SEIU spokesman John-david Morgan - also, incidentally, a former journalist - told a staffer (audio embedded below the fold) for GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker that local media affiliates for all three major networks were "willing partners" in the union's efforts to defeat Walker. The staffer gave a fake name and recorded the conversation without Morgan's knowledge.
"They've really been willing partners in it," Morgan told the staffer. "They come in with the TV cameras, and [channels] 58, 12 come, and 6 doesn't always. But, yeah, they've been really helpful. They think it's fun." Channels 58 and 12 are Milwaukee's CBS and ABC affiliates, respectively. "It's not perfect," Morgan added, but "they get our message across."
Indeed, Morgan apparently felt that some items from these outlets reinforced the SEIU's anti-Walker campaign. Among the issues the union planned on hammering Walker for, according to Morgan, was a disaster at O'Donnell Park in Milwaukee, where a piece of cement fell from a parking garage over the summer (thanks to vermontaigne for the correction), killing a 15-year-old boy.
Morgan apparently approved of the local CBS station's coverage of the fallout over the accident. He posted a story from the outlet on his Facebook page, as seen in the screenshot below:
Morgan also mentioned channel 4, the local NBC station, for its coverage of inspections of state facilities, which the SEIU hopes to use as the basis of an attack campaign against Walker.
According to a transcript of the exchange, Morgan described the union's tactics - and the media's role in it - thusly:
Yeah, you know, like, when we did the people's building inspection, we went around to a bunch of buildings where we know stuff is falling apart. Scott Walker has neglected these buildings, and he keeps putting repairs off because he, you know, won't fix anything. So, you know, they poked fun at us a little bit for having like a phony report card. It's like whatever, but then they said, "But the group does have a point - a piece fell off the courthouse in May."
And sure enough, a search through channel 4's website reveals a story from August 19 on the SEIU's fake "report card" on the state of public facilities. The piece regurgitates a number of claims from union, and one attack from a county supervisor who joined the SEIU in its sham "inspections."
"I think that people should beware of the dishonest budgeting of Scott Walker," said Democratic county supervisor Chris Larson, whose party affiliation is not mentioned in the piece.
I contacted Morgan via Facebook and asked him to elaborate on his "willing partners" comment. At first, he said that he was only expressing his appreciation for "all the hard work that broadcast journalists did covering our events."
When I asked about the disconnect between that claim and the numerous comments he made in his recorded coversation suggesting more than a simple third-party-observation role on the part of the news media, Morgan refused to comment any further. He instead referred me to the transcript of the exchange, in which he said "my meaning is best reflected."
None of the three networks' local affiliates returned requests for comment by deadline. The Wisconsin Democratic Party, Walker's oppoenent's campaign, and SEIU Local 1 also did not respond to such requests.
But the Wisconsin Republican Party - to whom the Walker campaign directed a press inquiry - was happy to offer its views on media coverage of the race in a phone conversation. I asked whether the party thinks the media is in fact aiding the SEIU campaign against Walker. Wisconsin GOP spokesman Andrew Welhouse told me:
I think that the only voice that you really need to hear is the SEIU's. I think that the fact that the said something so blatantly - I mean, it's their words, not ours. They're the ones that are saying "these guys are in the tank for us." I can't imagine that he would say something like that if he didn't have anything to back it up - a feeling that they were all going with.
Asked whether media bias has been a significant problem in the campaign, Welhouse stated:
What people see on TV and what people read in the newspaper goes a long way in determining how they perceive their elected officials as representing them, and it goes a long way in how they perceive new people coming on the scene.
People know there's a difference between paid advertising and what they read in the news and what they see in the media, and if there's an ongoing perception that the media is biased or stilted one way or the other, that's a big problem. And for the other side to so blatantly say, "we've got these guys in our camp," that's not only a problem for one party saying one thing and the other party saying another thing and there being a campaign between two different sides, but that's a real problem for people who see the news media as an unbiased source of information.
Though none of the media outlets in question returned requests for comment, it seems safe to assume that they would deny any official collaboration with the SEIU.
But the fact that the media in question were so eager to cover events in a manner friendly to a group as far to the left as the SEIU implies a convergence of political ideology, if not a political objective. Even if the media are not actively working with Democratic shock troops, they apparently share a sense of what is news - in this case, events damaging to the Republican gubernatorial candidate.
The bottom line is Morgan's admission raises serious ethical concerns beyond political bias. The news media can have a dramatic impact on elections, since they proclaim themselves wholly objective and non-partisan. This revelation may belie that claim - at least in Milwaukee.