Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The New York Times's coverage of the Wisconsin protests has been horrendous -- so horrendous that it earned plaudits from Gov. Scott Walker.
In his punked phone call from the pretend Koch brother, Walker said the following:
"I don't normally tell people to read New York Times, but the front page of the New York Times has a great story, one of these unbelievable moments of true journalism, what is supposed to be objective journalism,"
The story on Feb. 22 was written by Monica Davey and A. G. Sulzberger -- hmmm, that last name sounds familiar. He just happens to be the son of the paper's publisher.
Anyway, what Walker so admired about the piece was that the reporters talked to someone who's "been laid off twice by GM" but still says "everyone else in his town has had to sacrifice except all these public employees and it's about damn time they do, and he supports me.... I mean, every stereotypical blue-collar worker type they interviewed, and the only ones that weren't with us were people who were either a public employee or married to a public employee. It's an unbelievable story."
It sure is.
Now the thing about reporting and editing is that it's all about selection. The assignment editors at the New York Times could have sent the publisher's son and Monica Davey out to find union people who voted for Walker but now have a bad case of buyer's remorse.
Or they could have sent them out to find people who always voted for Republicans, but won't anymore because of Walker.
I've met folks in both these categories at the rallies at the capitol. They're not hard to find.
But no, the Times didn't choose to report these stories. Instead, it wrote a piece so favorable to the hideous governor that he now wants to reprint it.
With the exception of Steven Greenhouse's good reporting -- not a surprise, because he is, after all, their veteran labor reporter -- the leading liberal paper in the country has been worse than useless on the major domestic story of the year. The headlines have focused on "budget cuts," when in fact the issue is collective bargaining. And the headline on the Sulzberger-Davey piece was distorted, also: "Union Bonds In Wisconsin Begin to Fray."
Actually, in my 28 years in Wisconsin, I've never seen the union bonds tighter than they are today.
But you sure wouldn't know that reading the New York Times.
Appendix: He Wasn't Even a Union Member!
Few news stories better spoke to the destruction of union solidarity and the realization that even those public employees collectively bargaining in Wisconsin were going to have to givesomething back, than the New York Times' piece a week ago tomorrow titled "Union Bonds In Wisconsin Begin To Fray."
The by-line was shared by no less than Arthur G. Sulzberger, the son of the publisher and official carrier of the Times' family name. The piece ran prominently on the front page. Sulzberger himself interviewed the main 'get' in the piece. Beyond the mere reporting was the symbolism of the Times -- even the sainted liberal media Times -- throwing in the towel on the inviolability of unions, conceding that an American state could renege with impunity on a good faith contract with anybody, and that maybe the Right is right every once in awhile.
Problem is, A.G. Sulzberger's featured disillusioned unionist interviewee...wasn't in a union.
JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Rich Hahan worked at the General Motors plant here until it closed about two years ago. He moved to Detroit to take another G.M. job while his wife and children stayed here, but then the automaker cut more jobs. So Mr. Hahan, 50, found himself back in Janesville, collecting unemployment for a time, and watching as the city's industrial base seemed to crumble away.
Among the top five employers here are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations.
"Something needs to be done," he said, "and quickly."
Compelling, damning, overwhelming words, and from such a source!
Except the source, Rick Hahn, now admits that while he worked in union factories, he was never, you know, in a union per se. So why did the Diogenes of the Times, Mr. Sulzberger, believe he had found his honest union man? Because Hahn "described himself to a reporter as a 'union guy.'"
And yes, Hahan/Hahn's deception, intentional or accidental (and if you noticed the multiple spelling, yes, Mr. Sulzberger of the Times also got the guy's name wrong) sat out there in the alleged newspaper of record for four days, during which nobody bothered to correct the sloppy, destructive reporting of the Family Heir. When they finally did, editors buried it inside.
'Buried it inside' is newspaper lingo, in case A.G. Sulzberger isn't familiar with it.
We know about this Times disaster from last Tuesday because the paper finally got around to correcting it in Saturday's edition. The mistake got page 1A. The correction got a little box "below the fold" (somebody explain that term to Mr. Sulzberger, too) on 2A, which is read about as thoroughly as the drug interaction warnings that come with aspirin:
A front-page article on Tuesday about reaction among private-sector workers in Wisconsin to Gov. Scott Walker's effort to cut benefits and collective-bargaining rights for unionized public employees referred incorrectly to the work history of one person quoted, and also misspelled his surname. While the man, Rich Hahn (not Hahan) described himself to a reporter as a "union guy," he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not himself a union member. (The Times contacted Mr. Hahn again to review his background after a United Auto Workers official said the union had no record of his membership.)
This clear picture of a bunch of agendas happily coinciding -- 'Sulzberger! Find me a Wisconsin union guy who agrees with the Governor!' -- and to hell with the facts or the fact-checking or the spelling, with the truth coming to light only from -- gasp! -- an actualunion guy (from the devil UAW itself!), has been reduced to a "PS, the publisher's kid kinda screwed up on the most important domestic news story of the moment" instead of serving as the springboard for something fair, or even useful -- maybe a front-page piece about the disinformation war being waged by Governor Walker and the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party in Wisconsin and whether or not this Hahan/Hahn was part of it, intentionally or inadvertently.
Fortunately the Times fulfilled its literal journalistic obligation. The "Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town" of the original piece, is now safely corrected for all time (except in all the versions that ran in the Times and other papers like The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)into "Mr. Hahn, a man who has worked at unionized factories."
This is as if an article about whistle-blowing at Fox News was predicated on quotes from me and erroneously identified me as a former Fox News host, but had been corrected to 'Mr. Olbermann, the news commentator who has worked at Fox.' It is literally true. I used to work at Fox. Fox Sports. I went to visit a friend in the Fox News basement bunker once, in 1999.
I am not just injecting myself gratuitously into this important flagging of the Times for getting hosed by a union guy who never belonged to the union. I read recently in the same paper that early in my career I had been fired by UPI Television. I never worked for UPI Television. If you read the first of these essays you know I also wasn't fired by UPI. Anything (although a drunken boss tried -- and was -- Oh, Irony! -- stopped by the union). The best part is that until I read the piece, I don't think I'd ever heard of "UPI Television."
The obvious point about Sulzberger's story is that, at best, the Times made a terrible mistake rendering fraudulent a featured piece on imperiled American freedom in the middle of an info-war over that freedom by a reporter whose name is synonymous with its power structure and then tried to whitewash itself (or, at worst, it wasn't an amazing coincidence, and the Times got played like the proverbial three-dollar banjo and then tried to whitewash itself).
Seems to me the Times could start with finding out exactly who Mr. Hahan/Hahn is. There appears to be a "Rich Hahn" involved with "staffing and recruiting" for a company called "PSI" in the "Janesville/Beloit area" in Wisconsin. Is that Mr. Sulzberger's "union guy"? I'd try to tell you before, but that shred of possibly irrelevant information required me to expend nearly one entire calorie of brain heat performing a google search that kept me hopping for 30 seconds. I just did more research than the Times did and I need a nap.
Maybe they could talk to Gabrielle Union. She must have an important point of view on organized labor. Man, what if she liked Walker's proposals! That'd be some story, huh? That'd get the Right Wing off our backs for eight seconds? Am I right? Sulzberger? Sulzberger? Hello?
But the larger issue here is that while the Times and the supposed other members of the liberal media plot to turn the America of 2011 into, I dunno, the America of 1976, are flooding resources into stories in Libya and Oman -- vital stories to be sure, but hardly likely to be as resonant with and impacting of generations of middle class Americans yet unborn -- they can't be bothered to assign a fact-checker back in the newsroom in New York just to make sure Arthur G. Sulzberger can separate the 'guys who are members of a union' from the self-proclaimed 'union guys who are expressing a philosophical attitude towards unionism that may or may not be deliberately misleading.'
A million dollars to decide how to spell Gaddafi, Khaddafy, or Qadafi -- but not a penny to make a call about Rick Hahan. Or Hahn. Fitting that they added the extra "h" in Hahn's name, isn't? Read the original first sentence aloud and you can put enough spin on the syllables to pronounce it "Hah!-an."
-- Keith Olbermann
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Meet Three State Workers Who Would Get Screwed by Scott Walker."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.