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?