Punching left

Two local media takes on the rifts in Madison politics.

Two local media takes on the rifts in Madison politics.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

As election day drew closer and Joe Biden narrowly won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, the tension between Madison’s radical left and more mainstream Democrats was as palpable as ever. Two stories in local media over the past week tried to capture that rift, especially in the context of city government. In The Daily Cardinal, Addison Lathers detailed the barriers that citizens and activists face when trying to participate in local government meetings. In the Wisconsin State Journal, Chris Rickert talked with a bunch of old crusties who are aghast at the behavior of young Madison lefties. Both speak volumes, for different reasons.

In the Cardinal story, Lathers focused on the processes that drive policymaking in Madison’s city government. While these processes aren’t unusual for a local government anywhere, they do create a great deal of confusion and practical snags for anyone who hopes to make their voice heard or even just follow along. (This is one reason why it’s so important to support journalists who cover local government: just making sense of it takes an incredible amount of work.) This year’s uprising against systemic racism does seem to have people fired up to put pressure on local leaders, and the relative convenience of online meetings has helped, but you’d have to be a rabid fan of General Robert to think the proceedings are all that easy to follow. Lathers talks with several activists and younger elected officials who understand how the mechanics of local government can thwart exactly the people in our community who need the most help. 

Rickert’s State Journal story is more about the politics of civility. The focus is on younger left-wing politicians’ willingness to swear, unwillingness to flatly condemn rioting, and their open disdain for certain media outlets, chiefly the State Journal itself. The story’s framing is little hairy from the start, in that the headline uses “liberal” as a catch-all for both mainstream Democrats—who for the most part are centrist if not center-right, despite the party’s vocal left wing—and for radical leftists who want to meaningfully challenge capitalism and the carceral state. In a lot of left-wing discourse, “liberal” is actually a derisive term connoting excessive moderation. This in itself, I guess, illustrates how different generations of politicians and activists are speaking different languages and have fundamentally different worldviews. To further complicate things, Madisonians young and old love them the term “progressive,” which for all its proud history can become something of a malleable weasel zone between left and center.

Many of the sourcing decisions here are howlingly bad: Rickert gets the head of right-wing hate group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and local racist David Blaska, to provide historical context on left-wing politics. The piece also quotes former mayor and gloriously inept Isthmus columnist Dave Cieslewicz making the flatly false claim that “the far left is running everything” in Madison. Rickert attributes to another former mayor, Paul Soglin, the notion that “many of Madison’s current leaders seem more interested in punishing business people, including State Street merchants.” Nevermind that one of the people on the more raucous-lefty side of the equation, State Rep.-elect Francesca Hong, is herself a downtown business owner who has aggressively advocated for state leaders to bail out the service industry. But then again, several of the story’s main subjects—including former State Senate candidate Nada Elmikashfi (who recently became an Isthmus columnist running opposite Cieslewicz) and Madison Alder Max Prestigiacomo—have stated publicly that they refuse to talk to the State Journal, citing the lack of diversity on the paper’s staff and editorial board, and its tendency towards “both-sides”-ism that gives too much weight to property destruction in the face of state violence.

I will be the first to say that you cannot judge journalism solely on whether it carries water for your political viewpoint, burnishes your brand, advances your preferred narrative, or congratulates the people you would congratulate. Even media outlets you don’t like are rarely monolithic. It’s easy to take for granted all the things local journalists do well and just focus on the embarrassing blow-ups. It’s truly an atrociously hard time to be a journalist, contending with an unstable media industry and the one-third or so of the population that wants to murder you, so I get why media folks are often edgy and defensive in response to criticism. Madison’s media landscape is filled with incredibly flawed institutions that still manage to employ excellent journalists who deserve our gratitude and respect. Most local reporters are not Chris Rickert, thank god.

But I’d also say that criticism of the press from leftists and people of color is not the same as criticism of media outlets from the right. The right has strategically sought to undermine the very concept of a free and independent press, because good journalism can hold them accountable and expose their lies. People of color and leftists have a more legitimate beef, because media representation of non-white communities and radical political movements is so often lacking, and because the traditional paradigm of journalistic “objectivity” is intrinsically bound up in political, racial, and economic imbalances. That’s why we get coverage that focuses so much on manners and so little on the impressive campaigns and policy platforms young lefties have launched.

I don’t even agree with everything Elmikashfi and Prestigiacomo say about local media, but I do think they have a good-faith commitment to the concept of journalism as a force that holds the powerful accountable and speaks up for marginalized people. And as a media person, I respect their commitment to afflicting the comfortable.

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