Plain Talk: MacIver an expert at the old 'razzle dazzle' 04.24.13

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About the columnist

Editor Emeritus Dave Zweifel has been with The Capital Times since he graduated from UW-Madison in 1962, serving as the paper's editor in chief from 1983 to 2008. He was president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council for 15 years, served as a Pulitzer Prize judge in 2000 and 2001, and named to the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2011. A native of New Glarus, Wis., where he grew up on a farm, he serves on several non-profit boards and is a military veteran, having served on active duty as a field artillery officer in the early 1960s and for 26 years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard where he retired as a colonel in 1993.

It’s an old trick. When you’re losing the game, throw up a smoke screen to confuse the issue.

In politics, mainly because people don’t pay close enough attention, it works nearly every time.

It always reminds me of the scene from the Broadway hit “Chicago,” where lawyer Billy Flynn advises Roxie Hart how she can beat the murder rap she’s facing.

“Give 'em that old Razzle Dazzle,

"Bead and feather 'em.

"How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

Sadly, it’s been proven, most of the time they can’t see.

The tobacco companies mastered this art in the '90s when the cruel facts about the health effects of cigarettes began closing in on them.

In his book “Deadly Spin,” former health insurance public relations executive Wendell Potter describes how big tobacco enlisted compliant doctors to issue “studies” that “contradicted” the reams of research that showed cigarettes were sending Americans to early deaths.

It didn’t matter how reputable the doctor or the pro-tobacco study was, Potter noted, it was always easy to get the media to report it. Always intent on being “fair,” TV and newspapers would run those cigarettes-are-OK-for-you claims to give “equal time” to the tobacco lobby, which was insisting that it was being unfairly attacked by scientists and researchers out to get them.

It was the perfect example of what many today lambaste as “false equivalencies” that lend equal weight to two sides, even if one side may be blowing smoke.

That’s why, Potter concluded, it took Americans so long to come to grips with their smoking problem and to provide the smoke-free public facilities that have become commonplace now. Those who were opposed to restrictions on smoking could always point to a study or two that showed it wasn’t harmful, even if the conduct of the study was totally bogus. The result was a confused public. Those who were pro-smoking could point to “research” that showed there was nothing to fear.

The same is happening in the current debate over climate change. A few years back, the vast majority of scientists who study trends in weather, climate and the Earth’s atmosphere warned that man-made chemicals and discharges into the air were having a huge impact on the Earth’s temperature. Alarmed, the fossil fuel industry has carefully orchestrated contrary “research” that allegedly shows humans have nothing to do with the Earth’s changing weather, that it’s just a natural occurrence.

And they’ve been successful, convincing many, including key members in Congress, that climate change isn’t a problem. So while other nations have worked to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants, the U.S. continues on its merry way.

We have a smaller, but just as concerted, campaign taking place right now in Wisconsin. During the past two years, the state has been a laggard in creating jobs, despite a governor who made jobs his “No. 1 priority” and proceeded to enact several tax changes benefiting big business and securing legislation to diminish labor’s influence, all of which was supposedly intended to set the state on the “right course.”

It turns out that the changes didn’t do much of anything to create jobs. Instead, Wisconsin fell to 44th of the 50 states.

Alas, enter the MacIver Institute, the “think tank” that finds everything to like about right-wing causes and, particularly, about Scott Walker’s tenure as governor. While every other job-counting agency, from the federal government to private employment agencies, has been showing dismal Wisconsin performance, MacIver made a surprise announcement a few days ago — Gov. Walker is more than halfway to his 250,000 four-year job goal.

The institute took figures from January of 2011, when the state had 2,205,584 folks with jobs, and compared it with September of 2012, with its 2,342,956 jobs and — voila — 137,372 more jobs! The problem, of course, is that the institute, as it does frequently to “prove” its various theories, compared apples and oranges. Because of seasonal fluctuations in the job market, comparing January and September doesn’t compute. You need to compare September with September to get an accurate picture. The MacIver "study" was so bad that PolitiFact gave it a "pants on fire" rating, which is reserved for outright lies.

But being truthful is not MacIver’s purpose in all this. Rather, it’s just another old razzle dazzle to spread confusion and doubt in the way of the facts. Just think of the nice 30-minute campaign ads that some third-party special interest will be able to make of the MacIver Institute’s “study” that shows the governor is a prolific job creator.

When you can’t win on the facts, throw up a smoke screen. Just like big tobacco and big oil have done for years.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

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