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As Mark Twain once noted, "If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything." Someone might have reminded Brian Williams and Scott Walker about that before they started spinning yarns so colorful that they made me think of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox.
Only one is really being held accountable for it (that would be Williams, who took himself off the air. Which probably means NBC told him to take himself off the air. It’s never good when Tom Brokaw is angry at you).
Walker’s yarn will end up being more of a blip most certainly. In fact, the national media barely noted it, caught up as they were in the "Walker boomlet" gushing, all acting like they had just "discovered" Walker as if they were talent scouts who spotted a new supermodel on a beach (except for The New York Times editorial board, but that will help him in Iowa).
It was telling that, in some corners, people were trashing Williams while praising Walker. But I think both of the tall tales tell us something about the people who made them.
When it comes to Williams, it’s not that consequential. A news anchor these days is just one of many, competing for a spot on the crowded information highway that we all own. There is no Cronkite anymore, capable of moving the national conversation. Williams always struck me as Brokaw Lite. I stopped watching network news a long time ago. I’ll flip on cable news when there’s a big tragedy (they should give Anderson Cooper the Williams spot; I kind of like him).
In case you missed it, Williams took a turn at playing Walter Mitty, fantasizing (or just outright lying) about his helicopter being struck by enemy fire in Iraq. Turns out it wasn’t. I watched a presentation on the Williams tale, and it morphed in his public statements over the years several times, growing more dramatic. I’m tempted to say all this tells us about Williams is that he’s an egotist, fantasist and a news reader, not a journalist. But we already knew that. It is insulting to the troops who really were in helicopters struck by enemy fire, though. He was right to step off the air.
As for Scott Walker, I’m referring to his tall tale on the rewriting of the UW mission statement, of course. Hey, at least he didn’t try to convince us it was "old news" (as in, that thing? It was changed a month ago, so how dare you ask me any questions!) Ironically, he – well, someone – scratched out the phrase in the mission statement that refers to searching for the truth.
At first, when asked about it by reporters, Walker didn’t seem concerned about the changes – which essentially deleted the century-old concept known as the "Wisconsin Idea" – which embodies notions of service and connections to communities and so on. But then the deletions jumped national. And it wasn’t playing well. Probably because it sounded terrible in the boiled down version: "Candidate for president objects to the search for the truth." Not the headline you need when the national media are just discovering you might be president.
One local conservative website referred to this as an unforced error. I’d agree with that. The way Walker handled this controversy compounded it all. After the changes broke bad in the national press, Walker uttered a series of Williams-esque claims. First, he alleged the Wisconsin Idea was deleted from UW’s mission statement due to a "drafting error" and implied it was UW’s fault for missing it.
A drafting error? How exactly does a drafting error find its way into the budget proposal of a governor running for president? (yeah, I know he hasn’t announced yet. Whatever). This was Williams-like implausibility.
Then, documentary evidence emerged establishing that, actually, UW did know about the changes and objected (which begs the question as to why the UW system didn’t tell anyone else about them. One under-reported story is how the UW system has shut out others in the system. Interestingly, one of Walker’s oldest and closest friends is now in a top post at the UW system in university relations.).
Walker’s administration overruled the objections. In other words, how could it be a drafting error if the Walker administration was rebuffing the UW system’s requests to restore most of the language?
Yeah, we’re really headed toward likely lie territory now.
Walker then shifted his story – yes, yet again – fuzzily blaming it all on a miscommunication (huh?) in a rambling press release and announcing that he didn’t know what was in his own budget. He blamed it on underlings, one of whom then took the fall.
First of all, if veracity matters in a national news anchor, it surely matters in a potential future president. I don’t like my intelligence being insulted, and the shifting stories insulted our intelligence. Tossing subordinates under the bus also isn’t very noble (and it’s happened before in Walker Land).
More critically: I think the Wisconsin Idea kerfuffle revealed a lot, actually, about Walker’s actual plans. If you research the Wisconsin Idea, you see that it has deep roots in the Wisconsin progressive movement (you know, Bob LaFollette and all that).
Take a step back, and you can see the design then. I think this is really, in a deeper sense, about the governor targeting power sources of ideological opposition. The much lauded autonomy of the Public Authority? It just means the power to remake UW will rest in the hands of a board almost entirely appointed by Walker, a board that would have all the more power without shared governance (which I have mixed feelings on, as I have seen shared governance work well and work absolutely abysmally).
I am not arguing that everything’s perfect in the UW. It’s not. There is some truth in the middle on some points. It’s just to say that I think when you string it all together (UW, cuts to public radio and TV, the DNR stuff, even Act 10), you start to see a governor who is on a quest to root out the ideological opposition. And I don’t think the voters signed up for that. I think they just wanted a better economy.
Worse, he’s not admitting it. He’s trying to make us believe that he didn’t know what was in his own budget.
I don’t think this is really about the budget cuts or tax cuts or teacher workloads. Those are, at least in the case of the latter, a distraction. I think it’s about ideology, and it’s about Walker’s perception that the universities are liberal citadels that need smashing. There is some truth in them being liberal citadels (if you don't believe me, you try being a non liberal in UW and see how long you last or are treated) but it’s way too simplistic. This also speaks to the Reagan notion of government being the problem. Privatize everything, goes the cry (but keep tossing money at those road builders!).
I oppose the UW cuts because of the magnitude of them (I am teaching academic staff at UWM. My opinions are my own and don’t represent the university’s). That’s not to say there’s nowhere to cut in a university the size of, say, UW-Milwaukee; sure, you could find something to cut, although the universities have already weathered a lot of cuts and have suffered through declining state support.
It's to say that a university like UW-Milwaukee will have a very hard time weathering a cut the size of $40 million to it alone without devastating cuts to programs that affect students (but I think the Legislature will lessen the blow, at least I hope). UWM matters. It's a major contributor to the state's economic engine. Eighty percent of UWM's 160,000 graduates remained in Wisconsin.
I oppose the Public Authority because I think it’s a bad idea to have appointed boards set wages and tuition, and because I think it’s a ruse to give Walker more control over the university, limiting the voters from having a say through the Legislature.
See, this is the tallest tale. I think Gov. Walker simply doesn’t believe in the Wisconsin Idea at all. If he had nothing to do with the mission statement deletions (which is wildly implausible), I still think he agrees with what they did. To me, his vision for UW is something akin to Phoenix University (privatized, strictly skills focused, no research or service … ).
If Walker didn’t scratch out the lines in that mission statement himself, he surely doesn’t disagree with the changes.
Tall tales matter when they hide agendas. Maybe someone could make an argument about changing the UW mission statement (I don’t mind the workforce development line stuck in it, for example, although I oppose the deletions). But such a case should be made transparently and in a manner that allows fair and vigorous debate.
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.