Will Legislature Support WisconsinEye?
Its coverage of all legislative and committee hearings is critical to a democracy.
In an age of nasty partisan division, WisconsinEye is a good news story. It began broadcasting in May 2007 with bipartisan support and an avowedly nonpartisan goal: to provide full televised coverage of all Legislative floor sessions and committee hearings. It also provides video coverage of Supreme Court hearings and a variety of political conferences and meetings, offers in-depth interviews with lawmakers, cabinet secretaries and other officials, and has done hundreds of interviews with candidates for office. It’s videos are available on cable TV and at wiseye.org.
WisconsinEye is unique nationally, an independent non-profit entity calling itself “the nation’s first and only independent non-government-funded State Capitol broadcast organization, operating much like C-SPAN at the national level.” As one of its founders and board members, former Republican Lt. Governor and legislator Margaret Farrow stressed, the organization did not want direct state aid because it wanted to preserve its journalistic independence.
For a group that relies on donations for most of its budget, this was a disaster. WisconsinEye has cut its budget from $1.3 million to $1.1 million. Henkes says half the staff, including him, have had to take furloughs and pay cuts. WisconsinEye has also put up a paywall, whereby live coverage will be free, but a subscription fee of $9.99 a month will be required to watch any events that are more than 24 hours old. The group’s goal is to attract at least 1,000 members.
Will lawmakers vote to fund WisconsinEye? The organization’s website notes that “the network is highly valued by elected officials of both political parties. Lawmakers tell us their constituents are better informed and more communicative since the network launched.”
But this year’s budget is likely to be particularly tough, given the stress of the pandemic. There’s little doubt lawmakers would prefer the network remains privately funded, but that may no longer be possible.
That’s right, the bane of liberals in Wisconsin has been the major reason a network providing transparency in state government has survived.
But WisconsinEye notes it has benefitted from bipartisan donors, also including the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and Republicans Terry and Mary Kohler, and liberal-leaning groups like Democrat Chris Abele’s Argosy Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, Helen Bader Foundation and Evjue Foundation.
But it has always had a lean budget. “Of the nearly 20 such State Capitol networks in the United States, WisconsinEye has the smallest full-time staff (8) and the smallest annual budget ($1.25 million), yet produces as much or more original programming… than the other networks,” the group’s website notes.
Since its inception, “WisconsinEye has produced more than 14,000 hours of State Capitol and related civic programming – all available from the WisconsinEye archive,” the network notes. “Month-to-month, the network serves an average 35,000 videos from our archive, in addition to live audiences. With the outbreak of the pandemic that average jumped considerably, producing a record 152,000 video views in March of 2020.”
WisconsinEye has clearly lives up to its mission: “To inspire informed citizen participation in our representative democracy, across generations, throughout Wisconsin.”
Henkes says WisconsinEye is asking for “an annual service fee” from the Legislature for the coverage it provides, “while still maintaining our independence.”
“The request would likely be in the range of supporting 1-2 months of operating expenses,” he adds, and “would come after 13 years of providing no-cost programming of high value to elected officials, as well to their constituents and citizens statewide.”
Without that support WisconsinEye may not survive.