Healthy Wisconsin Needs Healthy Media
Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the November 2007 edition of The Valley Scene

Once thought of as a progressive state, Wisconsin is now one of the last places citizens from other regions look to for fresh ideas, bold public policy initiatives, or courageous leadership. The "leadership" in Madison, badly compromised by an out of date campaign financing system and the well-connected special interests skilled in exploiting it, could not even pass a budget by the legal date of July 1. As I write this in mid-October, legislators and the governor finally agreed to a compromise budget after a 111-day delay.

It would be one thing if budget tardiness were the result of a group of LaFollette-like legislators holding out for the implementation of innovative, reform minded legislation. But the reality is that the budget compromise includes nothing particularly progressive, making the delay more embarrassing than anything else. Especially nauseating is the Republicans’ mantra that their refusal to pass a budget on time was about “holding the line on taxes,” when they have continuously supported pro big business tax scams that have increased the tax burden on the middle class. And as noted by nonpartisan reform advocates at Common Cause and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, legislators continued to hold reelection fundraisers even as the legislature was in session and budget talks languished. For this legislature, “progress” and “reform” are nothing more than buzz words employed in partisan press releases.

The closest the budget came to progressivism was its early inclusion of the Senate Democrats’ "Healthy Wisconsin" (HW) health care proposal. Though not a single-payer, Canadian style universal health care plan, HW if passed would make Wisconsin the state with the fewest number of uninsured citizens. According to David Riemer, former Doyle budget director and chief architect of HW, the plan provides “those who don't quality for Medicaid or BadgerCare, and who aren't yet eligible for Medicare - with the same, excellent benefit package that taxpayers now provide to state legislators, the governor, and the courts.” Citing a study prepared by Washington, D.C. based health cost consultants the Lewin Group, Riemer claims HW would cut overall health spending by over $750 million, save families $432 million, save currently insuring employers $686 million, and save government employers $1,360 million. HW’s prescription for getting government employee health care spending under control would cut property taxes statewide from over $8 billion to under $7.5 billion.

HW is hardly a revolutionary approach to health coverage, yet the Republicans immediately blasted it as “socialist.” Democratic governor Doyle gave support to the Republicans by claiming he could not support HW because “I live in the real world.” Note that there’s no room in Doyle’s “real world” for HW, but ample space for single sales tax formulas, job creation acts, and other Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce initiatives that benefit only the wealthiest Wisconsinites.
With no support from their own governor, Senate Democrats agreed to remove HW from the budget. There’s not even a firm guarantee that the proposal will get stand alone hearings and votes in both houses of the legislature. Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa) says it’s dead but might be an “impetus” for future reform. Once again, Wisconsin missed an opportunity to be a national leader on one of the great moral issues of our time.

But Doyle and the Republicans are only partially to blame. For any kind of reform legislation to have a fighting chance, establishment media have to be a healthy fourth estate in the best sense: educate the public on the legislation, expose the forces controlling the enemies of reform, and advocate editorially on behalf of the people. A growing number of blogs and alternative media serve this role, but it will be a long time before they reach even a fraction of the mainstream media audience.

Wisconsin’s corporate fourth estate did not kill Healthy Wisconsin, but did commit a fair share of journalistic and editorial malpractice. The state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was especially bad. As noted by Bruce Murphy, the paper allowed weekly business section attacks on HW without balancing commentary. Says Murphy, “The issue is too important to be covered in such a biased fashion.”

Locally, establishment media failed to communicate the urgent need for health care reform in our region. Health care costs in our area are among the highest in the nation. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office ranked physician costs in 319 metro areas around the country. Eight of the top ten were in Wisconsin, with the Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah area coming in ninth. Our physician prices were 27% above the national average. With numbers like that, you’d think any proposal to lower health care costs would get sustained, serious reporting and editorial endorsements.

As a member of the Oshkosh Common Council, I can tell you that health care costs continue to eat up larger shares of local tax dollars. Our preliminary 2008 budget shows a 19% increase in health insurance rates, a staggering amount in an era of ever decreasing financial assistance from Madison. If for no other reason than to help keep local taxes under control, Fox Valley media should have done much more to keep Healthy Wisconsin alive.

Without a healthy media, we’re not likely to have a healthy Wisconsin.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.