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Wisconsin senators in Illinois and Gov. Walker fight for TV time

In urging the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators to return from Illinois to the Badger State capitol, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said repeatedly they have to be “in the arena.” Whether the Wisconsin Dems in Illinois are in the Wisconsin political arena is a point of debate.

But are they staying in the Wisconsin media arena from outside the state border?

The Dems clearly have a structural disadvantage in staying in the local media eye, particularly in the all-important TV eye: They’re not in Madison as usual, where Wisconsin TV can easily cover them.

How’s the war for TV going?

For anyone not aware, the 14 Senate Democrats left Wisconsin one week ago to prevent a vote on Walker’s budget repair bill, which cuts state worker pay and benefits and eliminates most collective bargaining rights for most employees. The Senate Republican majority needs at least one Democrat to attend a floor session reach the quorum needed to allow a vote. By staying out of state, the Dems are stopping the Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, from passing the bill.

Republican Walker has taken full advantage of the Dems’ absence and his stature as governor, becoming a common face on TV and print in Wisconsin and nationally. He’s held numerous news conferences. He’s conducted many local and national one-on-one interviews, including a live session on ABC’s “Good Morning” with host George Stephanopoulus.

To keep his messages in the media, he held a live “Fireside Chat” (though without a lit fireplace) this week that pre-empted local evening news, receiving uninterrupted, unedited coverage without reporter questions on seemingly all Wisconsin news channels. Throughout his continuing media blitz, he’s appeared very comfortable on camera and stayed on message.

Highlighting the Dems’ distance from the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald this week held a conference call meeting with two of the absent senators. Media attended. The two senators’ name tags were visible at Fitzgerald’s table, but their seats were visibly empty. Their voices were heard on a speaker phone, but the visual of their voices through a speaker didn’t help them.

So how are the Dems doing, away from the Wisconsin media machine?

The Senate Dems put together an immediate live response to Walker’s fireside chat that was aired on TV (with some media Q&A) from their undisclosed location. In terms purely of the visuals, the Dems’ broadcast looked less polished, which is understandable given their location was the basement of a hotel. But they were on TV when they needed to be.

Sen. Mark Miller televised respone to Gov. Walker "fireside chat"

The media seems a bit fascinated by the Dems absence, which benefits the senators. Sure, the media uses words like “fled,” “skipped town,” “are on the lam” and similar jocular terms in describing the Dems’ relocation.

But the absent Dems have been interviewed by phone, with comments appearing on air and in print. They’ve allowed some TV and photographers into their “undisclosed location” – apparently an Illinois hotel – with footage and interviews showing up on air in places such as on Milwaukee’s ABC news affiliate (WISN) and on the CBC Evening News.

The coverage often makes them look under siege and thus creates sympathy. Today’s New York Times ran a front-page story entitled “Life on the run for Democrats in union fights” about them and Indiana state reps in a similar situation.

And despite their situation, they’ve managed to appear remotely on national TV — for example, Sen. Jon Erpenbach made satellite appearances on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and on the Colbert Report. The Colbert Report segment is an hilarious, must-see.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wisco Inferno – Jon Erpenbach
www.colbertnation.com
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A main reason this story is a national story is the great visuals of large numbers of protesters. The protesters are colorful, articulate, passionate and carry clever signs. They return in huge numbers day after day after day. And these sorts of protests in the U.S. are, at least in this era, unique. (Early prediction – between the demonstrations in Cairo and Madison, Time Magazine will name “The Protester” as person of the year.)

I am a little surprised that, in this era of YouTube, the Dems haven’t compensated for their physical absence with easily accessible and effective online video tools. Web cams, Flip cameras, YouTube postings, Skype interviews – these are all part of how everyone from teenagers to national anchors communicates with each other these days. They would have allowed the Dems to provide video to  TV and directly to constituents via the web.

In media interviews, the Dems said they left for Illinois hastily, not even packing changes of clothes. So grabbing the webcam was probably far from their minds, assuming they use webcams.

Critics see another kind of lack of planning, this one by national unions, that cannot be explained by a need for a hasty exit from Wisconsin. Forbes contributor Rick Ungar, in a piece, “Public Employee Unions Failing Badly At Public Relations,” argues that unions nationally “had to know this was coming – and yet, they were completely unprepared.”

“In an era where the public is all too ready to blame state employees for what they perceive as feeding at the public trough – while those in the private sector are left to suffer the ravages of a deep recession – the union PR machine has been anything but effective,” Ungar wrote of the national labor movement.

Since the Wisconsin protests began, labor has been running TV and prints ads, keeping toe to toe with the ads supporting Walker. But could labor have avoided the situation in the first place by building a better case for unions over the last few years, as Ungar writes? What do you think?

One Response so far.

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Bentoff, Jeff Bentoff. Jeff Bentoff said: How WI Democrats in IL and Gov. Walker in Madison are fighting for and getting media attention. In my blog today. http://bit.ly/eNuuBc [...]

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