By MSNBC contributor
updated 2/24/2004 3:31:58 PM ET 2004-02-24T20:31:58

When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel endorsed John Edwards for president, the paper cited the loss of Wisconsin manufacturing jobs as a key reason.  Here's the editorial: "The two Americas message — and job loss, acute in Wisconsin, is a part of it — resonates with audiences partly because Edwards peppers it with statistical support, partly because the messenger delivers the message so skillfully."

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The newspaper endorsement made it a close race, and their guy came in a tight second place to John Kerry.   But the paper really nailed jobs as a critical political issue.  Jawboning manufacturing job losses clicked in Wisconsin for Edwards — 39 percent of Wisconsin voters said the economy was their number one issue, and 80 percent said the national economy was not good. Three-quarters said trade takes jobs away. 

But precisely how many lost Wisconsin jobs are we talking about?  That's tough to answer.  Media reports are all over the place trying to come up with the numbers.

Here's a Badger State sample:

  • Madison Capital Times: "In Wisconsin alone, 84,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since Bush became president."
  • San Francisco Chronicle: "... a state that has lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office."
  • Chicago Tribune: "The state has lost 90,000 manufacturing jobs since 1999."
  • UPI: "Trade policy and jobs are major issues in Wisconsin, which has lost more than 75,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000."
  • Newsday: "Employment is a major focus in this state where more than 70,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the past three years."
  • Knight Ridder: " Wisconsin has lost 84,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001.”
  • Charlotte Observer: "Wisconsin has lost 85,000 manufacturing jobs over the last four years."

The numbers are so all over the place that it’s like trying to wrestle a final vote count from the 2000 presidential race in Florida.

But wait.  It gets better.  Well, at least higher.

The Washington Post really upped the ante, describing Wisconsin as a  "a state that has lost almost 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the past three years."  So did Newsweek, referring to "a state where 100,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past three years."

Poor Wisconsin.  The cheeseheads must be getting an inferiority complex.  Couldn’t someone in the media make them feel better by guessing in the opposite direction and reporting their job loss at, say, 50,000 in the past three years? 

A different approach
The Raleigh News & Observer took a different approach.  There’s no way that paper could get it wrong by saying this about Wisconsin: "... a state that has lost many manufacturing jobs."  That covers all bases.  Same with the Los Angeles Times: "... Wisconsin's big loss of manufacturing jobs over the last three years."  Likewise, the New York Times played it smartly with this ballpark figure: "... a state where tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost."

For the record, here's what John Kerry says: "Since Bush took office, Wisconsin has lost 75,000 manufacturing jobs."

And what's the right answer?  One Associated Press report seemed to nail it: “Wisconsin has lost more than 85,000 manufacturing jobs since November 2000, according to the state Department of Workforce Development."  Now that’s sourcing.  Alas, it looks a lot different than this other AP report:  "Stumping for Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, Edwards continued to hammer on jobs in a state that suffered the lost of 74,000 manufacturing jobs in the last three years."  Don’t AP reporters read each other’s copy?  Sheesh.

That’s Wisconsin.  What does the future hold?   Let’s examine Ohio, a big prize Super Tuesday state.

Hold on, it's a wild ride
Put on your seatbelts for this wild ride.

The authoritative Columbus Dispatch reported: "Since January 2001, Ohio has lost 167,000 manufacturing jobs, or 16 percent of all the work in the state that involves combining man and machines to move goods out the door."

Even John Kerry isn't that tough.   His campaign says, "Ohio has lost 153,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office."

And he's nowhere near the political science professor that the Akron Beacon Journal used to note "that since Bush took office, the state has lost more than 250,000 manufacturing jobs."

A quarter of a million jobs?  That’s bound to make it into a candidate speech.

Gearing up for the general election, manufacturing jobs loss will matter in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.  Reporters covering those races might want to manufacture a job for fact checker.

A John Edwards ad than ran in Wisconsin said, "It's easy for candidates to talk about manufacturing and jobs."  Easy for candidates, confusing for the media.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

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