Breakfast with a CEO and you are (not) invited

CHRISTINA LIEFFRING, TONE MADISON, DECEMBER 12, 2023

A tan-colored armored vehicle is parked on a dirt road in front of hilly terrain. The vehicle is photographed at an angled medium shot.
An armored vehicle manufactured by one of Oshkosh Corporation’s subsidiaries, Oshkosh Defense. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Cap Times turned away protesters and threw softballs to a defense contractor.

Normally, a Friday morning breakfast event featuring a live interview with a CEO would go under the radar. But on November 17, dozens of protestors gathered outside the Edgewater Hotel for The Capital Times‘ “Power Hour” featuring Josh Pfeifer, CEO of Oshkosh Corporation, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 

One of Oshkosh Corp.’s wholly-owned subsidiaries, Oshkosh Defense, manufactures armored vehicles. On January 6, Oshkosh Defense announced a $100 million contract with the Israeli Ministry of Defense to manufacture armored personnel carriers for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Protestors were at the event to protest and raise awareness of Oshkosh Corp.’s material support of the IDF, which as of December 5 has invaded southern Gaza, killed an estimated total of 16,000 people since Hamas’ October 7 attacks, including 60 Palestinian journalists, and displaced 2.3 million people from their homes. 

Some protestors also purchased tickets for the event the night before, but were turned away at the door and told their tickets would be refunded. A journalist from WORT was among them, though it appears that event organizers were unaware he was a journalist. 

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“[W]e close ticketing days before the event to get the breakfast order correct,” Cap Times publisher Paul Fanlund told Tone Madison in an email. “These late tickets were obtained from a website that should have been locked.”

I don’t think any of the protestors were there for the breakfast, but let’s give The Cap Times the benefit of the doubt that there was no room to squeeze in a few extra people. The result is that the only coverage of the discussion with Pfeifer was by The Cap Times, which did not devote much ink to Oshkosh Corp.’s controversy with the United States Postal Service (USPS) contract, the protest, and the company’s ties to the IDF. The pushback to the event was effectively sidelined.

You can call me a purist, but if a news organization is going to attach its brand to an event, it should ensure that event aligns with its values. And every news organization should value speaking truth to power and asking tough questions of powerful people—especially a news organization that proudly touts its historical roots in Wisconsin’s progressive movement.

The coverage

To give credit where credit is due, The Cap Times did run op-eds advocating for an indefinite ceasefire in Gaza and sharing U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan’s position on the conflict. This piece also should not come across as a critique of Jana Rose Schleis, the reporter who covered the Oshkosh Corp. event. We don’t know what kind of editorial constraints she was under, and I’m sure there were constraints for covering an event that her employer was promoting. The Cap Times has some of Madison’s strongest journalists, which is why we need to talk about when it falls short. 

The Cap Times‘ own coverage focused on Pfeifer’s statements on the company’s growth in the electric vehicle market before broaching the blowback to the USPS’s contract with Oshkosh to manufacture its next generation of fleet vehicles:

Pfeifer said the company faced “an enormous amount of blowback” when the contract was announced, that he was surprised by it and admitted it was difficult to manage. The news spurred discussion about how the postal fleet should change and whether the company was the best fit for the job.

“The majority of people and certainly the majority of Congress supports the United States Postal Service,” Pfeifer said. “But everybody has a different opinion about how they should operate.”

These two paragraphs tell the reader absolutely nothing about the substance of the controversy. The first phase of the blowback was because Oshkosh decided it would manufacture the vehicles in South Carolina, in a non-union plant, instead of in Oshkosh with union labor. In April, 2022, 16 states and environmental groups sued USPS saying it approved the contract despite the environmental impact evaluation being incomplete: it only measured the environmental impact of operating the vehicles, not the environmental impact of manufacturing them in South Carolina. And while Oshkosh touts its shift into electric vehicles, the actual contract with USPS was for only 10% electric vehicles; the remaining 90% were to be gas-powered. As a result, USPS said it would change tracks and purchase 9,250 Ford E-Transits from the Ford manufacturing plant in Kansas City.

The protest outside the November 17 event was mentioned at the bottom of The Cap Times‘ article with no mention of people being turned away at the door. As for any discussion on Oshkosh Corps’ contract with the IDF: “The protest was only indirectly referenced during the official program, with Pfeifer noting military vehicles are 20% of the company’s business and that is projected to decrease as their work in commercial vehicles grows. He also mentioned that those vehicles are designed to protect the lives of their passengers, and that Oshkosh Corp. doesn’t make weapons.”

That also aligns with a statement in Fanlund’s email to Tone Madison: “Our understanding is that Oshkosh does more than 80 percent of its business in products like Madison’s first electric-powered fire truck. Its military business is vehicles, not weapons.”

Regarding Pfeifer’s statement that the company planned to decrease its military vehicle business: It’s not true, at least not anytime soon. On December 4, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Oshkosh received another contract for 75 vehicles from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. That’s just a little more than two weeks after Pfeifer’s statement. I find it hard to believe that the company was earnestly planning to shut down production then reversed course so quickly. The Journal Sentinel article also included some key context: Oshkosh Corp. wasn’t slowing down its military vehicle branch out of principle, but because it lost a $9.7 billion US Army contract to another manufacturer.

As for Fanlund’s argument that Oshkosh’s vehicles are not weapons, I want you to look at the image of these vehicles below our headline. Imagine armed outsiders in those vehicles entering your community. Do you still think that isn’t a weapon?

“We started this quarterly event last year to help Madison audiences better understand large businesses across the state that make Wisconsin thrive,” Fanlund tells Tone Madison. But how can The Cap Times help an audience better understand large businesses if it’s glossing over controversies and refraining from tough questions?

On The Cap Times“About Us” page, it writes the following about founder William T. Evjue: “While Evjue made it clear in the first edition of The Capital Times that the paper would support the war effort [in World War I], he also called out ‘self-servers who seek profits out of the calamities of war’ and made that a recurring theme in the paper throughout the conflict.”

I mentioned that quote to Fanlund when I reached out to him for comment. “You can quote Mr. Evjue if you like,” Fanlund wrote in his reply. “I think he would be fine with our decisions.”

Is there a second half to Evjue’s quote that says, “unless it’s only 20% of their business and they said they’re going to reduce production”? I have my doubts.

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