Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The New Right-Wing Media

The state is a national leader in creating new conservative publications.

By - Oct 22nd, 2013 01:52 pm

It is remarkable how the media landscape has changed in Wisconsin in just a couple years. Largely because of funding from the Bradley Foundation, this state has become a national leader in creating new conservative publications. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has subtly moved more to the right while WTMJ has underwritten yet another conservative publication overseen by radio talker Charlie Sykes, called Right Wisconsin.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: The Lion House

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation: The Lion House

Wisconsin was the first state to have a Media Trackers website which does attack stories on Democrats and government and began here in January 2011. There are now five other states with such publications, all funded by conservative non-profit called American Majority, which has an annual budget of $2.5 million, according to its most recent federal tax form. The Bradley Foundation has donated money ($328,720 in one year alone) to help create the Wisconsin publication, as Dan Bice has reported. Since then, Media Trackers has created its own non-profit organization and is funded directly by the Bradley Foundation, says its president and CEO Michael Grebe.

Wisconsin was also one of the earliest states to get a publication covering the statehouse from a conservative slant, called the Wisconsin Reporter. Also started here in January 2011, it is joined by similar publications in 22 other states, all funded by the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Media Integrity, which in turn has gotten money from Bradley ($190,500 in one year alone).

The slogan of Media Trackers is “Just the Facts” and it says it is “dedicated to media accountability, government transparency and quality, fact-based journalism.” But Grebe concedes the publication is “avowedly conservative.” Media Tracker also claims it “explores claims made by some of the more partisan political groups,” but in practice it only does exposes on left-wing groups.

One of its stories claimed a labor-backed group had violated state law by handing out free BBQ to Milwaukee residents in exchange for pledges to vote early in a state Senate recall election. The story, based on a single anonymous witness, turned out to be wrong; an investigation by the DA found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Media Tracker also wrote a story on the Wisconsin Judicial Commission after it filed an ethics complaint against conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. The story claimed four of the commission’s nine members had signed Walker recall petitions. In fact, none had.

Perhaps its most egregious story claimed that Democratic congressman Mark Pocan’s gay lover had threatened and harassed a gay Republican in Madison. As it turned out, the story was a complete hoax.

The Wisconsin Reporter styles itself as a “watchdog” providing statehouse reporting, helping to fill the gap created by the decline in traditional media coverage: An American Journalism Review study found the number of newspaper reporters and editors covering state capitols declined 30 percent from 2003 to 2009.

As Media Matters has reported, the Wisconsin Reporter managed to get four of the five major Republican candidates for U.S. Senate to participate in a debate it sponsored, while also being given press credentials from the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association. By contrast, in Idaho and Ohio, the press association would not issue these reporters credentials.

The reason was that they saw the organization as tainted by its association with the Franklin Center, which is “funded by major conservative donors, staffed by veterans of groups affiliated with the Koch brothers,” and sponsors events for conservative bloggers and to train conservative citizen watchdogs, as Media Matters has reported. Grebe also calls the Wisconsin Reporter “avowedly conservative.”

One reporter who applied for a job with the Wisconsin Reporter gave media reporter Jim Romenesko the list of questions he was asked after applying for a job. He was asked “to provide brief, 1-2 sentence answers” to such questions as: “How do free markets help the poor? How do government programs help the poor? How does government policy sometimes lead to unintended consequences? Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?”

Given such questions, its perhaps not surprising that Wisconsin Reporter picked up the bogus Media Trackers “BBQ For Votes” story

Meanwhile, the Bradley Foundation is a major donor to the MacIver Institute, founded in 2009. Grebe calls it a think tank, but it mostly seems to put up quick hitting stories not all that different from Media Trackers or Wisconsin reporter, with headlines bashing MPS for not selling a school building to a voucher school (“MPS Should Be Ashamed of the Malcolm X Boondoggle”), bashing Democratic state senator Kathleen Vinehout (“Vinehout Simply Wrong on Independent Charter Schools”) or government workers (“Will Furloughed Federal Workers Try to Get Paid Twice?”). MacIver’s most recently reported annual budget was $504,000.

Then there is Sykes Right Wisconsin website, the most recent entry to the field, which has hired a managing editor and associate editor and throws up all kinds of stories bashing Democrats and supporting Republicans. Precisely how much money WTMJ has thrown into this is unknown, and Milwaukee Magazine columnist Erik Gunn’s attempt to get answers from Journal Broadcast VP Steve Wexler met with vague generalities from him.

What exactly is the economic model here? How is WTMJ going to make back its money? I sent Sykes an email asking a number of questions and he declined to answer saying, “I assume you will just make stuff up… as you usually do.”

The overlap between these various outlets is striking. Take the MPS building sale, which MacIver assailed in its story, a Right Wisconsin headline called “The Slimy, Rushed, Corrupt Real Estate Deal” and Wisconsin Reporter did a story getting a a quote from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty bashing MPS for how it handled building sales.

You can count on all four sites to write negative stories about government (but not the Walker administration) and Democratic politicians. Perhaps the funniest example of their mentality is the frenzied coverage of Graeme Zielinski, the one-time flak for the state Democratic Party, who I would guess is unknown to 99.9% of Wisconsin citizens, but whose drunken driving conviction has merited numerous stories from Right Wisconsin, Media Trackers and Wisconsin Reporter. This isn’t about serving readers, it’s about getting vengeance against an operative who often bashed Sykes and conservatives.

The overlap between these various groups is remarkable. The managing editor of Right Wisconsin is Brian Fraley who helped launch the MacIver Institute, where he continues to serve as a Senior Fellow. The Associate Editor of Right Wisconsin is Collin Roth, who worked for two years for Media Trackers. Then there is the ubiquitous conservative blogger James Wigderson, who also does columns for MacIver Institute and Right Wisconsin.

When it came to the fabricated story by Media Trackers on the supposed harassment of a gay Republican, Sykes had writer Brian Sikma, who hatched the story, on his show, and read some of the erroneous information on the air.

But to complete the circle here, you have to bring in the role of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Its columnist Christian Schneider wrote a column spreading the story on the supposed harassment of the gay Republican and Schneider and the newspaper later removed the column from the JS website.

For some time the Journal Sentinel ran columns by both Schneider and Mike Nichols, though both were getting paid by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, whose major funding comes from the Bradley Foundation. (Sykes has also been paid by the WPRI to edit its “Wisconsin Interest” online magazine.)

After I raised questions about this, Schneider stepped down from WPRI. And last month, the Journal Sentinel announced that Schneider was hired on staff. The position is part-time, according to JS editorial page editor David Haynes.

It was a year ago that the newspaper decided to kill the column of Eugene Kane. Now it has no liberal columnist, while Schneider does two columns a week. He’s not a trained journalist, but someone who worked as a Republican staffer in Madison for years and then went on to write columns for the conservative WPRI. He’s basically a conservative party operative who’s now become a key voice of the Journal Sentinel. Would they ever hire a liberal Democratic party operative as a columnist? Don’t hold your breath.

I don’t think it’s by design, but the Journal Sentinel’s emphasis on investigative “watchdog” stories also reinforces all the anti-government pieces of these various right-wing publications. Take a look at this list of its last 100 watchdog stories and you’ll see most are stories about government wrongdoing: nepotism at a public assistance agency, public assistance fraud, government overpayments and fraud involving child care providers, abuse in the Milwaukee child welfare system, problems with the mental health system, the state jobs program and how Milwaukee Police handle suspects in custody.

Other than Obamacare, there may be no federal program conservatives love to bash more than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Of the last 100 watchdog stories by the JS, exactly 23  — nearly one-quarter — were critical pieces on the ATF investigations. If you’re looking to please conservative readers, that’s a good way to go.

Grebe, however, sees the mainstream press as liberally biased and says of the Journal Sentinel’s reporting, “I think sometimes they are clearly slanted in a liberal direction.”

That, of course, is also a message that’s repeatedly hammered by Sykes on his radio show. And its clearly having an impact on the paper, as Kane, now gone from the newspaper, could probably attest. In just two years, the media landscape in Wisconsin has changed dramatically.

Categories: Murphy's Law

24 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The New Right-Wing Media”

  1. David Blaska says:

    “… its last 100 watchdog stories and you’ll see most are stories about government wrongdoing …” Golly, Bruce, journalists doing stories on government wrong-doing? What would Woodward and Bernstein say?

  2. John ONeill Sr. says:

    Thank you for prominently mentioning the Journal Sentinel. They still have an excellent sports page but everything else is good for the bottom of the bird cage only!

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    David, I’m all for stories on govt wrongdoing, but you would also hope reporters have free rein to go after private sector wrong-doing and wrongdoing of any kind by entrenched power.

  4. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Thanks for giving them all the press for the ten people that read this site.

  5. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    You have completely missed the five Conservative newspapers that are not funded by the Corporatists in the state: Freedom Weekly, Reality News, US Journal, Wis. Christian News and Wisconsin Conservative Digest, monthly circulation of close to 100,000.

  6. Dean Deardurff says:

    You are so funny. I guess it goes to the fact that you will do or say anything to get noticed.. What are you going to say next? hussein is actually a republican?
    That he is a Christian? O O I know, he is the best president to date in are history………..I you a writer for comedy central ?

  7. Bruce Thompson says:

    Along with the proliferation of media, there has been a marked deterioration in quality. Most of these are aimed at reinforcing the beliefs of their audience.

    Some years ago, I had a conversation with the then-head of the Bradley Foundation in which he said that they tried to find liberal foundations to co-sponsor their research, both because it added credibility to the results and helped make sure the conclusions were adequately vetted. That seemed to me a very good idea, but it seems to have been dropped.

  8. Mike Bark says:

    I’ve always wondered why people get all bent out of shape that there are some conservative media outlets out there. If you go to any of the sites that Bruce mentions you do so with the understanding that you are getting a conservative perspective and you should take their coverage with a grain of salt. I don’t think these sites really try to claim they are playing things straight down the middle.

    Not unlike coming to Urban Milwaukee’s website where they tackle things from a liberal perspective. Put it this way, in the MPS building deal, Bruce somehow managed to turn that into a Republicans are bad story.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Right Wisconsin in the long term. The site could be successful if they covered the news from a conservative perspective but they have decided to be a cheerleader for the Republican establishment which Sykes desperately wants to be a part of. Take the assembly 21 race. Instead of asking Why the Republican establishment was backing Jessie Rodriguez over more qualified candidates they were busy giving her an award. Most of the articles look like they were written by grade schoolers.

  9. Jack Norman says:

    Bruce, you are absolulely correct in saying: “The Journal Sentinel’s emphasis on investigative “watchdog” stories also reinforces all the anti-government pieces of these various right-wing publications.” You actually may have buried your lede, in that this point in itself is worthy of lengthy discussion.

    Also, many of JS’s investigative pieces portray lower-income folks who use government programs, especially African-Americans, as slackers and cheaters. So the paper manages to trash both public programs and poor people with one series of stories.

    Of course public misdeeds should be exposed. But those are the only misdeeds the paper seems to care about investigating with its substantial resources; its investigative resources are way over-focused on government and under-focused on the private sector. Investigations of public misdeeds are much easier than inquiries into private corruption, and hence much easier ways to win big national prizes, which seems to be the paper’s No. 1 goal.

  10. Bill Sweeney says:

    There is, or rather, there should be a difference between journalism and propaganda. Indeed, you can argue that one of the major roles of journalism is to reveal the difference between information that is basically accurate from that which is clearly slanted for some biased purpose. What is needed far more than sites that promote a particular political slant on news are sites that strive to conform to fundamental standards of journalistic integrity like accuracy, fairness, objectivity etc. There is the oft quoted comment of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” When some event happens that is of wide concern to the larger community, for example, a natural disaster, or an act of violence, or an economic calamity as in 2008, often rumors start flying, inaccurate information gets circulated. (“A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” -Mark Twain.) That is when you need a newspaper or news organization to establish a basic set of facts that a least a majority of people can have faith in. However, if people tend to get their news from some news site with a particular agenda that matches their own engrained perceptions, this will just make political partisanship just all the greater. This already happens with those who simply get their news from Fox or MSNBC. People of different political persuasions have to be able to talk to one another, and to do that, they have to be able to listen respectfully to one another. So maybe it is time to reinstate some version of the Fairness Doctrine so people are exposed to diverse points of view.

  11. John Kaufman says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for your thorough summation of Wisconsin’s recent journalistic scene– a pretty dismal view.

    And surely the Internet lends itself more to propaganda and misinformation than does print, if only because speed is everything online and good education/journalism takes time. Instead of a handful of journalistic sources, we get a hundred. More opportunity, but the odds of quality diminish.

    But the right-wing radio/Internet onslaught has perhaps reached its peak and begun its descent. Current events in Wisconsin and D.C. are getting harder and harder to spin into fool’s gold, and the little wave of 2010 that brought Republicans to power in Wisconsin and the House seems to have lost its energy.

    The truth remains the truth, fortunately. Even beyond journalists.

  12. Patti Wenzel says:

    Bruce, As a regular contributor to Right Wisconsin I’m dismayed that you didn’t mention me in your diatribe. What is refreshing about all the outlets you mentioned is we don’t mask who we are and from which direction we are coming from. Unlike Urban Milwaukee, the Shepherd Express or On Milwaukee which claim to be neutral but are so far left they are biting the asses of the far right!

  13. Yesterday I noticed a new site called Wisconsin Election Watch which claims to be “non-partisan” and “for-profit” The staff seems entirely culled from the right wing. It is non-partisan in the sense that opponents in the few races it covers are both mentioned, along with their party affiliation. But the detailed coverage seems slanted toward the Republican candidates.

  14. Kyle says:

    Oh no, Mr. “kill the suburbs” Horne doesn’t like the slant of a for-profit organization! I’m going to assume you have an extensive list of sites that meet your definition of non-partisan. Personally, I’d love to check them out. If you could provide them, I’d be grateful. Thanks!

  15. STACY MOSS says:

    This is so depressing.

    How can anyone stand it (on either side).

    For any of this to make sense you have to believe in black and white evil. But then you don’t have to read anymore because everything becomes obvious and self-evident.

  16. Ted Voth Jr says:

    ‘The New Right-Wing Media. ‘ You mean beside the old multi-billion-dollar Corporate media the Rights owned all along?

  17. Ms. Ann Thrope says:

    If you take a generous view, you can acknowledge that any website (or newspaper) has the potential to uncover a story. The old Hearst chain (until 1962 including the Milwaukee Sentinel) was a reprehensible outfit, but every now and then they would uncover something authentic.

    Today, the reason so many accuse the mainstream press of ‘liberal bias’ is a misunderstanding of the reporting trade. The reporter is not a cheerleader, a private eye, or a stenographer. His paramount duty is to be a skeptic.

    A story must start from the premise that the subject will now prove his claim, his demand, his contention. What’s troubling about so many obscurely funded sites (or newspapers) is they have it backwards, beginning with ‘here’s our agenda, let’s shape the story to fit it.’ So if your reason for being is to prove that ‘government is always wrong/corrupt/the problem,’ how can you help but shape the story to fit that bias.

    Personally, I’m less troubled by the funding sources of obscure websites than with the decline of journalism standards. Let’s get back to keeping the opinions on the opinion pages, and out of the news.

  18. jake says:

    I laugh when I here rightwngers call the JS liberal? When it and its 620 WGOP has supported Walker throghout his career free press, free radio, free PR, as well as supporting VanHollen, Prosser, and Abele.

    Conservatives got it all backwards. JS communications owns a near media monopoly in the Greater Milwaukee area, it has many tentacles LLC’s bigoted tea part extremist bloggers, Tosa now, 620, theJS, etc….

    It’s business and as anyone knows pandering to the fears of white males in the suburbs between the ages of 35 to 65, is a great way to make a buck.

  19. Bruce Thompson says:

    I took a look at the three prominently mentioned (Media Trackers, Wisconsin Report, and the MacIver Institute to see how they addressed the issue of Wisconsin’s lagging job growth (answer: they don’t). The three are, as Murphy points out, enormously duplicative.

    Their intended audience seems to be the true believers who want quick talking points to reinforce their beliefs; they do little to reach out to people who may be interested in a serious discussion of an issue. This became even clearer when I tried to read an article and was refused unless I registered. (Oddly the same thing happened when I tried to link to an ad from the Republican party.)

  20. Andy says:

    So is hearing the complaints about Media trackers, MacIver institude, etc on Urban Milwaukee equivalent to hearing complaints about the Shepard Express, OnMilwaukee, etc on a conservative blog?

    I at least appreciate that the conservative groups, talk shows, blogs, etc tend to admit they are conservative. Generally I don’t see the same type of disclosure from the Liberal groups.

  21. jake says:

    I would rather use my own critical thinking skills than let a media outlet tell me what they are. Like Fox being fair or balanced or 1130 AM being fair or balanced, it’s just a cover for bias.

  22. Bruce Thompson says:

    I don’t mind a site that has a point of view and tells me what they think and the reasons why, so long as they are willing to include evidence that might go against their conclusion. I object to a sight that tells me what I should think. The right wing sites I mentioned all fall into the latter practice, essentially saying that anyone who disagrees with them is stupid or corrupt. I would agree that there are some left-wing sites, including the Shepard Express that are essentially mirror images of the right-wing sites. I am surprised at your inclusion of OnMilwaukee, however, which seems to have little or no political content–just events.

  23. jake says:

    I think Andy is confusing opinion blogs with site managed content in OnMilwaukee, which is not s surprise.

  24. Andy says:

    Yeah… I sheepishly admit my inclusion of OnMilwaukee had nothing to do with confusion, but rather laziness. I haven’t frequented Onmilwaukee for a long time, I merely added it because of the previous comment mentioning it. I even thought it was odd that it had become more political…

    I am usually very particular about my comments and only citing facts as I know them (unless otherwise stating that it was from memory and may be skewed or biased), but in this case I did not. I retract my inclusion of them and apologize for doing so. I’ll be in the dog house if you need me.

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