The New Right-Wing Media
The state is a national leader in creating new conservative publications.
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.
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.
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.