The state of Wisconsin gained not a single net job in February. In fact, Wisconsin had the second worst number of total job losses among all states last month, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employers in Wisconsin shed an estimated 9,500 total public and private sector jobs in February, the bureau reported late last week.
Many smaller newspapers across Wisconsin made this bad news a headline story over the weekend. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's grudging coverage, however, you had to look hard for its own report on Friday, inside the paper on the business pages. That story used most of its space explaining why the bad job numbers are not really credible -- in essence accepting without saying so the Walker administration's own spin. Meanwhile, the news story headlined the fact that the state's unemployment rate had declined slightly during the month -- a seeming contradiction that the newspaper had no trouble accepting at face value, despite its worry that the monthly job loss figures were dubious.
Journal Sentinel readers had to the wait until this morning to find further reference to the report, still hard to find on page two, deep in the Politifact Wisconsin column's recurring "Truth-o-Meter" report on how Walker's 250,000-new-jobs-by-2015 pledge is going.
For starters, judging by the little graphic accompanying the piece (see above), casual readers might be persuaded to believe Walker's almost accomplished his goal. Look how far to the end the little green bar has gone. Wow! It must (as Walker frequently likes to say) be working, Wisconsin! But actually, Walker's only about 40 percent of the way to his goal, with virtually no chance of delivering on his promise. To its credit Politfact eventually gets around to mentioning that. Still, the paper says Walker's promise remains "in the works." Besides, as the newspaper reminds us from time to time, governors don't really create jobs, even though it continues to report on their activities as though they do.
The headline accompanying the Politifact piece is similarly unhelpful and even misleading: "Readjustments chip away at 2013 gains," The piece itself only obliquely references the bad job report for February. In so many words: Wisconsin tallies actual job losses in yet another month, but that's just because of "readjustment." By that reckoning, death totals from a June plane crash, upwardly reported in July, would only represent an unimportant "readjustment."
Politifact tried to explain the matter further, saying that "as usual this time of year" the February job numbers included "benchmarking," which it defined as revisions. That, it said, made the February decline seem worse. So, in other words: The losses should have been reported in earlier months, thus February's actual losses are not really as bad as they look, and while earlier losses were worse than previously reported, never mind, because that was then and this is now. Oh. Okay.
If you wanted more detail on the February jobs report, Politifact helpfully provided an online hotlink so readers could click over to a Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development news release from last Thursday. Not only did the state's news release not mention the job losses, the link was completely broken as of Monday. So much for transparent government. We did an online search and found the document at a new URL. But now it was not a "news" release, but only a spin statement from the department's secretary, a Walker appointee, who totally ignored the job losses but fluffed the fact that Wisconsin's unemployment rate over the past year was a little better than across the nation as a whole. However, the secretary -- along with the Journal Sentinel's Friday story hyping the slight jobless rate decline -- discussed that rate without noting how many more out-of-work residents may have given up searching for work, which would, in fact, lower official unemployment.
Meanwhile, both the Journal Sentinel's Thursday news story and today's Politifact column again relied on the usual Walker excuse for bad monthly job reports. Early in his administration, when the job losses grew worse each month, Walker started ignoring the federal government's monthly jobs reports in favor of what he deemed more accurate quarterly reports. The Journal Sentinel went along with that, basically buying into Walker's argument that the quarterly Census on Employment and Wages report, based on actual hard jobs data, is more reliable than the sampled survey undertaken for the monthly report.
All right. But what happens when both the monthly and quarterly Wisconsin reports produce negative results? Read on to see how a governor and a major Wisconsin newspaper evade that contradiction, and how the newspaper spent more of its time dissing Walker's Democrat challenger, blind to the forest because -- yet too often -- it insists upon staring at twigs.
The last quarterly Wisconsin jobs report, which was released last week and garnered widespread media coverage even in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — showed Wisconsin fifth in the nation in manufacturing jobs gains but also 35th among the states in total job growth in 2013. The apparently high ranking on manufacturing jobs should be tempered by the fact that Wisconsin is so far behind other states in recent manufacturing growth that while an up-tick in percentage of growth looks great, the actual number of additional manufacturing jobs over the past year (about 6,000) still represents under-performance. But let's not get into all that pesky detail. We're number five! And look over there: the Wisconsin Badgers rock!
Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke last week issued a lengthy and detailed economic development position paper -- matched, if you can call it that, by Walker's own, original three-page paper -- on how the state could better influence job growth. Doing its job, the Journal Sentinel's capitol bureau filed a story on Burke's paper. The newspaper's editorial board said the Burke paper was thoughtful and contained a "substantial" jobs plan, although the paper's chief political columnist pooh-poohed the plan as "stuffed with liberal giveaways." Unlike Walker's own simpler plan, stuffed with conservative giveaways.
For its part, Politfact Wisconsin poured over the 40-page report and zeroed in on a couple of passages that resulted in negative "Truth-O-Meter" ratings. One of them discussed low wages. Now, no one except perhaps the Republican Party disputes long-term statistics showing the nation's wages are lagging, with Wisconsin lagging yet further behind; this was especially the case for Wisconsin in 2012, Walker's second year in office.
The big picture notwithstanding, Politifact honed in on one word in Burke's report referring to those trends. According to Politifact, the report should have said Wisconsin wages "were" and not "are" declining. Poltifact's resulting, literal and blaring judgment: Burke's pants are on fire!
Ironically, that negative Politifact ruling focused on how Burke's report avoids recognizing short-term, up-and-down fluctuations in Wisconsin wages. Fair enough. Yet with respect to Walker's job creation performance, other reporting in the newspaper continues to marginalize bad job-creation reports by saying short-term outcomes should largely be ignored. Well, which is it, Journal Sentinel editors? Are short-term economic outcomes significant, or aren't they?
Also ironic, Politifact's negative rating dissed that passage in Burke's report for cherry-picking data. Again, fair dinkum, if in context, but what was Politifact doing in its analysis of her lengthy and detailed report other than itself cherry-picking selected phraseology?
A recent report by Madison's Wisconsin State Journal -- a newspaper at least as conservative editorially as the Journal Sentinel -- showed that despite dealing with the Great Recession, the state did better on the jobs front under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle than under Republican Gov. Walker.
Meanwhile, no one -- actually not even Politifact -- disputes data indicating Wisconsin wages overall have lagged the nation's generally poor performance. But if you read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and especially rely on Politifact Wisconsin's rulings, what you probably will come away with is the distorted idea that, with regard to her statements on wages, Mary Burke's pants are on fire while Walker's job-creation efforts are "underway" and looking okay -- if only very, very vaguely, negatively okay.