The Media’s Declining Clout
As newspaper readership declines, government officials increasingly ignore stories that once would have embarrassed them.
Year in and year out, Gerard Randall always finds a way to get paid with public funds. For years he ran the Private Industry Council, which was funded by Milwaukee County until it was disbanded in the face of heavy criticism and the city took over job training and employment in Milwaukee. Undaunted, Randall went on to win several no-bid contracts from Milwaukee County to work on task forces aimed at reducing minority unemployment and was criticized for not fully documenting how he spent the money.
Randall then found a new funder, Milwaukee Public Schools, which has paid him $280,000 over a two-year period, As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards has documented, the deal was a highly unusual one. For starters this was another no-bid contract. And the contract funded something called the Milwaukee Partnership Academy, which doesn’t really exist in any official fashion — it’s not an incorporated non-profit, she found, nor is it registered as a corporation of any kind, my check of state records shows. In essence the contract is just with Randall — except that Randall’s name appears nowhere on the contract with the MPA!
As with his county contracts, precisely what MPS is paying for is unclear. Randall “declined the Journal Sentinel’s request for a budget showing how he spends the MPS money.”
One thing we do know is that Randall is one very well-connected guy. He partnered with Cardinal Stritch on a grant request to fund a program whose project coordinator Theresa Thornton is the wife of MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton. And he managed to get a long list of important people in town to sign on as volunteer partners of the the MPA, including Superintendent Thornton, school board president Michael Bonds, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Michael Lovell, Milwaukee Area Technical College President Michael Burke, Cardinal Stritch University President James Loftus, and many others.
It may be that Randall is providing valuable services to MPS, but it’s difficult to judge when no expense reports are provided. Moreover, the way this contract has been set up stinks to high heaven. Richards did a good job exposing all this, but MPS officials simply ignored the story and blithely approved a contract renewal for Randall for $180,000, once again a no-bid contract and which apparently gives him a $40,000 annual raise. Nice work if you can get it.
The JS only did one story on the Randall contract but did more than two weeks of stories exposing the smelly deal by which a shadowy group that calls itself the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation Inc. won a $500,000 grant from the state.
As the newspaper reported, the money for this was included in a May addition to the state budget that was quietly and unanimously approved after just seven minutes of discussion by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in response to a motion written by then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) and Rep. Dan LeMahieu (R-Cascade). The grant was supposed to go to a group that would “introduce youth, women and others to the state’s sporting traditions.” Apparently our youth, women and others can no longer do this on their own and now need government assistance.
No this doesn’t make sense, and yes, the whole thing looks like a political payoff. The United Sportsmen, it turns out, is a conservative lobbying group with ties to Republican politicians and backed Scott Walker in his recall election. It has no history of doing the kind of sports training called for in the grant, yet it magically won the funding anyway.
That might be because only United Sportsmen even knew about the grant. The DNR posted the grant on an agency web page, but did not put out a news release on it. And the language of the budget amendment prevented most established conservation groups in the state, including the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, from applying for the grant. And so United Sportsmen was the only group to apply for the $500,000 grant.
All of that would have been bad enough, but it turns out the “United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation Inc” isn’t a foundation at all. It’s not registered with either the federal government or the state as a non-profit and has no designation as a 501(c)(3). Legislators and the state Department of Natural Resources learned that representatives of United Sportsmen misrepresented themselves, falsely claiming their group was a 501(c)(3).
Normally, in such cases, outraged state officials would decry this lie and withdraw the grant. Amazingly, they didn’t in this case. And soon yet another shoe dropped and we learned that the drafting file for the budget item “asked for a specific change to the grant motion so the group receiving the grant would not have to be recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit,” the JS story noted. The legislator who asked for this amendment is unknown.
The good news here is that Jason Stein and other JS reporters did a terrific job of documenting every irregularity in this truly smelly deal. The newspaper did seven stories on this, including a dramatic front-page, top-of-the fold story, and two editorials condemning the deal. Ten years ago, even three years ago, this kind of media scrutiny would have likely forced state officials to revoke the deal. But the Republicans didn’t budge until yet more dirt was discovered.
Yesterday the newspaper learned that Andy Pantzlaff, the president of United Sportsmen, was cited for hunting with the wrong license in Langlade County on Sept. 11, 2005, and later convicted and fined. Given that the grant was supposed to enable this group to teach people about hunting and handling guns, the revelation was pretty damning. When confronted with this, Walker announced he was canceling the contract.
It was a victory for the newspaper and for clean government, but the fact that Walker was willing to ignore all that dirt for so long speaks volumes about the declining clout of the state’s largest newspaper. Once the 800 pound gorilla that scared the bejesus out of politicians, the JS has shed a lot of weight and continues to do so.
Another sign of that is the statewide media campaign pushing the legislature to adopt a non-partisan way of redistricting. As Bill Lueders has written, the media has joined in with good government groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to push this issue.
The idea for the joint media campaign “was hatched by Scott Milfred and David Haynes, the editorial page editors of, respectively, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, along with Neil Heinen, editorial director of WISC-TV in Madison,” Lueders reported.
It’s great idea and an important issue. But in the old days the state’s largest newspaper didn’t have to join the crowd. Its clout was such that it could affect change all by itself, given the reach of its publication.
In theory, it might be good to see this power distributed among a larger number of media outlets. In reality, it seems unlikely a group of smaller online publications will have anywhere near the same impact as a newspaper that once landed on doorsteps across the state. I hope I’m wrong, but I think there is reason to worry about the weakening of print publications, and the critical role that a vigilant press plays in a democracy. It is very fashionable now to hate the media, but without it who will be a watchdog against government corruption?
10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Media’s Declining Clout”
I think that other sources of information, such as talk radio, for instance, are filling some of this void that is being left in the wake of the decline of print media. While many might decry the typical right wing slant of this type of programming, my own opinion is that publications like the Journal-Sentinel — which I think is a relatively well written paper that has value — have destroyed much of their own credibility over the years among conservatives and some number of moderates by the generally consistent liberal bias in their content. I would like to see the different “factions,” if you will, in cities like Milwaukee working together to a greater extent in ridding government of corruption that can somehow be objectively defined as such so that it is recognized and acknowledged by a majority of the interested parties involved.
The J-S is no liberal paper, it’s barely even moderate these days. Usually a complaint about the paper being liberal is just a complaint about actually reporting facts, but hey, the J-S has been doing less and less of that lately.
Tell us Spangler, what’s a good source of information to you? Seriously, give us your moderate, serious, unbiased sources… I’m sure we’d all like to hear them.
The decline of readership would have nothing to do with your bias stand on the truth. It’s a trash filled outlet that people are getting tired of. Prove is the decline of readership, can’t argue with that.. This is a Republic and not a democracy. Your decline and demise, is nice to hear. Now, go ahead and make your snide remarks and put downs of the public, that would just prove my point….
Tim, I believe you may be correct in regard to the Journal-Sentinel becoming less liberal and more moderate in recent years. I moved from Milwaukee to St. Louis four years ago and do not have the same access to its content I used to, but my sense is that they are genuinely trying harder to be more objective.
As far as where I get the majority of my information from, I love both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, I think the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is okay, I generally like CNN pretty well, I very much enjoy Jay Weber’s morning show on WISN even though he is a lot more conservative than I am, and I happen to like this site and Bruce Murphy’s columns in particular even though much of the content here is somewhat to the left of center from my perspective.
I don’t like MSNBC.
I don’t like Fox News.
Both of those may have some value, but from my perspective, both are too biased to be watchable.
I watched the PBS News Hour for many years but gave up on it a few years ago and had given up on NPR many years before that. There is some good information on each, but I just got tired of the elitist mentality amongst the show hosts and guests, such as in “Help our viewers/listeners understand what you mean by that.” The attitude among the show hosts on both PBS and NPR seemed to be that their audience wasn’t as smart and sophisticated as they and their guests were and needed some help to grasp the points that were being made, which I never felt were all that remarkably sophisticated, anyway.
I’ve also just gotten tired of listening to pompous asses, such as some number of the guests on NPR, pontificate — Rush Limbaugh falls into this category as well, and I can’t comprehend why he is still so overwhelmingly popular among conservatives. To be truthful, I never understood his appeal, and I think that much of one’s preferences on things like this come down to taste, which I generally feel there is no accounting for. In that respect, I think some amount of tolerance is in order in regard to individuals reading, listening, or watching what they want to. If a person can dig some nugget of wisdom out of Sean Hannity’s radio or TV show, for instance, and share it in some manner such that I become aware of it, I think that’s great, particularly given that I mostly can’t stand to watch or listen to Mr. Hannity, so it is going to be nearly impossible for me to learn of it otherwise.
I asked MJS editorial staff one time about their editorial positions and how some of the writers put out political ads instead of opinions backed by logic, facts, science, etc. The explanation given was they try to nuance their positions and reporting whatever that means. I take it to mean they have forgotten the important role they could be playing in reporting on the who, what, why, where, and include facts. Some of the editorial reporting is pure trash and could be taken from anyone’s political talking points.
I challenged one of their past editorial writer’s on an article that was printed in the Sunday paper. It was filled with lies and ignorance and I pointed them out and copied a number of his peers. He was more concerned with claims of ignorance and did not care about the lies built into the article. I saved the emails for reference.
It was at that point that I realized some of the writers just make the stuff up. I had always held reporting and editorial writing as an honorable profession with credibility and that they take care in preparation of a report or article, and one of their goals with reporting in this country was to protect rights of people and keep things honest. Media outlets can play a very important role in our society.
I had been a Journal and Sentinel reader starting at age 8 years old in 1958. My own view of MJS changed immediately and I canceled our family subscription. This one known fraud to me and previous MJS contacts, ruined my view of MJS. Many newspapers and so-called 24 hour cable stations fit the same fraud category as mere political propaganda outlets with sleek, lying, sleazy, talking heads that are given celebratory status with multi-million dollar contracts.
As a reader or watcher, you have to be able to discern between entertainment and actual news and analysis reporting and discussion. People like Sykes and Limbaugh are entertainment and will say just about anything and make stuff up. True honest reporting and comment are more difficult to find today as media outlets have cut back on experienced staff and perhaps replaced them with entertainers.
As some of you may recall, when news reporters were cheering shock and awe bombing of Baghdad, I knew something was rotten in actually reporting and analyzing news.
I was glad to see that the Gov. Finally pulled the plug on what was obviously a set up contract. That Scott and the legislature think they can get away with this stuff just shows how easily the self righteous G.O.P. can overlook their hypocrisy. As for Gerard Randall, he’s well known for happy talk and landing on his feet in somebody else’s money, I.e. doin nothing. That M.P.S. should award him a contract for doing more of the same seems par for the course.
I know little of Gerard Randall other than he used to appear on Belling’s old TV show, and it didn’t seem like he ever really had much substantive to contribute.
I understand what you mean by self-righteous people on the GOP side, especially religious conservatives, but I see the same sort of thing among some on the left in regard to elitist liberal attitudes. Among these are individuals who feel they are morally superior because of their views or activities in regard to environmentalism, use of public transit, use of organic or locally grown foods, etc. Some among these feel they are intellectually superior, as well. I don’t doubt there are some deep thinkers here, but much of this superiority complex is unjustified in my view, and I think it just leads to more conflict with polarized people on the right and is ultimately not especially constructive.
Yes, the Journal Sentinel has lost influence – part of the decades-long decline in the role of the press. All of the great midwestern papers of influence – Des Moines Register, Chicago Tribune, St Louis Post-Dispatch, are now shadows of what they once were. The cause? The rise of the internet, siphoning off advertising; the questionable decision to give the product away (via internet) for fifteen years; the abandonment of ‘country circulation’ that once gave papers clout far beyond their hometowns. And, for the J-S, there;’s no avoiding the fact that their readership is now in the comfortable suburbs of Waukesha and Ozaukee counties. They can get outraged about Milwaukee foolishness in Oostburg or Stone Bank, but the effect on voting is nil.
Over the past fifty years we’ve seen the erosion of ‘authority’ – many people no longer trust the government, the church, the press or the military – and have written off their roles as well as their rules. And since so many people have stopped paying attention, we now have a ‘Two Rules’ society, with one set applying to mortals and another, less restrictive set for the elected and the self-anointed. Until voters start paying attention again, there’s not much hope for change.
Still, kudos to the Journal Sentinel reporters and editors who make an effort.
I did not mean to exclude anty political persuasion from hypocrisy and sef righteousness. We are all equal. It just bugs me when things are so one sided as they are now.o
I find Ms. Thorpe’s comments especially insightful.
I for one read the MJS daily: it is the only serious newspaper left in Wisconsin. It has its faults but there is little other serious daily reporting going on in Wisconsin. (I don’t include the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune here; the Twin Cities media-shed extends far into western Wisconsin, where you can’t even find a MJS.)
This is a bit askew from the premise of your article, and a little aside to your reporting on the Sportsmen United, Bruce: Yes, Gov. Walker pulled the plug on that extremely smelly arrangement. But on the very same day, the DNR decided that it could do a better job of running the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center than the WI Wildlife Federation, to which the DNR gladly handed the keys several years ago. This is another stick in the eye of the WWF and its leader, George Meyer, by right-wing, gun-loving elements of the Republican machine. Meyer is way too reasonable on resource issues to be tolerated and they have been trying to kneecap him since Walker was elected.