Members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin receive a monthly copy of The Ethics Report. Each edition will include summaries of research as well as articles about ethical leadership in practice...frequently awarding a "green light" or "red flag" rating. Each month, we include a featured article from the most recent edition of The Ethics Report.

Can You Detect Media Bias?

The Ethics Report Featured Article

            August 2020                   

The Presidential Election: Things We Don't Like...Things We Like

2020 will be a year many of us would like to forget. The pandemic, the economic downturn and the partisan divisiveness have taken a toll. And the presidential election has become fully embroiled in these elements in an ongoing and seemingly endless way. Yet, despite these conditions, there may be some watershed moments in this year's election as well. Some things, born out of necessity in 2020, may become part of the new way forward in future years. At the risk of sounding pretentious, here are some things we don't like about this year's election...and some things we like.

  • We don't like the extreme negativity of the ads. Of course, negative ads are not new. And as political science leaders explain, they are used because the data supports that they energize the support base for the campaign(s) that use(s) them. However, in this year's cycle, the ads began actively running nearly a year ahead of the November election. Many are very weary of the ads.
  • We don't like the way the pandemic has become a political issue. The President's performance in a time of crisis is an appropriate point for election debate. However, the issues of face masks and business closings have evolved into an emotional partisan debate, pitting individual freedom against public health. For our country, this is a lose/lose debate. 
  • We don't like the way the President is casting doubt (through repeated tweets and public statements) on the integrity of the election if mail-in voting becomes the predominant format for voting in November 2020. There is nothing more vitally important to the American democracy than the integrity of the voting process. It is the responsibility of the President and the Congress to ensure voting integrity. Casting doubt on the integrity of the election, without taking appropriate action, is simply irresponsible.
  • We don't like foreign governments interfering with the elections in the U.S. Through the efforts of the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, many of these attempts have been exposed and thwarted. However, the President should be taking a strong stand against these interference efforts. To date, his words and actions on this issue are lukewarm at best.

Of course, there are a number of other items that could make the "don't like" list. These are the ones that stand out most for us. However, there are also some things on our "do like" list.

  • We do like some of the virtual elements from the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The traditional DNC and RNC has devolved into a stale, tradition-bound process that has little significance to the electoral process. The virtual elements introduced this year brought in variety and engagement lacking in recent years. In future national elections, there will not be (hopefully) a pandemic to address. However, hopefully some of the virtual creativity and innovation remains.
  • We do like the way groups have organized to protect and promote the integrity of the electoral process. One example is the national VoteSafe Coalition process. This process is developing in many states. It involves developing a bipartisan coalition of prominent current and former elected leaders to promote voting...and safe voting in the upcoming election, despite the conditions of the pandemic. At a time of extreme partisanship, these bipartisan efforts are like a big breath of fresh air.

Of course it is important to remember that there are still more than two months to go (as of this writing) before the November 3rd election. And there may be developments that are yet to unfold. The vital element to consider, regardless of the things you do not like, or like, about the election? It is important to vote. The American democracy may not be perfect, but in the absence of active and engaged citizen voting, all of the alternative outcomes are much worse.

Lee Rasch


July 2020

The Heavy Lifting of Leadership for Elected Officials

Is the American Democracy fractured? What is causing the cracks? By all accounts, the growing partisan divide and “silo mentality" of the major political parties is a major factor.

In 1988, Phil S. Ensor coined the term “silo mentality” which described the condition where the subsystems or departments in an organization are in conflict. For example, different departments may fight for budget dollars, head count and control over direction, seemingly intent on winning no matter the effect on the overall company or organization. 

In large corporations, silos can get so intense as to bring the competitive drive of the company to a halt. Ironically, the participants in the conflict often do not recognize the damage being caused. Silos can develop anywhere. Unfortunately, they are also common in healthcare and higher education.

Over the years, there have been numerous studies on the silo mentality and how to overcome it. Nearly all conclude that leadership is an essential factor. Leaders can communicate common, overriding goals that are essential for organization success. They incorporate cross-divisional communication practices. They can reward teamwork. They can call out internal conflict and remove people, if needed, who are the repeated source of conflict. In other words, they can do the “heavy lifting” needed to break down the silo mentality. On the flip side, if leaders ignore or contribute to the conflict, the climate worsens. In my words, all hell breaks loose.

Silos and turf wars are particularly challenging in the political environment, where the political parties have differing interests. The growing partisanship differences between Democrats and Republicans are inherently more challenging because the differing interests can be very fluid and, in some cases, lack integrity. At the national level, the President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can play a major role in defining the common, overriding goals. This is not happening now, despite the presence of an apolitical national threat in COVID-19. However, all elected officials at the national, state and local levels also bear some responsibility of the partisan fractures. This is clearly the case for those elected officials who refuse to reach out to members of the other side. 

To be certain, campaign funding from special interest groups, media bias and misinformation on social media can make “reaching out to the other side” very difficult. But many Americans are seeking bipartisan solutions as exemplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship. The U.S. Chamber is the world’s largest business organization and they recognize the inherent problems associated with a deeply divided political climate. It is a challenge in today’s climate for any elected official to take on the heavy lifting of bipartisan leadership. But it is needed now more than ever. Elected officials can be readily accused of selling out to the other party. Therefore it is important to support citizen efforts to promote positive examples bipartisanship. The U.S Chamber of Commerce has earned a green light for the Jefferson-Hamilton Award.

Of course, when we vote, every citizen has the opportunity to recognize those elected officials who are willing to do the heavy lifting. As citizens, through voting, we can step outside of the partisanship silo. We can recognize the damage that is occurring and take a stand to bring about bipartisan solutions for the complex problems we face. Our country will be the better for it.


June 2020

2020...Beyond 2020

2020 in the United States will be a year to remember and, for many, a year to forget. In a matter of four months (March to June), we have experienced the surge in COVID-19 infections resulting in varying stay-at-home polices in each of the states. During the four month timeframe, more than 100,000 Americans died from the virus. The pandemic, coupled with the closing of many businesses, led to a dramatic downturn in the economy and an increase in unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. By early May, pressure was building to reopen the economy, resulting in citizen protests in a number of state capitals. Most states began relaxing stay-at-home policies in May. Then on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis. This event spurred massive protests in numerous cities across the country. There were peaceful protests as well as violence and looting. And there was an emergence of dialog and actions designed to address systemic racism. Some counter-protests are now also emerging. Throughout all of this, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing. 

For people of the Baby Boom generation, the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. There are differences, of course. The dramatic, sudden and combined impact of the pandemic and economic recession is something this nation has never experienced. Meanwhile, the controversial war in Viet Nam was more like slowly sinking in quicksand.

Clearly, elected leaders in both political parties are struggling with the dynamics in 2020. The November elections are a little more than four months away. To their credit, national leaders have passed three stimulus bills, focusing on the combined impact of the pandemic and the economy. And national legislation is moving rapidly, designed to address systemic racism and excessive force by the police. However, throughout this process, the rhetoric and actions of President Trump have not been unifying...particularly at a time when the pandemic...a nonpartisan threat...looms large. As noted by the Pew Research Center, we are a nation divided at this time President Trump has earned a red flag by his divisive words and actions.

The News Media Is Not Helping

This divisiveness is exacerbated by some of the major players in cable news media. The Poynter Report (a prominent media watch dog) cited the recent news event outside the White House. The following is an excerpt from their June 3, 2020 report.

Two different audiences - and countries,  perhaps - are wrapped up (with) two chyrons running simultaneously as President Trump stood in front of a church following his brief remarks Monday

CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”

Fox News: “President Trump visits historic St. John’s Church in DC amid protests.”

And later, this from CNN: Trump says he's an "ally of all peaceful protestors" as police fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors near WH"

Poynter goes on to report that this excerpt is just the initial snapshot of the detailed opinion-based coverage later that evening. They note that rubber bullets were not fired (as reported by CNN). Meanwhile, they point out that Fox News coverage appears to be clueless to the events on hand. Poynter states that it is as if these major media outlets are simultaneously describing two different countries.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We are at the mid-point of 2020 and clearly in a chaotic state. The prospects of a rapid turnaround in 2021 are not promising. David Gergen (political commentator and former presidential advisor in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations) stated in a 2020 visit to La Crosse, “It is very possible that, regardless of who wins the Presidential election in November, they will have a very difficult time governing for the next four years.” We hope he is wrong in this prediction. But we should not ignore the gravity of the situation.


**************************May 2020

Is Wisconsin Broken Politically?

Some people are asking. In the case of several recent high-priority, high-profile issues, it seems elected leaders have retreated into their respective political camps rather than attempt to address the collective needs of the state. The April primary election and the Supreme Court ruling on the Safer At Home declaration are two examples. Our nation might never gotten off the ground if our Founders used a similar approach to problem resolution.

Of course, Wisconsin is not unique to divisive politics. Nationally, the divide between the two major political parties has grown dramatically in the last 15 years. Pew Research has been tracking partisan beliefs for the past twenty-five years. They asked persons who are declared Republicans and Democrats to respond to common core questions. The following charts demonstrate their findings.


In 1994 and 2004, the median beliefs on core issues were actually fairly close, unlike where they are today. In a related study, Pew Research determined that the overwhelming factor in the growing political divide is not race, education-level, religious attendance, age or gender. Rather it is political party loyalty. As an elected official, an ethical leader should work to represent the needs of their entire constituency, not just those who belong to the same political party.

Unfortunately, the actions in Wisconsin during the pandemic are following this divisive political pattern. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus that does not determine those infected based upon their political party affiliation. It should be viewed as a common enemy, with a threat to both the health of our population and to our economic well-being. Elected officials should focus on the needs of the people of Wisconsin and commit every effort to address both of these threats, not pick sides.

As citizens, we should be looking for the elected officials from both parties to stand up to their own party leaders and promote common-sense, collaborative actions to meet the pandemic threat head on. It is our best way through this. And it might open the door to a better, healthier political process in our state. 

April 2020

The Power of Trust in Leadership

One of the goals of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is to help to prepare the next generation of ethical leaders among elected officials. The purpose of these workshops is to provide information for potential candidates for local elections (e.g. school board or city council) on how to run on an ethical leadership platform. The intent is to prepare elected officials in entry level positions to develop practices and a grassroots network to help them continue on an ethical leadership platform should they decide to seek a higher elected office at some future time. 

In September 2019, we held the Candidate Development Workshop in La Crosse. We had 12 participants, half were younger (under 35) and five of twelve were women. Teri Lehrke, Clerk in the City of La Crosse, provided information on the “nuts and bolts” of becoming a candidate. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin provided information regarding ethical leadership. Following that, participants had an opportunity to hear from two legislative officials, Steve Doyle (D),  Representative of the 94th Assembly District in Wisconsin; and Lee Nerison (R), Former Representative of the 96th Assembly District of Wisconsin who provided insight regarding their experience (and challenges) in ethical leadership. 

Both did an exemplary job in their presentation. Clearly, it was the highlight of the workshop. In this particular article, we are going to highlight the presentation of Lee Nerison (I will have an opportunity to highlight Steve Doyle in a future article). Lee Nerison was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and he served in that role until the end of 2018. He established himself as an independent thinker and he was one of only four Republicans who opposed Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 legislation in 2011. Act 10 was controversial in that it severely limited collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. At the workshop, Lee explained that he sought input from constituents and the majority opposed the changes proposed in Act 10.  He informed his Republican colleagues that he was going to remain steadfast in his position. Ultimately, Act 10 passed and Lee likely lost some influence within his party. Nonetheless, he continued to build his reputation as an advocate for agriculture issues and the district he served.

Lee went on to share an experience a few years after Act 10. Lee was targeted by the other political party as holding an Assembly District seat that could be won. Significant money from outside the district was funneled into his opponents campaign. Lee explained that he was “outspent” by his opponent by a five to one margin. Despite the campaign finance disparity, Lee Nerison won re-election. Lee’s reputation for integrity out-weighed the pressure from substantial opposition campaign funding.

When I speak to groups about LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, I am frequently asked, “How can someone be an ethical leader given the existence of political party pressure and the high cost of political campaigns?”. I feel the best answer I can provide is to point to Lee Nerison. He earns a “big green light” for his exemplary service as an ethical leader.

March 2020

Can You Detect Media Bias?

As shared in several issues of The Ethics Report, the trust in government has been eroding. At the same time, the trust in media has also been on a decline.

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts poll, released November 20th, found that about two in ten Americans trust that the media’s reporting is based on facts. Only 21% of Americans always or often trust the media and 47% sometimes have that trust and 31% said that they rarely or never believe that media reports based on facts.

A September 2019 Gallup poll showed that only 41% of Americans have trust in the media. This trust level reverses the recent upward trend from the low point of 2016 when the trust level was 32%. The following chart shows the long-term pattern from Gallup polls. 

The trend in media trust shows an increasing partisan split over the past twenty years, with Democrats showing more trust in media sources than Republicans. The following chart shows this pattern.

The Gallup poll showed notable increases in distrust of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post among Republicans. Meanwhile,  The Sean Hannity Show and Breitbart News are now distrusted by a larger share of Democrats than in 2014.

Two Sources We Recommend

The net result of the increased mistrust in the media leads to the basic question, “who can you trust?”. In answering this question, we should look in two areas, a) the tendencies of bias in the various media sources, and b) the tendencies of accuracy in those media sources. We recommend looking into AllSides and Media Bias/Fact Check

AllSides maintains a list of nearly 600 media outlets and writers. These outlets and writers are rated and placed into the following categories: Left, Lean Left, Center, Lean Right, Right and Mixed. The ratings are helpful to the media consumer. One can look at their favorite media sources and gain a better understanding of the messaging they are receiving. It also allow the consumer to seek out new media sources in the effort to develop a more balanced perspective. AllSides also does a Left, Center, Right comparison of stories with similar topics. This is helpful in developing a more balanced perspective of controversial issues. AllSides also solicits reader feedback (What Do You Think?) in their ratings. As such, they may adjust ratings over time based upon feedback. Furthermore, the reader feedback is listed next to the AllSides rating.

Media Bias/Fact Check (MB/FC) also rates various media sources. They are considerably more comprehensive with more than 3000 sources in their data base world-wide. They rate media sources in the following categories: Left, Left-Center, Least-Biased, Right-Center and Right. They also categorize media sources identified as: Pro-Science, Conspiracy-Pseudoscience, Questionable Sources and Satire. MB/FC provides an added service by rating the fact check organizations. Essentially, they fact check the fact checkers. 

All Media Has Bias

Both of these websites can serve as an excellent resource for a “quick check” when one comes across an article with a questionable message. They can also help us “check ourselves” in order to gain a better understanding of our habits for media consumption. Both sites recognize that all media has bias. AllSides addresses this through the feedback from readers. MB/FC addresses this through their “Least Biased” rating category. It should also be pointed out that the two sites differ in their ratings for some of the same media sources (e.g. BBC has a Left-Center rating on MB/FC, while maintaining a Center rating on AllSides). Alas, no system is perfect. But we offer a green light for both sites. In fact, we recommend that you bookmark both sites and spend some time browsing the information on them. If you are interested in promoting ethical leadership, it will be time well spent. And it may lead to the rebuilding of trust in media.

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Ethical leaders are:

- honest and truthful 

- transparent with public information 

- a unifier rather than a divider

- committed to represent their entire constitu


Copyright 2018

LeaderEthics - Wisconsin is organized as a 501(c)4 non-profit organization.  P.O. Box 371, La Crosse, WI 54602

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