The time the New York Times slammed our city, and the aftermath
The Big Story
I kind of wondered how the story would turn out. I’d gotten a heads up that the New York Times was in town asking around about the A Community for All resolution. I only learned recently how they’d come across the story. The writer saw a tweet from a colleague of mine, and had been a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel so had familiarity with Wisconsin.
The crux of the story: Out of the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement that followed, Marathon County’s Diversity Affairs Committee created a resolution called No Place for Hate. The idea: Send a message that everyone is welcome here.
The resolution was ultimately altered to become A Community for All, and included some statistics of disparities that people of color face in the Wausau area. The resolution made declarations but took no concrete action. There was a town hall, debate, etc. Ultimately it would be up to the county’s Executive Committee to decide whether or not to pass it on to the full board.
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This is where the New York Times entered the picture. A reporter and photographer showed up to the meeting and spent some time interviewing people for the story. They witnessed numerous speakers, for and against the resolution. Marginalized voices felt it was critical to send a welcoming message. Conservative voices felt it sent the message that Marathon County was racist — otherwise, why would you need a resolution?
After a three-hour meeting, the Executive Committee voted down the resolution. Tuesday, the New York Times story hit.
What’s happened since then shows what can happen to a small city in the center of Wisconsin when an outside news organization with no knowledge of the community they’re writing in shows up and writes a story without doing much research. Everyone from the far left to the far right is mad. The progressive mayor is getting harangued by progressives from other states. “It was very damaging to our community,” she told me Friday.
This is why local news — not the gutted out shell of what was once local news, but real local reporters on the ground — is important.
The Times story drops
Last I checked there were 1,638 comments on the article. And there aren’t many that paint Wausau in a good light. From reading the comments, you would think Wausau was a racist hell hole and that it resembles the Jim Crow south.
It’s been the talk of the town. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to, on the left or right, had felt the story painted Wausau in the worst kind of light.
It’s a unique challenge of journalism that it’s impossible to do your job without choosing a frame. In a meeting of three hours, it would be stenography and nothing more than to just recap the whole meeting without framing, and frankly, no one would read it.
But with that in mind, a framing should still treat its subjects fairly. That’s where the Times story falls short. Several of the supervisors in the story appear far worse and one-sided than I know them to be, namely through cherry-picked comments. Supervisor Craig McEwen’s comments made him sound racist - him saying he is all for diversity and inclusion and thinks it is important was completely left out. And EJ Stark several years ago told a story about how he kicked a contractor out of his house when they said something bad about Hmong residents. “They’re some of the most honorable people I ever served with,” he said at the time.
Also left out: A compromise resolution that took into account some conservative viewpoints but was developed by liberals and conservatives was rejected. That mostly meant it was doomed to failure.
Balance doesn’t get clicks.
That said, I thought the story overall was pretty accurate on the blow-by-blow details, other than a sensationalist framing.
But where it really fails, and where the need for local journalism shows the most, is in the lack of context.
Only one summer ago, Wausau held its biggest ever rally in history, in support of Black Lives Matter. The rally was peaceful, and saw thousands of people take to the streets, marching throughout downtown. Police happily facilitated the march, blocking off streets to keep marchers safe, and handed out water bottles to marchers. Those marchers, by the way, stretched several city blocks.
There was a counter-protest that was so small I never actually caught sight of them.
The city also elected, in a high-turnout election, a mayor that’s supportive of diversity and inclusion; one who has been vocal about that support at every opportunity and proclaimed Wausau A Community for All the day the Times story dropped. The Times reporter also spoke to the mayor extensively.
None of that made the story.
“I can’t keep up with my email,” Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg told me. People are calling and emailing from all over the country, Rosenberg told me. They’ve told her she represents subhumans among other insults.
The irony is Rosenberg is used to receiving hate for being too progressive, and has become something of a strawman for all things liberal. Now she is ironically at the center of liberal backlash. At the same time, a speaker at the county board said she wants to exterminate black people, a comment the county board chair later apologized to her for.
Sources have told me there have already been cancelations because of the fallout from the story. I plan on looking into them in more depth for a future story.
And for those who live here, many feel the article and its impact have had devastating effects on the community’s efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, and grow the area.
How much can be attributed to the Times’ framing? It was accurate in that they correctly said it was a county meeting, but held in Wausau; but they didn’t make clear that there is a giant difference in political leanings between the city and rural areas. Whether one agrees with those in Wausau, or those in, say, Edgar, no one likes to be misrepresented. Because the Times didn’t make that distinction, it made it easy for commenters to make the leap from “Marathon County” to “Wausau.”
Are they right?
It’s not like Wausau hasn’t had a rough history with racism. The Times doesn’t mention this context either, but prior to the 1970s Wausau was the major metro of what was the whitest Congressional district in the country. Bar none.
That changed with the Hmong migration that started in the 1970s and continued on through the 80s and into the 90s. The 80s were not a pretty time in Wausau for anyone who wasn’t white and, frankly, if you were white and not racist. It was common to hear jokes about minorities.
I could never understand it. I had a Hmong friend in high school I played Magic cards with. One day we were let out early (finals maybe) and I walked home with him. A truck full of racist teenagers drove by and shouted all kinds of racial epithets at him, and at me for walking with him. They threatened us with violence. I asked him afterward if that happens all the time? He said something along the lines of “you get used to it.”
That was the early 90s. We can go back to the 80s when Wausau was the center of the spear-fishing debates. People actually wore shirts that said “Spare a walleye; spear an Indian.”
Wausau’s history with racism isn’t pretty.
Work to do
But that was then. I think anyone who couldn’t say Wausau has made great strides forward is being disingenuous. I can’t recall the last time I heard someone say something racist. And I’m a reporter — I go a lot of places most folks don’t. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. The head of the county’s ADRC, a black woman, told a story about being followed around at a gas station every time she goes in.
And it doesn’t mean heading out into the rural areas you won’t encounter racism. A sales rep told me there are customers out in the country they had to walk away from because they used the N-word.
But that’s not unique to Wausau, or Marathon County. One has seen attacks on Asians, for instance, happening all over the U.S., in major cities and small ones. It’s unfair to Wasuau to focus on just us and not put it into a national context.
But now the work is that much more. Now Wausau has to crawl out of a hole that the New York Times put it in. A city that has made so much progress has been set back, and all of its residents, liberal, conservative and center, are mad as hell at how we’ve been portrayed. That story will hang out on Google for prospective employers, and employees, to see.
It’s going to take a lot of work. But Wausau has never shied away from that. We’re a working-class town, and we’ll pick up the pieces and rebuild.
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