“The whole thing is, you feel duped,” says Peter Baisden.
Wisconsin Assembly Republicans marked Governor Tony Evers’ first 100 days in office this past Wednesday with a video that purports to show that Wisconsinites are not impressed with Evers’ work so far. In a series of man-on-the-street interviews, a dozen-odd white people are asked what Evers has gotten done in his time in office, and they struggle to come up with much that’s nice to say. Of course, this is disingenuous in the extreme, given that Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos led the charge on a lame-duck session that limited Evers’ powers, and that Republican majorities in the Assembly and State Senate are in full obstruction mode, giving little ground on Evers’ proposals. Evers has put forth budget proposals, appointed state cabinet administrators who actually seem to have some business being there, and his administration has withdrawn the state from a federal lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.
But let’s dive into what the people of real Wisconsin think!
About a third of the folks interviewed in the video are explicitly not fans of the governor, his budget proposals, his calls to legalize medical cannabis, or the possibility of higher taxes. So, that part of it is pretty unambiguous. The fiscal hawks in the video may not have known that, because the Assembly GOP is an actual part of the State Legislature rather than a part of the Wisconsin Republican Party itself, the video was produced on the state’s time and their dime. One person says “I like what he’s doing, but, you know, he hasn’t done much yet.” Another admits to not knowing who Evers is. And the rest? A big bucket of “not sure” and “I don’t know.”
In the latter camp is Madison resident Peter Baisden, who appears at around the 51-second mark and answers, “Um, I’m not quite sure.” Baisden told me Friday that he wasn’t making a political point, didn’t know the footage would be used for political propaganda, and regrets agreeing to the interview, which took place in a Walmart parking lot in Jefferson.
“Basically, I work for a wine distributor and I have a larger route, so I was in Jefferson, happened to be in the Walmart parking lot there, and I basically got out of my car, saw these guys talk to this woman as she got out of her car, and then they quickly ran up and approached me,” Baisden says. “It was very hastily done.”
He says the video crew didn’t identify themselves as Republican operatives or Assembly staffers, didn’t even give their names, and simply asked to interview him for “a project” without describing said project. The video also doesn’t identify the person conducting the interviews—it’s Steven Schwerbel, a staffer for Republican Assembly Rep. Romaine Quinn—or the locations where the interviews are taking place.
“I kind of regret not asking who they worked for,” says Baisden, who’s known around town for his work in local restaurants and bars including Robin Room and Forequarter. “They both had tags on their hips, like plastic identifier tags.”
Baisden did indeed say “I’m not quite sure,” but what the quick-hit video doesn’t show, he told me, is that he then went on to say, “and, if this is political I have no interest in participating.” He says he’s not a GOP supporter and that he didn’t have much of an answer because he hasn’t been paying much attention to the day-to-day of state politics lately, and he was preoccupied with going about the business of the day. “I’m working. I’m thinking about wine, my next stop, and then these dudes just kind of approach,” Baisden says. “There’s no way to formulate an answer, especially with such a broad question.”
“The whole thing is, you feel duped,” he says.
Kit Beyer, a spokesperson for Vos’ legislative office, denied Baisden’s claims. “The video crew included a videographer who visibly [displayed] his state ID and Steve Schwerbel,” Beyer says. “Both disagree with Mr. Baisden’s claim. Steve continued with follow up questions with him and both tell me he never said not to use the interview. The same question was asked to each person and the initial responses were shown in the video.”
I asked Beyer for some clarification. “Steve did introduce himself to every person and explain his project,” Beyer said in a later response. “Secondly the gentleman could have said no. The information that the crew gave me was that they continued their questions about the governor and after the conversion concluded, the man walked off happily and was whistling.”
I passed these comments on to Baisden, who replied: “I slightly contradict that, as no project was explained in any sort of detail, and the whistling thing is a little much, but we’ll leave it there.”
There are a few things that are important to note here from a reporting and media perspective:
-The video’s affable sweater-vested host isn’t working here under the standards of an actual media organization, so I suppose he can go about ambushing people in parking lots all he wants. That said, if you’re a reporter or producing a piece of media for a given purpose, identifying yourself as such is the right and ethical thing to do. There are very few circumstances where it’s acceptable to interview people on the record without divulging who you are or what you’re doing—for instance, if the only way to get relevant information is to go undercover, as in the famous Food Lion case. Man-on-the-street interviews about politics are not such a circumstance. Having a visible ID badge might help, but still isn’t the same as clearly stating who you are and what you’re doing. Beyer says that Baisden “never said not to use the interview,” but that doesn’t address what Baisden actually claims. Baisden said he told Schwerbel that he had “no interest in participating,” which really isn’t quite the same thing.
-Once you agree to go on the record for an interview, it’s hard to back out. If you say a bunch of stuff to me and then retroactively try to dictate to me that what you’ve just said is “off the record,” that doesn’t really work. But it’s clear that Baisden was reluctant to have his remarks construed as making any kind of political point, and it sounds like he expressed that to his interviewers. Snipping out that part of the interview makes this video misleading.
-People don’t always have good answers for things! Folks have a lot of things on their minds and when you’re in the middle of a busy day of work or errands, it’s not always easy to switch gears to complex discussion of news and politics. Especially when you’re given short notice to gather your thoughts. Buttonhole me at Woodman’s with a broad question about politics or other issues in the news, and I might have an honest-to-god brain fart. This doesn’t necessarily make people ignorant or disengaged (well, I guess the person in the video who doesn’t know who Evers is is disengaged), it just means the human brain can only be yanked in so many different directions at once.
-I don’t know what the whistling thing is supposed to indicate.
For now, Baisden seems reluctant to make too much of a stink about the issue on his personal social media accounts. He’s heard from a lot of amused or puzzled friends over the past few days after they recognized him in the video. He doesn’t plan to reach out to GOP staffers with his objections to the video, but plans to be more careful about interviews in the future.
“It’s not the first time I’ve seen two dudes rolling around a Walmart parking lot with a camera, and I’m sure it won’t be the last,” Baisden says.