He has had protesters ask him about his views.
"People will actually ask you 'What do you think about this, and which side are you on?'"
His response: "Look, that's not our job, we don't take sides."
On the other side, WTMJ-AM (620) is home to conservative talkers Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner, who've pushed their pro-Walker side in the dispute. But it has other programming, and a news staff that tries to cover the news without an ideological tilt.
Conservative blogger Patrick Dorwin tweeted his displeasure with WTMJ's news.
"Why is WTMJ radio news only playing audio from the union thugs?"
I asked general manager Steve Wexler about this allegation, and he answered via e-mail:
"Both sides were represented in our online, radio and TV coverage all weekend. In fact, we contrasted the pro-union side with a small business owner in Ozaukee County who had an opposing view.
"Moreover, we also featured exclusive interviews with both Gov. Walker and President Obama (… talk about hearing from both sides!)," he said.
"Our news staff's duty is to gather and report the latest developments, without weighing in on the merits of each argument. Of course, our talk hosts are not bound by that same mission. We fully expect them to weigh in and share their observations and views with the audience."
Earlier, Dorwin had complained about a guest on a Saturday WTMJ-AM show who didn't agree with his side in the dispute.
"WTMJ radio should be ashamed of themselves! Their weekend legal show has a labor lawyer spewing lies!"
That show he's talking about, the "Previant Legal Line Show" is "brokered" time bought by a local law firm.
As Wexler told me, "The Previant Show is their hour."
One more example: Here's how some protesters, including one particularly irritating guy, treated Fox News Channel reporter Jeff Flock in Madison:
the majority of wisconsin voters had no idea Walker was going to do something so awesomely stupid. "I don't watch the news or read the paper normally..." yeah, this about sums up how relevant your dithering, borderline psycho comments are. follow glen beck or not, if it walks like an uninformed right wing nut job, posts like an uninformed right wing nut job...
Tim, Glad to see that real journalists are staying objective in this story. Noticed a tweet from a MKE reporter about other reporters breaking the "off the record" code and disclosing the location of the WI 14... Do you know what happened? Thanks!
I accompanied a friend to support the protesters last Saturday and I must say it was very civil. I didn't see any animosity even with the Tea Party present. I didn't see them personally and I don't know where they were located on the capitol grounds. We even spoke with a couple of Madison police officers afterward and they too said that it was amazingly civil for how many people were there. Considering what can happen in this situation, I just hope it can stay that way.
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