This is a tale of two non-profit news outfits. Last week, both of them had ideological antagonists ripping them with the enthusiasm of Robespierre dispatching French aristocrats to the guillotine.
Unraveling their individual stories tells us something about how these two news outlets are alike – but also how they’re very different from each other. And it suggests some of the potentially dicey aspects of the emerging trend in journalism of outside organizations that provide content to the news media.
First up is the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Headed by former Wisconsin State Journal investigative reporter Andy Hall, the Center is a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. It publishes its work on the web at WisconsinWatch.org and works closely with public broadcasters and print news organizations.
The Center scored a personnel coup last summer when it hired Bill Lueders away from Isthmus (full disclosure – I write for the Madison weekly, and Lueders is a featured web columnist here at Milwaukee Magazine) to dig into money in politics. Barely moved into his new offices, Lueders scored a coup of his own: his alarming scoop, produced in cooperation with Wisconsin Public Radio, about a confrontation in which state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser allegedly put his hands around the neck of fellow justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
The incident later triggered two investigations. One, by a special prosecutor, ended with no criminal charges and divergent descriptions of what happened. Another, by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, has yet to be released.
Fast-forward to this month. On Feb. 10, WisconsinWatch published another Lueders story in which two justices – Bradley and Patrick Crooks – said the state should consider replacing the current system of electing state Supreme Court and appeals court judges with one in which they are appointed.
That story caught the critical eye of Club for Growth Wisconsin, a right-wing organizing group. In its weekly newsletter on Feb. 15 (second item), CfGW called the Center for Investigative Journalism a “smear-Walker operation” and identified Lueders as the reporter who “‘broke’ the story of Justice David Prosser putting a ‘choke-hold’ on Bradley” – an “anonymously-leaked story,” CfGW insisted, that “fell apart fast.”
In his story on elected vs. appointed judges, Lueders quotes a poll from last summer by Justice at Stake – a self-described “nonpartisan campaign working to keep our courts fair and impartial” that has spotlighted rising special interest spending in judicial campaigns. In the poll, a lopsided 59 percent majority of Wisconsin residents opposed switching from election to “merit-selection” of higher-court judges. But the same survey showed voter approval of the state Supreme Court had plummeted – from 52 percent three years ago to just 33 percent.
CfGW jumped on the fact that both Justice at Stake and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism receive some funding from billionaire George Soros, widely known as a backer of liberal causes, and framed the entire exercise this way:
So a Soros-funded propaganda mill cites another Soros-funded propaganda mill to argue against electing judges, and calls it investigative journalism. It’s the biggest big money imaginable, cynically campaigning against spending on judicial elections, not to banish the influence of money but to end citizen participation and establish rule by hand-picked Leftist judges.
I asked Hall in an email about the Club’s comment, and he pointed out some errors in the piece. For one thing, in paraphrasing the Feb. 10 story, the CfGW “inaccurately stated that the justices called for merit selection of judges” – when they merely say it should be given consideration.
Hall disputes any claim that the Bradley-Prosser confrontation story “fell apart fast” – and indeed, CfGW doesn’t back up the assertion. And he takes exception linking the original Lueders story with the “chokehold” claim itself. That term was first used by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel following up on the story, Hall says.
“The original allegations reported by the Center and WPR never included that term, but did include a report that Prosser grabbed Bradley around the neck. During the ensuing criminal investigation, Prosser acknowledged placing his hands on Bradley's neck.” Hall called the Center's reporting on the story “accurate and fair.”
Prosser, Hall notes, declined to respond to the allegations before they were published, and when he later did respond, WisconsinWatch reported that, too.
As for the Soros funding connection, “The Center's Policy on Financial Support requires that the Center's news coverage be independent of donors and that all providers of revenue be publicly identified, to protect the integrity of its journalism,” Hall says. (You can see more at wisconsinwatch.org/about/ethics/ and at wisconsinwatch.org/about/funding/.) Meanwhile, he notes, Club for Growth Wisconsin doesn’t disclose its funders.
The Justice at Stake survey was quoted for context, Hall says, not to advance a particular course of action: “The Center takes no position on this issue. In fact, the Center does not publish editorials.”
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates that Club for Growth Wisconsin spent at least $320,000 on ads supporting Prosser’s reelection campaign last year and has also advertised on behalf of Gov. Scott Walker in the pending recall battle.
Finally, Hall rejects the “Smear Walker” epithet for his news organization. “Like most Wisconsin news organizations, the Center has covered Gov. Scott Walker. That coverage is available at wisconsinwatch.org and at dozens of news organizations that have used it. The Center stands by the accuracy and fairness of that coverage.”
By coincidence, another news organization found itself targeted last week by a group on the other side of the political spectrum from Club for Growth.
On Friday, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin sent a letter to news organizations around the state, condemning the work of Wisconsin Reporter.
Wisconsin Reporter is part of a network of state news reporting staffs set up by the Franklin Center Government and Public Integrity. The anonymously funded Franklin Center calls itself “a non-profit group dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with the training, expertise and technical support necessary to pursue journalistic endeavors.” Elsewhere it describes its focus as one of public education and journalism targeting “corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.”
A Washington Monthly story from 2010 places the Franklin Center among “a burgeoning movement” of conservative groups “throwing their organizational savvy and financial clout behind sustained investigative ventures.” And in July, Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus and columnist at the Madison Capital Times, wrote a piece calling the center
yet another endeavor by opportunistic conservatives to jump in to fill a void created by the economic woes of traditional media.
After Jim Romenesko (then at the Poynter Institute) linked to and quoted from the Zweifel article, Franklin Center President Jason Stverak posted a comment claiming “fabrication” (by whom and about what isn’t clear). He asserted the center’s independence and non-partisanship.
In Wisconsin, the Democrats and Wisconsin Reporter have been clashing for months, going back to when WR’s Kirstin Adshead showed up at a Recall Walker training session until she was ejected and left with some recall strategy documents, which the outlet later posted on its website. The party accuses her of deception in attending the event; WR asserts that when Adshead signed up for it online she identified her affiliation.
Democratic Communications Director Graeme Zielinski and WR’s Matt Kittle have exchanged countless snarky and hostile emails, some of which have been sent my way. Then came two escalating developments last week.
During the appearance by President Barack Obama at Master Lock last Wednesday, a WR reporter approached DPW Chairman Mike Tate. What happened next?
Zielinski claims the reporter “stuck a recorder into an off-the-record conversation our chairman was having with another reporter,” as he put it in an email to Kittle. “This is in keeping with the total lack of ethics and character for your Republican, in-the-tank organization. I'd ask you to do something about this totally unacceptable behavior, but you've already lied and denied past unethical behavior, so there really is no point.”
Kittle, replying to Zielinski, denies the charge: “My reporter did not tape any conversation,” but instead stood by after requesting a comment on the president's visit.
The other development was a “connect-the-dots” post by blogger Chris Liebenthal tying WR to a Scott Walker campaign donor.
And with that, it was game on. In a three-page letter Friday to state news organizations who’ve used WR stories, Zielinski outlined the party’s conclusions that WR work is one-sided, selective in its choice of facts and “biased in its incendiary words and its approach to issues.” The party organization and many individual Democratic politicians, Zielinski wrote, have opted not to talk to the news outlet “because they have had their words twisted or their points ignored, while extreme conservatives and Republicans are portrayed in glowing terms.”
The letter stopped short of directly urging editors to stop using WR, but said that if they did continue to publish material from the organization, they should “at least ... let your readership know that this group is an adjunct of an activist right-wing organization that supports the Scott Walker agenda.”
I got a lengthy response from Kittle, who accused Zielinski of first threatening to contact WR papers last August and also of threatening to contact the capitol press corps – “an organization of which Wisconsin Reporter was and remains in good standing.” He noted “a point of irony” in accusations from the Democrats of bias while refusing to return WR requests for comment, and said the news organization has sought to “include all sides of the issues on which we report,” including reaching out to Democratic leaders elsewhere in the state.
As he did in his email to Zielinski last week, Kittle asserted that at the Obama event, WR’s reporter never horned in to record an off-the-record conversation. “He asked for comment, waited for the conversation to conclude. He even went as far as to show the party chairman his digital recorder to prove that his digital recorder was, in fact, off.”
And he dismissed Zielinski’s letter to news organizations, saying that “we have heard no adverse comments” and that Zielinski’s “slings and arrows” were nothing more than “a partisan attempting to control the message.”
I also asked Jon Losness, editor of the Kenosha News, for his reaction. (Another full disclosure alert: I work part-time as a copy editor at the News.) Losness, who hadn’t received the Democrats’ letter until I forwarded it to him, tells me that when the paper uses WR copy, “We scrutinize their materials for fairness and balance in the same way we review content provided to us by The Associated Press or McClatchy News Service.” He adds: “We are aware that some believe Wisconsin Reporter content is biased toward conservative interests but also note that some on the right have similar concerns about left-leaning bias from mainstream media.”
So, what to make of it all?
First, I don’t put Wisconsin Reporter and the Franklin Center in the same category as Wisconsin Watch and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting.
I certainly haven’t read everything produced by either outlet. But from what I have seen, the Wisconsin Center and Wisconsin Watch is a solidly reported and edited operation that has dug into some important and largely uncovered stories.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Reporter stories I’ve read usually seem superficial. Many do appear to be straight down the middle on controversial issues. But others have been questionable at best. An inexcusably thin one, for example, was hung on the claim of a pro-Walker talk radio host who says an unnamed fan e-mailed to tell her that someone had signed the host’s name to a recall petition.
Then there was the $12,000 WR spent on an investigation that found just under 1,000 dead people still on the state’s voter rolls – barely three people in 10,000. There was no new evidence of dead people voting (five previously reported cases were mentioned), but that became the premise for a string of talking points on measures like picture IDs for voters. Meanwhile the story completely ignored countervailing arguments that such Republican-backed policies wind up disenfranchising Democratic voters.
Flawed stories like those just heighten a much more critical concern: Who’s funding them?
Independent news-gathering outlets funded by outside donors are probably here to stay. As budgets are stretched and staffs are slashed, newsrooms will increasingly turn to organizations like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting or the national investigative news operation ProPublica for the heavy lifting of enterprise reporting that takes time and money. And they’re likely to turn to sources like Wisconsin Reporter, too.
So who is providing that money? The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting directly discloses its donors. As readers we have some basis to decide if it is unduly influenced by the sources – something I don’t believe is the case. Your mileage may vary.
But who funds the Franklin Center? We have no idea – although there have been claims of links to various conservative donors and foundations, from the Bradley Center to the infamous Koch Brothers.
Does openness guarantee honesty, and secrecy not? No. But openness does allow readers at least an opportunity to question who’s paying the bill for the information they’re getting, and what interests they might represent.
News editors who provide space in their pages or time on their airwaves for that information should want to know, too.
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