WSJ Slips Up on a Union Story

And its misses tilt toward the anti-labor side

The Wall Street Journal’s page-one story yesteday on the union battle in Wisconsin erred on a few points, all of which skew coverage against the union side.

First the paper misleads readers by implying that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker campaigned on taking away collective bargaining rights from government workers:

Several of the new governors ran campaigns promising to go after public-union benefits and to weaken their bargaining powers…

“We have finally elected people who are doing what they said they would do,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, the newly elected Republican from Wisconsin, who supports efforts to trim labor’s powers. “I certainly hope that voters will stand by Gov. Walker when he makes these tough decisions.”

Problem is, Walker said no such thing in his campaign. Governor Walker has recently claimed he did, but the Journal Sentinel and PolitiFact Wisconsin have showed that this is flat false.

This isn’t a small detail. It matters if you’re claiming a voter mandate for radical change and you never got it.

Next, the Journal says this about right-to-work states:

Government figures show that over the past 10 years, inflation-adjusted per capita income in six right-to-work states increased at a 6.9% annual rate, while contracting at a 0.5% rate in six unionized upper-Midwest states. Many high-paying automotive and other manufacturing jobs disappeared from those union states, and foreign auto makers concentrated nearly all of their new investment in right-to-work states.

Red flag number one: No state has even come close to a 6.9 percent average annual real per capita income increase over the last ten years. Right-to-work Washington, D.C. led the pack with a 3 percent average real income increase from 2000 to 2009, according to numbers I ran from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Journal says the six “unionized upper-Midwest states,” which it doesn’t name, saw real per capita income drop by 0.5 percent a year over the last decade. But of upper-Midwest states, only Michigan has seen such a precipitous drop. Wisconsin’s real per capita income grew at 0.3 percent a year. Minnesota was up 0.3 percent a year, too. Ohio was barely negative. Indiana was down 0.1 percent.

Also, what stand out here is how incomplete and ripe for cherry-picking this six-versus-six stat is. Why does the Journal limit its comparison to six right-to-work states? As it itself notes earlier in the story, there are twenty-two right-to-work states. Which states did it pick? We’re not told.

And there sure seems to be some cherry-picking here. Of the top ten states in terms of real per capita income over the last decade, half are not right-to-work states. Moreover, of the bottom ten performing states, half are right-to-work.

The Journal, at least, does acknowledge in its next graf that:

Still, the December unemployment rate was lower in Wisconsin, at 7.5%, than in some right-to-work states such as Texas, at 8.3%, or Alabama, at 9.1%, according to the Labor Department.

But then a few paragraphs later the WSJ falls into false equivalence with pollsters Rasmussen and Gallup.

A Rasmussen poll released Monday found that 48% of likely voters supported Gov. Walker in the face-off in Wisconsin, while 38% sided with the unions. But a Gallup/USA Today poll conducted Monday found that 61% of Americans could oppose taking away collective-bargaining rights in their states.

Rasmussen polls are notoriously skewed toward Republicans—obvious even to the casual political observer. Nate Silver ran the numbers on their 2010 election polls and it was damning:

Moreover, Rasmussen’s polls were quite biased, overestimating the standing of the Republican candidate by almost 4 points on average. In just 12 cases, Rasmussen’s polls overestimated the margin for the Democrat by 3 or more points. But it did so for the Republican candidate in 55 cases — that is, in more than half of the polls that it issued.

The Journal, if it’s going to bother quoting Rasmussen’s polls, should note its hardly the trusted nonpartisan source that Gallup is. Silver himself is on the potential problems with this latest 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: , , , ,