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Where are the gotcha questions for Sen. Tammy Baldwin? It’s time the media starts asking Baldwin some of them. Ron Kind and Ron Johnson, too.
Let’s take Baldwin first. The media should start firing the questions at her.
As in, what did she know and when, about the VA opiate scandal (you know, those very serious allegations that veterans were being over-medicated at the Tomah VA, but Baldwin sat on the information, and then a veteran died of an overdose)?
As in, pinning down the timeline and making her do so in her own words. Asking her about the aide she unceremoniously dumped, and that aide’s claims of workplace discrimination. As in, asking the senator for details about the severance package she allegedly offered that aide, in exchange for her silence, and why she thought that was an appropriate thing to do with our tax dollars.
Baldwin’s response to the opiate scandal has been utterly arrogant. And this is serious stuff. Opiate addiction is no small thing. It’s a devastating addiction that is correlated to heroin use.
Usually (half joking here) when politicians want to cover something up, they try not to leave tracks or fingerprints. They hush people up in secrecy (or threaten them), or they erase minutes on tapes (not supporting any of those things, obviously).
I’ve never heard of a politician so brazenly orchestrating an alleged obvious cover up – a severance offer with confidentiality agreement with tax dollars? Who does that? Which politician says, well, not only am I not answering all of your questions, media, but I’m going to try to pay off a subordinate with your money on top of it! Unreal. It’s not the crime, but the coverup, the cliché goes – the open coverup with our tax dollars?
Republicans like to say there is a media double standard. Sometimes, that’s just complaining designed to deflect coverage of their own politicians’ misdeeds. And sometimes, they have a point. They have a point here. I don’t think a conservative politician could survive creating such a severance package for a subordinate in the midst of a scandal. Can you imagine if Scott Walker was accused of workplace discrimination in a scenario such as this? And then paid the person off?
Worse, Baldwin has now resorted to hiding behind an attorney. It’s never a good sign for a politician in a scandal when that politician resorts to hiring an attorney and stops answering the media’s questions. When an attorney is speaking for you, you’re worried about something.
Baldwin is a public official. She needs to answer for herself.
The media are enabling it, though. There’s been some coverage, but it’s not been reported as if it’s that big of a deal. If it was, it would be on the front page, day-in and day-out, leading the local newscasts, and drawing national coverage besides. Again, it’s not that the media’s ignored this entirely; it’s that the aggressive tone is lacking. Instead, we’re all talking about Scott Walker’s refusal to talk about President Obama’s religion (that question was easy to answer, by the way. Obama is a Christian, not that it should matter if he wasn’t. But that’s another column).
And while they are at it, the media could also direct some of the "gotcha" questions about the VA scandal toward Democrat Ron Kind and Republican Ron Johnson, both of whom (you probably didn’t hear about it) also were accused by the same VA whistleblower of failing him by allegedly not acting aggressively enough about the allegations (they’re all upset about the VA now, really upset). For example, scattered media reports have revealed that Kind knew about the issue way back in 2011, well before the media accounts blew the scandal wide open.
How come we’re not hearing more about that?
Previous media accounts said Kind received an anonymous complaint that year which he gave to the VA inspector general. He’s said they issued a report that didn’t find criminality but made other suggestions. Why didn’t we hear about that then? And Johnson’s staff referred complaints to a senate subcommittee, previous media accounts show. So, yes, there have been some previous media accounts, but the Kind-Johnson angles have been so scattered and buried that I doubt many people even remember those angles.
From a WKOW TV story in January on the whistleblower: "Honl says he begged Sen. Baldwin's office to release the report and also contacted the offices of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI-3) about it, as well. He says they all failed him..."
But we are only hearing about Baldwin’s failures (maybe the media double standard isn’t the only thing at play).
The media have ways to get answers to questions when they are determined. Track Baldwin down at a hearing or outside a meeting, and ask the questions there. Ask Kind and Johnson something beyond just accepting their rhetoric at face value. Stenographers accept rhetoric. Journalists aren’t supposed to do so. Put it on the front page until the pressure is too great to remain silent.
What was allegedly going on at the VA is a very serious matter. It’s certainly more serious than a potential presidential candidate’s opinions about the president’s patriotism (although I think that question was also easy to answer. Obama loves his country. His policies don’t all work).
We have an obligation to our veterans. We owe them when they return to our shores. Did Baldwin, Kind, and Johnson fail our veterans? Could they have done more to deal with the opiate scandal? Could they have acted more aggressively? Why didn’t they? Well, they all now say it’s a big deal that needs fixing. They’re shouting from the rooftops about that. So why weren’t they as aggressive before the news coverage hit? What did they know, when? (Baldwin’s behavior is more egregious, as far as we know, because of the severance angle).
When the different media outlets all fire away on the same cylinders, demanding answers, then answers are often proffered. When they scour public records in order to contrast them with politicians’ statements, truths and untruths are revealed.
Yet there’s been no "John Doe email" style fervor when it comes to the opiate scandal and that’s wrong.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.