Can We Recall Bad Reporting on Wisconsin Budget Deficit?

One would hope that by now that the press would debunk the fuzzy budget math Gov. Scott Walker (R.-Wisc.) was using to justify his attack on collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.


The New York Times (6/6/12):

The political war in Wisconsin began in February 2011 when Governor Walker, only weeks into his first term, announced that he needed to cut benefits and collective bargaining rights for most public workers as a way to solve an expected state budget deficit of $3.6 billion.

Fox‘s Bill O’Reilly (6/5/12):

On the spending front, when Walker took office there was a budget deficit of $3.6 billion in Wisconsin. Now the deficit is projected to be $143 million… an astounding drop.

That $3.6 billion deficit number was one of Walker’s main tools. But was it accurate?

Not really. Brendan Fischer explained this at the time at PR Watch, noting that Walker was using budget request figures from agencies in order to make things sound worse.

As we wrote in Extra! (4/11):

But as Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy told CounterSpin (2/25/11–3/3/11), those figures, which came from Gov. Scott Walker’s office, represented funding requests from various state agencies—wish lists that were never likely to be granted unaltered.

Yet media coverage stressed that Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining was purely a fiscal move. It was “a key piece of his budget-cutting strategy” (Washington Post, 2/19/11), or “essential to help balance the budget” (New York Times, 2/19/11). On NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams announced (2/17/11) that “the state is broke,” so the governor “is proposing drastic cuts he says will save billions of dollars.” NBC reporter Kerry Sanders chimed in: “Walker says he will cut up to $3.6 billion from the budget, in large part by eliminating unions’ collective bargaining powers to negotiate wages and benefits.”

But would these cuts really reduce a “large part” of Wisconsin’s supposed $3 billion budget deficit? Not really—according to some estimates from Walker’s office, the health/pension cuts might save $300 million (USA Today, 2/23/11).

Media didn’t dig into those numbers at the time, so I guess it’s no surprise that the coverage didn’t seem to get much better now that Walker’s job is no longer on the line.


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.