Don’t Mess with the Press
The state budget bill has huge consequences, but the media is most concerned about its impact on... the media.
On Wednesday, the clocks ran backwards, up was down and hell froze over. On that day, ultra-conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes and uber-lefty Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, actually agreed on something. They both declared that Republican legislators were “petty” and wrongheaded for going after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Yes, if there is anything you can count on to make the media rise up in unified anger, it’s an attack on the media. And that’s precisely what the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee did, in passing a late-night budget item that Sykes labeled a “Petty, Vindictive, Dumb” move. (Rothschild was far more subdued.) The item bars the UW Board of Regents from allowing the Center for Investigative Journalism “to occupy any facilities owned by the UW system and to “prohibit UW employees” from doing any work related to the Center’s journalism.
Why is the center using those university offices? Because its four-member staff has an agreement with the university whereby it provides “paid internships, classroom collaborations, guest lectures and other educational services” to the university. Many of the Center’s stories are written by paid student interns operating under the guidance of its staff.
But is this really why Republicans went after the Center? As the AP reported, it was Republican Rep. John Nygren who inserted this measure into the budget. And the Center wrote an investigative story describing his push to make changes in automobile insurance laws and detailing donations he received from insurance interests. The Center also wrote a column describing its battle to get him to respond to its open records request. This appears to be payback time for Nygren.
The particular reason hardly matters. The media will always rise up to defend its own. Madison Magazine’s Neil Heinen, in a column headlined “GOP Sneak Attack,” blasted the measure as “an assault on independent media, an assault on the UW and the Wisconsin Idea, and an assault on the citizens of this state.
Cap Times columnist John Nichols easily topped that, calling it, yes, an “assault,” but of the most historically heinous sort, comparable to Royal Britain’s “assaults on property and freedoms” of the American colonists.
The center’s executive director Andy Hall said he was “overwhelmed by messages of support from journalists and journalism educators, here and across the nation.” The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blogged about it.
Yes the issue has the media’s blood boiling across America, but there are also personal connections at work. Hall worked for years for the Wisconsin State Journal, whose editorial joined Sykes and Rothschild in calling the legislature’s action “petty” and thundering that “The government doesn’t get to dictate what information a free press provides to the public.”
The Center’s staffer and columnist Bill Lueders once worked as intern for Sykes at Milwaukee Magazine and later edited Sykes’s column at Isthmus. Lueders also did a stint at The Progressive, where he got to know Rothschild. (Lueders and I also edited each other’s stories over the years.) Then there are all the publications, including Urban Milwaukee, which gratefully run stories by the Center, which are provided at no cost. The Center says its work is “published by more than 230 news outlets across Wisconsin and the nation.”
I agree with Sykes that the Center does good work. He notes approvingly its 2009 story that raised questions about the efficacy of high speed rail. That’s back when Gov. Jim Doyle was pushing this. Now the Democrats are almost irrelevant in the Capitol, so it’s hardly surprising the Center’s investigative probes are mostly about Republicans. Moreover, a story about the potential for endocrine disrupting chemicals in our lakes details a problem that could hurt us all, Republicans, Democrats and independents. Indeed, the Joint Finance Committee recently relied on the Center’s investigation into the reliability of GPS tracking of offenders in deciding to curtail the governor’s requested expansion of the program. For the JFC to then turn around and punish this group is, well, petty, vindictive and dumb.
Still, it is striking how much attention the media will give to one of its own, while other issues get far less discussion. This has been a legislative session with a far reaching agenda, from new tax cuts that deliver most of the benefit to the wealthy to rejecting Obamacare and throwing 85,000 low and moderate Wisconsinites off of BadgerCare to legalizing commercial bail bonds to ending municipal residency requirements. The list goes on from there, with some of these issues getting considerably less coverage than the fate of the Center for Investigative Journalism. The message to the legislature should be clear: Don’t mess with the press.
-Leave it to Mark Belling to depart from the rest of the media: he has gone after fellow conservative Charlie Sykes and defended the Republican attack on the Center, as Dan Bice has reported.
-Meanwhile, Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg embarrassed himself with a blog suggesting the Center for Investigative Journalism was just a liberal version of the conservative MacIver Institute. He was echoing Nygren’s comment to a Democratic legislator making the same comparison.
State Journal columnist Chris Rickert noted the obvious differences between the two groups: the Center discloses the list of its donors, while MacIver keeps them secret; the Center follows the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics and bar donors from dictating coverage while the MacIver declined to disclose its policies. The MacIver Institute, after all, doesn’t claim to be a journalistic organization. It calls itself a “think tank” that promotes “free markets” and “limited government” and mostly supports the GOP. It’s an advocacy group, whose closest counterpart on the left would probably be One Wisconsin Now. What in the world was Esenberg thinking?