The WSJ Overreaches On Wisconsin Democrats Story

The Wall Street Journal went A1 with a big scoop this morning that “Democrats to End Union Standoff” in Wisconsin.

Big news! Problem is, some of the Democrats said immediately that the story was wrong, and its main source quickly walked back what the Journal says.

Here’s what the Journal wrote:

Sen. Mark Miller said he and his fellow Democrats intend to let the full Senate vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget-repair” bill, which includes the proposed limits on public unions’ collective-bargaining rights. The bill, which had been blocked because the missing Democrats were needed for the Senate to have enough members present to vote on it, is expected to pass the Republican-controlled chamber.

The New York Times followed late last night quoting one Wisconsin Dem saying they would return “at some point in the future.”

But Chris Larson, one of the refugee lawmakers, says on Facebook that the Journal report took Miller out of context:

Unfortunately, the WSJ fished for the quote they wanted, skipping this key step in logic: we won’t come back until worker’s rights are preserved.

And Senator Jon Erpenbach said this on Facebook, too:

Here’s the deal… The fact is Mark Millers comments were taken out of context. He was saying we will be coming home at some point. When that is is unclear and not completely up to the 14 of us. Again… we are committed to remaining in Illinois for the foreseeable future. We will continue to reach out in order to try and find compromise.

TalkingPointsMemo questioned the report last night. And the WisPolitics blog reported that two senators and the minority leader’s spokesman said the report wasn’t really news:

Sen. Bob Jauch, who along with Sen. Tim Cullen has been part of the negotiations with the governor’s staff, said Dems have known all along they would have to return to Wisconsin at some point. That position hasn’t changed in the past two weeks, and he said Dems want to force their Republican colleagues to show the public whether they stand with the governor or with workers when it comes to the proposed changes.

“I think he’s speaking the truth that at some point - and I don’t know when soon is - at some point we have to say we’ve done all we can,” Jauch said.

Jauch, though, is the same senator the Washington Post is hanging its latest report on, and the only Dem the Journal quoted in its final story. The Post says “Wis. Senate Democrats to return soon, seek talk with Walker, lawmakers say.”

“We should be returning soon in order to provide an opportunity for a vote and to hold the Republicans responsible for their actions,” Jauch said. “It will be a chance to see whether the Republicans are on the side of the people who oppose this or on the side of a governor who is out of touch with the people.”

Although Jauch said the senators have plans to return, Democratic leader Sen. Mark Miller continued to press for negotiations with Walker in hopes of reaching a compromise on what the governor calls his “budget-repair” measure.

Meantime, the Democrats’ leader Miller is asking for an in-person meeting with the governor on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin.

So what really happened here?

It looks like the Wisconsin Democrats at the very least have lost message control and have cracks forming in their unity. The Post and Times quote separate lawmakers agreeing with the Journal’s take, though it’s unclear how much the Post’s and Times’s coverage has been colored by trying to match the WSJ scoop. Indeed, the Post fails to note, in a story updated at noon Eastern time, that two of the Dems last night bypassed the press filter to say the Journal has it wrong. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel does best by quoting both sides, which shows the matter is in dispute.

Given all this, it’s difficult to untangle how much debate is still underway in the Wisconsin Democratic caucus. But one thing is pretty clear from all the confusion: The Journal was too strong in stating as fact that “Democrats to End Union Standoff”, and it overplayed the story for what it had nailed down.

Gawker’s Max Read has the funniest take on that, noting that the Journal reported that its source, Miller, “declined to say how soon the Democratic senators, who left for Illinois on Feb. 17, would return” and would come back only if certain issues are agreed on:

Ah. So, maybe a better headline would have been “Democrats Look at Returning to State Capitol, But Only After Addressing Several Issues”? Or—just to make it simpler—“Budget Standoff Continues.” Or, how about, “Same Shit Going on in Wisconsin Since Last Time You Checked.”

I would note that an earlier Journal headline hedged its bets, saying that “Wisconsin Democrats May Return Soon.” That piece, unlike the print version and the one being pushed online now, also quoted Miller:

“We are now looking at returning to the state capitol and requiring the senators to take a vote and have them declare who they’re with — the workers or the governor,” Mr. Miller said.

Note that that removed quote there says “we are now looking at returning.”

Somewhere along the way that quote got cut (perhaps for print space constraints, though it left the story with no quotes from Miller) and the headline got hyped up and turned into, effectively, “We will return to the state capitol soon.”

The first take was the better one.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,