Houston looks set to become ground zero for the country's next major LGBT civil rights battle. How national and local media cover that fight could help determine how the rest of the country thinks about the next stage of the struggle for full LGBT equality.
For the past 15 months, the city of Houston has been embroiled in a drawn-out battle over its non-discrimination ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, military status, marital status, religion, disability, national origin, age, familial status, genetic information, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The Houston City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in May 2014, in the face of fierce opposition from anti-LGBT groups who immediately launched a signature-collection effort to put the ordinance on the ballot for possible repeal. Houston City Attorney Dave Feldman disqualified their effort after determining that many of the signatures collected were invalid. The result was a protracted and messy legal battle that has drawn the attention of Fox News and national conservative figures.
On July 24, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a district court decision and ordered the city to either repeal HERO or put the measure up for a public vote in the November 2015 election.
That decision has set the stage for an even more heated and expensive battle over the fate of the ordinance - one that will likely serve as a test case for how the media, and Americans at large, talk about LGBT equality in the new era of marriage equality.
HERO has been the target of conservative misinformation since it was unveiled in April of 2014. Local and national anti-LGBT groups, including the Houston Area Pastor Council, Texas Values, and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), rallied against the ordinance.
Opponents attacked HERO by lying about the ordinance; claiming it would undermine religious liberty, trigger costly and frivolous lawsuits, and allow sexual predators to sneak into women's restrooms by pretending to be transgender - predictions that have proven false in other Texas cities with similar laws in place. Horror stories about public restrooms became a central sticking point in the city council's debate over HERO, with opponents even labeling the ordinance the "Sexual Predator Protection Act."
The "sexual predator" talking point has been thoroughly debunked by law enforcement experts, government officials, and advocates for sexual assault victims in states and cities that have had laws like HERO on their books for years. Non-discrimination laws don't make sexual assault legal, and sexual predators don't decide to act based on whether a local non-discrimination ordinance exists.
But that didn't stop local media outlets in Houston from uncritically repeating the "bathroom" myth in their reporting on HERO. Opponents' talking points permeated local news coverage of the ordinance, resulting in a public debate that focused on conservative fearmongering rather than anti-LGBT discrimination:
That kind of irresponsible coverage continued after HERO's passage, as the push to put the ordinance on the ballot gave way to an intense legal battle. Houston's Fox affiliate continued to uncritically repeat the bogus "bathroom" myth, and before long, Fox News' national network took notice. Led by Mike Huckabee, the network turned the fight in Houston into a national conservative rallying cry, peddling myths about HERO and misrepresenting legal proceedings to stoke outrage. Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) joined Huckabee in using the controversy to establish his social conservative bona fides. By November of 2014, thousands of activists were descending on Houston to rally against HERO and demand a public vote.
Following the Texas Supreme Court's decision last week, Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed confidence that voters will approve HERO if it's put up for a vote. If that happens, Houston voters will almost certainly be bombarded with ads and mailers peddling the same misinformation that has defined conservatives' opposition to the ordinance thus far. Scare tactics that invoke bathroom attacks and religious freedom are incredibly effective in getting people to vote against legal protections for LGBT people. And if local media outlets don't do the vital work of separating fact from fiction, HERO could become the first major LGBT defeat in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark marriage equality ruling.
The fight over Houston's non-discrimination ordinance foreshadows the emerging national LGBT civil rights battle in America: the push for comprehensive non-discrimination protections. On July 23, Democrats in Congress introduced the "Equality Act," which would ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and other areas. Major national LGBT groups have thrown their support behind the bill, signaling their shift in priorities now that the marriage fight has largely ended. Opponents have already begun attacking the Equality Act with the same talking points they used in their fight against HERO: horror stories about religious freedom, special rights, and bathroom predators.
It remains to be seen how effective conservatives will be at influencing the media narrative around non-discrimination protections. Since losing their fight against marriage equality, anti-LGBT activists have made controlling media depictions of non-discrimination efforts a central part of their fight against LGBT equality. By characterizing non-discrimination laws as a threat to religious freedom and personal safety, conservatives are hoping to hijack the conversation about even the most basic legal protections for LGBT people.
As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston could be a test case for how successful anti-LGBT conservatives will be at injecting their bogus talking points into media coverage of major non-discrimination fights. If anti-gay conservatives there can use misinformation and fearmongering to defeat HERO, it will set a powerful example for national anti-LGBT groups looking to shape the broader debate around laws like the federal Equality Act. If, on the other hand, local media outlets debunk and correct misinformation about the measure, they'll be setting a positive precedent for national media outlets and helping set the tone for how Americans view the continuing struggle for LGBT equality.
From the July 28 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
Loading the player reg...
In response to the Supreme Court's historic marriage equality ruling, conservative media has endorsed a newly proposed federal bill called the "First Amendment Defense Act" (FADA). Though conservatives have touted FADA as an effort to protect religious liberty, critics warn the bill would undermine the government's ability to combat anti-gay discrimination.
From the July 27 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
Loading the player reg...
NBC's Meet the Press this weekend will host Pat Buchanan, a homophobic and racist commentator. MSNBC parted ways with Buchanan in 2012 following blowback over his book Suicide of a Superpower, which claimed to document how diversity and immigration are ruining the country.
The Sunday show states on its website that it will interview Buchanan about "the return of populism" on the presidential campaign trail. Buchanan's brand of "populism" has long included bigotry against minorities, immigrants, and LGBT people during his career as a political candidate and commentator.
Buchanan has repeatedly defended Adolf Hitler and once labeled him "an individual of great courage." He claimed "in a way, both sides were right" during the Civil War. He declined to disavow the idea that minorities have inferior genes. He defended a school's ban on interracial dating. He opined that "this has been a country built, basically, by white folks" and falsely claimed only "white males" died at Gettysburg and Normandy. He once claimed "conservatives are the niggers of the Nixon administration" and urged President Nixon not to visit Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow because King was "one of the most divisive men in contemporary history."
On immigrants, Buchanan claimed America is "committing suicide" while "Asian, African, and Latin American children come to inherit the estate." He complained that immigration will turn the U.S. into "a polyglot boarding house for the world, a tangle of squabbling minorities." He objected to states like California having a majority Hispanic population. He said of Mexican immigrants: "They are militant, and they have no interest, many of them, in becoming American."
Buchanan repeatedly appeared on a white nationalist radio program. He wrote the foreword to a book compiling the works of a white supremacist. He relied on the work of white supremacists for research in his own work. He praised David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as having a "portfolio of winning issues."
Buchanan said "homosexual sex is unnatural and immoral" and "that kind of conduct should be discouraged in a good society." He's written of same-sex relationships: "In a healthy society, it will be contained, segregated, controlled, and stigmatized, carrying both a legal and social sanction." He once wrote of AIDS: "The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution."
Fellow Sunday show host Chris Wallace of Fox said Buchanan has said things "I'm not particularly fond of" including "some very incendiary things about Israel, about Jews, about blacks, about other minorities." As new CNN Sunday show host Jake Tapper once wrote, Buchanan leaves behind "a trail of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetorical dung" wherever he goes.
Why is Chuck Todd allowing him back on Meet the Press?
Todd tweeted in response to Media Matters research fellow Oliver Willis that Buchanan will be on the show "as part of a Trump segment. Trump 2015 and Buchanan 1992 share a lot of similarities on issues."
NBC's Today show proved that smart reporting can turn even high-profile, sensationalist transgender news stories into opportunities to enlighten viewers about important issues affecting the transgender community.
During the July 24 edition of the Today show, host Matt Lauer introduced a new installment of NBC's "Undercovered" series, which aims to draw attention to stories and issues that don't typically get major media attention. Lauer noted that while the media has focused heavily on Caitlyn Jenner's public transition, "the reality for other transgender Americans, far from the spotlight, can look very different."
MSNBC's Ronan Farrow then introduced viewers to one of those transgender Americans -- a college student named Eve who is beginning hormone replacement therapy as part of her transition:
EVE: We're not all living the glamorous life. We don't all necessarily look that pretty. I imagine people find it very weird and strange when I say I'm a woman. I mean, I don't look like Caitlyn Jenner.
Eve described her struggle with harassment, suicidal thoughts, and fears that her family will reject her. She also allowed cameras to follow her to her first session of hormone treatment, giving the audience a glimpse of an aspect of transitioning that viewers of mainstream media might be unfamiliar with.
The segment is a perfect example of relevant, responsible transgender media coverage -- Today used a high-profile news story as an opportunity to shine a light on issues and stories that are typically ignored by major news networks. Rather than resort to sensationalism -- which has characterized much of the media's coverage of Caitlyn Jenner's transition so far -- NBC used Jenner's story as a shared reference point, introducing audiences to a story that more closely resembles the lived experiences of many transgender people.
The ability to move beyond fixation on high-profile transgender figures is an important part of responsible transgender coverage. As Eve explained, Jenner's experience as a trans woman -- her financial resources, easy access to health care, and "glamorous life" - is highly specific. What NBC's Today show did -- use Jenner's story as a springboard to elevate the experiences of everyday trans people -- raises the bar for smart coverage of LGBT issues.
From the July 23 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
Loading the player reg...
The Associated Press violated its own guidelines while reporting on the homicide of a transgender woman in Florida, joining several state-based news outlets in misgendering the victim and referring to her as a "man dressed as a woman." The incident is the latest in a trend of media mistreatment of transgender victims of violence.
On the morning of July 21, 25-year-old transgender woman India Clarke was found dead in a park in Tampa Bay, Florida. Clarke suffered blunt-force trauma to the upper body, though the exact cause of death is still unknown. Before her death, Clarke publicly identified as female, used female pronouns, and presented as female in her photos.
But in its news release announcing a homicide investigation surrounding Clarke's death, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office referred to Clarke as a "male dressed in women's clothing." Speaking to BuzzFeed's Dominic Holden, Detective Larry McKinnon defended the Sheriff's Office's decision to identify Clarke as male:
"We are not going to categorize him as a transgender. We can just tell you he had women's clothing on at the time," Detective Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, told BuzzFeed News. "What his lifestyle was prior to that we don't know -- whether he was a cross dresser, we don't know."
Initial calls to 911 descibed the victim as a woman but a medical examiner later identified her as male, McKinnon said.
"He is a male," McKinnon continued. "I can't tell you he is a female."
In the 24 hours following the discovery of Clarke's death, state-based news outlets and the Associated Press repeatedly misgendered Clarke, referring to her as a "man dressed as a woman" and violating journalistic standards on how to refer to transgender people. CBS, ABC, and NBC affiliates in the Tampa area followed the Sheriff's report and also referred to India as "Samuel," using male pronouns, and referring to her as a male.
The Associated Press violated its own widely-cited guidelines and referred to Clarke as a "man wearing women's clothing," referring to her as "Samuel." AP's misgendering was repeated by state media outlets' that republished AP's report:
The practice of misgendering transgender victims of violence violates guidelines established by GLAAD and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and has been widely criticized by journalism experts.
And it's a practice that's become all-too-common in 2015, a year that's seen an unprecedented string of murders of trans women.
The cycle at its worst seems to be the same: a transgender person is found dead, law enforcement officials fail to acknowledge the victim's gender identity, and local news outlets follow law enforcement's lead, misgendering the victim despite often knowing how the victim wished to be publicly identified.
But failing to report the way Clarke is publicly identified deprives audiences of the information they need to understand her death in the broader context of violence against transgender women. In instances where misgendering is intentional, it's a statement that her gender identity is little more than a deceptive costume, not worthy of being taken seriously.
One week before the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, a group of the country's most prominent anti-LGBT activists met at the Skyline megachurch in San Diego to discuss what their next steps should be in the fight against LGBT equality.
The meeting was part of the 2015 Future Conference, an event organized by Skyline Pastor Jim Garlow in order to respond to "the thorniest and most challenging issues in the current cultural landscape."
In promotional materials for the gathering, Garlow warned "our nation is in trouble" due to the lack of a "clear proclamation of biblical answers to the messiness of our culture." According to Garlow, pastors can no longer speak out about things like homosexuality because they are considered "political."
The four-day conference, which Media Matters attended undercover, featured presentations covering a range of issues -- from the threat of Islam to "biblical economics" -- but its unifying theme was the alleged rise of Christian persecution across the globe, and especially in the United States as a result of growing acceptance of LGBT people.
The list of over 50 speakers spanned the conservative political landscape and included members of Congress, Fox News contributors, and prominent right-wing activists. Senator James Lankford (R-OK), Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich submitted video remarks. There was even a presentation from Suzan Johnson Cook, former Obama administration Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
The conference also featured speeches from some of the most prominent anti-LGBT groups in the country, including several organizations designated as "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center: the Family Research Council (FRC), Liberty Counsel, and Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM).
Shielded from the eyes and ears of major media, speakers at the Future Conference expressed the kind of casual homophobia that would otherwise offend mainstream audiences. More importantly, they discussed their plans for dealing with a country seems increasingly determined to protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Speakers at the Future Conference presented many of the same homophobic talking points that have defined the religious right for the past several years. Many disparaged same-sex relationships as destructive and unhealthy. Frank Schubert -- the political strategist behind many of the country's most successful anti-LGBT campaigns -- told his audience that "sexual entanglements" between gay men pose "substantial risk of harm," and called gay sex "inherently unhealthy":
Others decried LGBT activists as being overly-aggressive and totalitarian. "The rainbow flag of tolerance has become the dark flag of tyranny overnight," warned Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Conservative columnist Star Parker lamented that "homosexuality is now dividing us and bringing hostility into the public square. They're coming out of the closet -- they're forcing the church in." Michael Brown, an anti-LGBT activist known for showing up at gay pride events to badger attendees, declared that the "gay revolution has within itself the seeds of self-destruction."
FRC Vice President for Church Ministries Kenyn Cureton, in a presentation about mobilizing churches to get involved in political battles, described LGBT activists as "pawns of a malevolent master."
Outside the conference's main auditorium, organizations set up displays to hand out promotional materials about their work. FRC's display included copies of its "Debating Homosexuality" booklet, which falsely claims that gay men are more likely to engage in pedophilia than heterosexual men.
The Future Conference's homophobic content was unsurprising given the venue. In 2008, Garlow's Skyline Church was at the epicenter of the religious fight against California's Proposition 8. At the time, Garlow convened a call with 1,000 ministers to discuss tactics for banning same-sex marriage in the state -- tactics that ultimately proved successful in mobilizing religious support for the ballot measure.
Less than a decade later, Garlow and his allies were meeting under very different circumstances.
Same-sex marriage had become legal in a majority of states, including California. Public opinion was firmly in favor of marriage equality, and religious opposition to same-sex marriage was giving way to religious acceptance and support. Most speakers were correctly predicting that Obergefell would result in the Supreme Court legalizing nationwide marriage equality.
That looming reality gave the Future Conference a sense of urgent and sober realism. Beyond making their typical anti-gay remarks, speakers explained how they planned to stop, or at least slow, the push for LGBT equality in America.
One of the recurring themes at the Future Conference, especially in reference to Obergefell, was the suggestion that Christians are not obligated to obey the laws of man if they contradict the laws of God.
In a video message to the conference. Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver compared a Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality to Dred Scott, the infamous Supreme Court decision that found African Americans were not American citizens. "Our highest respect for a higher law," Staver said, "requires that we not give respect to an unjust decision." He explicitly suggested that religious adoption agencies should refuse to place children in households headed by same-sex couples, adding that the Supreme Court lacked the power to enforce its decisions.
That sentiment was echoed by several other speakers, including Schubert, who argued that a constitutional convention might be needed to override an "illegitimate" decision on same-sex marriage from the Supreme Court. NOM's Brian Brown touted his organization's "Presidential Marriage Pledge," which -- in addition to calling for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage -- asks presidential candidates to pledge to work to "overturn any Supreme Court decision that illegitimately finds a constitutional 'right' to the redefinition of marriage."
The civil disobedience canard has gained popularity among anti-LGBT activists and even GOP presidential candidates, who have similarly compared Obergefell to Dred Scott and suggested that Americans should simply refuse to acknowledge the Supreme Court's authority.
Speakers also touted efforts to undermine and sidestep non-discrimination laws that would prohibit them from discriminating against LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Steve Riggle, a Houston pastor at the center of the national controversy surrounding Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) earlier this year, decried the city's attempt to extend "special rights" to LGBT people, peddling the myth that sexual predators would exploit the law by pretending to be transgender and sneaking into women's restrooms.
In a session titled "Homosexual Marriage - Obliterating Religious Liberty," Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) senior counsel Kevin Theriot warned audience members that non-discrimination laws threaten the freedom of churches and businesses to act out their faith. ADF has been at the forefront of representing business owners who refuse service to gay customers, arguing that religious businesses should be exempt from non-discrimination protections. It's also the group behind the national push for state "religious freedom" laws, which would give business owners a legal defense for refusing service to gay customers. He offered audience members copies of ADF's booklet "Protecting Your Ministry," which offers advice on how for-profit businesses and churches can avoid non-discrimination lawsuits.
"Are you willing to do what it takes to prepare yourself for the coming onslaught?" Theriot asked before describing how churches might insulate themselves from discrimination complaints. One tactic, advised Theriot, is to take advantage of the ministerial exemption to non-discrimination laws by broadly defining "ministers" to include employees like IT technicians and food bank workers.
NOM's Brown encouraged attendees to throw their support behind the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which had just been introduced in Congress and would shield businesses and individuals from being denied tax exemptions, grants, licenses, certifications, or grants from the federal government as a result of their opposition to same-sex marriage. FADA has been criticized for creating a national license-to-discriminate against gays and lesbians, but the measure has since quickly gained support among anti-LGBT groups and conservative media outlets.
Beyond a political agenda, speakers at the Future Conference also talked a great deal about influencing public debates about LGBT issues, especially through the media.
Ted Baehr, Chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, touted efforts to inject Christian themes and imagery into mainstream television and film. Shows like "Will & Grace," he argued, had gotten society comfortable with an "illegal, demonic form of marriage." Using Hollywood to expose the public to Christian values is, according to Baehr, a key step in turning the tide in America's culture war.
Other speakers were more concerned with coverage of LGBT issues in news outlets. In a presentation titled "Dealing With Media," conservative author and right-wing activist Jason Mattera suggested that the key to winning public opinion was to invert the dominant media narrative about LGBT equality by decrying LGBT activists as intolerant bullies while painting religious conservatives as the real victims in the culture war.
Leftists are "the most intolerant, bigoted people on the planet. And that is, they want Christianity purged from the public square," Mattera declared. He urged his audience to portray the fight for LGBT equality as intolerant when talking to reporters or appearing on TV: "Why do they hate diversity? Why do they hate tolerance? I'm for a multiplicity of viewpoints. Isn't that what America is about? Why does that person want to compel me to do something I don't want? What is it about fascism that appeals to them?"
That "flip the script" tactic -- essentially calling LGBT activists bullies -- has been widely successful in influencing conservative media coverage of the fight for LGBT equality in recent years. Stories about anti-gay bakers and florists who are fined for refusing service to gay customers have helped motivate the recent wave of "religious freedom" laws and gin up opposition to non-discrimination efforts that protect LGBT people.
Despite the Future Conference's anti-gay rhetoric, a recurring theme was the need to mimic the very tactics used by the LGBT community to win acceptance from American public. Conservative activist Lance Wallnau lauded the LGBT movement for its unified and media-savvy public relations efforts, encouraging his audience to look at the success of the fight for same-sex marriage as a blueprint for how conservatives might take back the culture war.
Near the end of the conference, NOM's Brown warned conference-goers that "the days of comfortable Christianity are over":
BROWN: Things have been good a long time for us. We don't experience the sort of persecution that we're witnessing in the Middle East. We don't fear for our lives in coming together and worshipping. We've felt for a long time that we're a part of dominant culture. And over the course of the last decade or so, maybe a little longer, we've realized that's not the case. Things are starting to change, and that, to put it bluntly, the days of comfortable Christianity are over.
A Supreme Court decision in favor of marriage equality, Brown argued, would put conservative activists in the same position that anti-abortion activists were in after Roe v. Wade.
That sentiment, echoed by many of the conference's speakers, represents a seismic shift in the way that anti-LGBT groups and activists have oriented their work. Their political agenda, which once prioritized a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has become largely defensive, focused on staving off the rising tide of LGBT equality.
That agenda is no less dangerous -- threatening even the most basic non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. But it also represents the new reality facing the anti-LGBT right after Obergefell. Having lost the national debate over same-sex marriage, anti-LGBT conservatives are adapting to a political environment that increasingly pits their animus against the force of the state and public opinion. How the religious right chooses to deal with that new reality -- whether with disobedience, resignation, or legal maneuvering -- will set the stage for the next phase of the fight over LGBT equality.
Journalists planning to cover the upcoming Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa should be aware of the extreme anti-gay rhetoric regularly voiced by several of the event's sponsors and speakers, including host Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader and one of the most influential conservative activists in Iowa. Attendees will also hear from Tony Perkins, the head of the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council and Brian Brown, the head of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, among others.
From the July 14 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
Loading the player reg...
Fox News contributor Erick Erickson attacked transgender military members as "mentally ill" in response to the Pentagon's landmark announcement that the Department of Defense will create a working group to review "policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly."
On July 13, a press release from Secretary of Defense Carter Ash stated that the military's current ban on transgender service members is outdated and going forward, "must treat all our people with the dignity and respect they deserve":
The Defense Department's current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions. At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they're able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite. Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines - real, patriotic Americans - who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit.
Today, I am issuing two directives to deal with this matter. First, DoD will create a working group to study over the next six months the policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. Led by (Acting) Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson, and composed of military and civilian personnel representing all the military services and the Joint Staff, this working group will report to Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work. At my direction, the working group will start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified. Second, I am directing that decision authority in all administrative discharges for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who identify themselves as transgender be elevated to Under Secretary Carson, who will make determinations on all potential separations.
After this announcement, Erickson responded on Twitter that transgender individuals, specifically those serving in the military, are "mentally ill":
It is very kind of the Obama administration to allow the mentally ill to serve openly in the military.-- Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) July 14, 2015
In its report on this news, Time cited a report from the Williams Institute at UCLA that estimated 15,500 transgender individuals currently serve in the U.S. military.
Note: This post has been updated for clarity.
As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker formally enters the presidential race, journalists in his home state say the national press should focus their reporting on his polarizing history fighting abortion rights, gay marriage, and public information disclosure, while also highlighting his push as a state assemblyman for mandatory prison time that has overwhelmed the state's prison system.
Many Badger State scribes also point to the state's poor economic record, while describing Walker as an "extreme" politician whose far-right approach may not work in a national race.
"He is not as charismatic as I think a lot of people think," said John Nichols, an associate editor at the progressive Capital Times in Madison. "The drama, the excitement associated with Scott Walker is that he did some extreme things that scared a lot of people."
"He's a pretty polarizing character," said political reporter Kate Pabich of WMTV, the NBC affiliate in Madison. "If he gets the GOP primary nomination he is going to have a hard time appealing to a national stage. The things he's done, the ultra-conservative things he's done, the 20-week abortion, the stance on gay marriage, will be an issue."
Pablich was referring to the state ban on abortion after 20 weeks, which passed in the Wisconsin Assembly just last week -- with no exceptions for rape or incest, reportedly at Walker's insistence -- and which is likely to get Walker's approval.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel capital reporter Jason Stein said the abortion ban is important because "that could be banned at the national level" if Walker is elected president.
Stein also said media should examine a so-called "right-to-work" law Walker signed in March that strips unions of vital resources by allowing private-sector employees to opt out of paying union dues, as well as his support for a severely restrictive public information overhaul that would have disallowed public access to many state records and documents.
"They were sweeping," Stein said of the public information restrictions. "They would have exempted the vast majority of legislative documents" from review, allowing "the administration as well as any other state agency to withhold deliberative materials used to arrive at a policy decision," he concluded.
After the restrictions were approved in the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, they were shelved following public outcry.
Stein, who co-wrote a book about Walker's 2011 collective bargaining battle with state unions, also urged national reporters to look at Walker's time as Milwaukee County Executive, adding, "There was much more gridlock and his not being able to accomplish what he wanted. He was head-butting a lot with a Democratic County board."
Capital Times' Nichols said Walker's claims about a great economic record in Wisconsin are misleading.
"The Wisconsin economic story is not a particularly good story," he said. "Wisconsin trails a lot of neighboring states in economic vitality; its job growth is not particularly good."
He said Walker promised when he first ran in 2010 to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term. But that fell far short, according to Politifact, which estimates only about 146,000 new jobs created during that time.
"For all of his talk of becoming an economic savior, he is weaker on economics than a lot of people think," Nichols said.
Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a former longtime reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, agreed.
"He did promise to create 250,000 jobs during his first term, the numbers show he got about half that goal," Hall said. "The economy here continues to concern a lot of people. Yes, jobs are being created, but are they the right kinds of jobs?"
Hall also cited the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, which Walker created to spark job growth. A state audit in May by the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau found problems with its compliance and practices.
Jim Fitzhenry, a top editor for Gannett Wisconsin Media, which operates newspapers and websites in 10 cities, said few national outlets seem to know about Walker's support for tighter mandatory sentencing that has ballooned the state's prison population.
Known as "Truth-in-Sentencing," the restriction, passed by the Wisconsin state legislature in 1998, requires that many inmates serve their entire sentences without parole and increased the length of prison time for others.
Walker co-sponsored the legislation as a state assemblyman and helped lead it to passage as chair of the state assembly's Committee on Corrections and the Courts, according to a lengthy report on his past prison reform actions in The Nation earlier this year.
"It took away quite a bit of judicial discretion in sentences," Fitzhenry said. "Unlike a lot of his counterparts, Scott is still very much adamant for Truth-in-Sentencing."
The Nation report detailed how Truth-in-Sentencing overburdens the Wisconsin prison system so much that it had to contract with a private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America, whose executives have also contributed to Walker's campaigns.
A 2004 Journal Sentinel analysis of the law looked at data from Truth-in-Sentencing's first four years in existence and estimated that it would cost the state an additional $1.8 billion through 2025.
From the July 10 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
Loading the player reg...
Right-wing media are mocking proposed legislation that would make the language in the federal marriage code gender-neutral, following the Supreme Court's decision earlier this month making same-sex marriage legal in every state.