In the midst of outcry that Wisconsin teachers were skipping school to protest the governor's new budget bill and demand collective bargaining rights, NBC's Norah O'Donnell provided the teachers' motives as an argument for their side. She failed to mention why Wisconsin Gov. Walker cut into their benefits in the first place.
Covering the story on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports," O'Donnell remarked that "I know there are some that think this is a travesty for the schoolchildren of that state." She added, however, "But these teachers are talking about their pensions, and they're worried about having to pay more for their health care costs, right?"
The explosive debate has featured voices from the left and right crying about the compensation Wisconsin public employees receive and what they pay in, compared with that of private sector workers. The conservative Heritage Foundation explains that Wisconsin's budget was already in the red, and that state employees enjoy generous benefits that many other citizens don't.
Wisconsin public employees enjoy generous pensions and pay only six percent on their health care premiums, Heritage notes, benefits which in the long-run were to prove unsustainable for the state to pay out. So Gov. Walker cut the budget to avoid raising taxes or firing 6,000 employees.
O'Donnell was sympathetic with the teachers without fully reporting on the opposing viewpoint – why their benefits were cut in the first place. She did ask Wisconsin State Journal reporter Clay Barbour about the budget cuts. "How much would that save the state?" she asked, without wondering if the cuts needed to be made whether they were small or not.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on February 18 at 1:02 p.m. EST, is as follows:
NORAH O'DONNELL: ...at least 16 districts closed today due to lack of staff. This morning the Washington [sic] State Journal ran an editorial saying "[Schoolteachers] shouldn't walk out on their students and community. Their absence is hurting their cause."
Clay Barbour is the state government reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, and joins us now. Clay, good to see you, and I know that there are some that think this is a travesty for the schoolchildren of that state. But these teachers are talking about their pensions, and they're worried about having to pay more for their health care costs, right?
CLAY BARBOUR: Yes, yes. They're struggling with this issue right now. It really does come down to their right to collectively bargain, for most of these teachers. But –
O'DONNELL: And Clay, how much....given what the Republican governor wants to do, how much would that save the state? Is he saying that it's crucial in terms of the budget there in that state?
BARBOUR: It's unclear right now. I mean, the governor says he needs to save about $137 million just for this particular budget, not going forward. But the problem is, there's different ways to parse those numbers. The Democrats say that actually he's exaggerated the numbers.
O'DONNELL: Yeah, so what's your sense of that? You're the reporter out there. I know there's this Democratic state senator Jon Erpenbach who said today it's not about the money, that this is really about the unions' bargaining rights, and that this is just the Republican governor taking advantage of a budget situation and trying to break the unions with this. What is it about?
BARBOUR: Yeah, it's – I definitely think you could say that it's more about weakening the unions in this state. The governor has put several pieces of legislation into this budget repair bill to specifically weaken the unions. So – so I don't think there's any disagreement there. But as you can tell from the crowds and from the unions that are bringing – they're bringing people in from out of state to fight this. They sort of feel like this is the firewall, they've got to fight it here or they're going to be fighting it in Ohio and New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Michigan – so it really does come down to collective bargaining for most of these people.