The Wisconsin political blogosphere has always been a place of rough talk and sharp elbows.
But last week, one lefty blog found itself facing an almost unheard of threat: a potential libel lawsuit.
It started when Blogging Blue posted a column by Madison freelance writer Dustin Beilke that attacked the conservative Madison think tank, the MacIver Institute.
The column took the press to task for quoting MacIver representatives “on policy issues important to Wisconsin” – then proceeded to assert that MacIver was a “political campaign office” instead of a legitimate policy research organization.
Beilke’s column, which is no longer online, mentioned by name various MacIver officials and noted their past ties to Republican politics and candidates. It identified former GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen as a current “consultant” to the institute.
It said MacIver’s communications director, Brian Fraley, was director of the state Senate Republican caucus at the time of the 2001 caucus scandal. It called MacIver president Brett Healy a former Jensen campaign manager. And it called out MacIver contributor James Wigderson, a one-time political operative and now a Waukesha County blogger, newspaper columnist and freelance writer.
The column closed with an appeal to journalists to steer clear of MacIver people and its papers when writing stories:
The reading public should call upon Wisconsin’s editors, reporters, publishers and station managers to follow their professional standards and use sources that are honestly participating in the marketplace of public policy ideas -- and avoid groups like the MacIver Institute whose sole job is to manipulate it for partisan reasons.
The same column was posted briefly on the website of the Capital Times in Madison.
Wigderson and MacIver cried foul. MacIver communications director Fraley called a lawyer. Then he contacted Blogging Blue, the Cap Times and Beilke, Fraley tells me, “pointing out the numerous errors in Mr. Beilke's sloppy, poorly-researched article” and noting that it “contained actionable misstatements of fact regarding both my and James Wigderson’s work history.”
The Cap Times pulled the column within 30 minutes after it was posted. That wasn’t because of any lawsuit threat, says CT managing editor Chris Murphy. Rather, as Murphy explained in responding to a blogger who posted about the about-face, “it’s my experience that the main point gets lost when there are problems with the facts.” And that doesn’t mean, Murphy added, “that we are any less skeptical of the institute than we have been in the past.”
Blogging Blue pulled the column as well, then posted a revised version. But Fraley says that while the rewrite “corrected many factual inaccuracies,” it still “continues to perpetuate the lie that Scott Jensen is an advisor to the MacIver Institute.”
Blogging Blue subsequently pulled the revision.
Wigderson says a reference in the original column that he is engaged in GOP get-out-the-vote efforts “would be, to me, libelous, because that says that I have a relationship with the Republican Party. And that's something I never had, even when I was doing political work.” And he took offense at the claim that he’s part of efforts to suppress Democratic votes.
That was changed in the revised column, which now refers to Wigderson’s “incendiary and partisan political writing, which everyone knows is a key element in any partisan get-out-the-vote strategy.”
But still uncorrected, he says, is a claim that he was a consultant to Mark Neumann. He’s never worked for Neumann, he says – although he and a friend produced an independent mailing promoting Neumann’s congressional bid in 1994.
That gets to one reason for the lawsuit threat: Wigderson contends it insinuates the possibility of illegal coordination between an independent campaign and that of a candidate.
There were other errors. Healy was Jensen’s chief of staff but never his campaign manager, according to MacIver. And Wigderson says a reference that tied Fraley to the caucus scandal was wrong because no Republican Senate officials were ever charged or convicted in connection with it.
Wigderson took Beilke’s column as an assault on his livelihood: “When he says newspapers should question using anything by anybody associated with the MacIver Institute, what he’s basically trying to do is stop me from being published anywhere. That to me is malice of intent.”
(When I hear back from Beilke on the inquiry I sent him, I’ll post his response.)
At Blogging Blue, the response left proprietor Zack Wisniewski fuming – but also worried. He took down the rewrite, he says, because “I didn't want to get bombarded with emails any more,” and instead linked to the same column at Citizen Action’s website.
Wisniewski has also posted a point-by-point pushback at MacIver to get across the essential story that he feels got lost in the back-and-forth over Beilke’s column.
Fraley says MacIver does plan to protest Citizen Action’s posting, but Wisnewski believes Blogging Blue was singled out because “I am just a guy with a blog and a day job.” Citizen Action’s size gives it the strength to fight, he says. “It’s easy to push against one guy and make threats of legal action and libel.”
Wigderson and Fraley insist they’re not trying to intimidate anyone, and just want the record corrected. Disagreement with MacIver policy arguments and positions, Fraley says, “is not a license to spread as fact things that are not true.”
Meanwhile, Blogging Blue allies have joined the attacks on MacIver. Cory Liebmann at Eye on Wisconsin mocked MacIver as a “delicate little flower”:
With so many old partisan Republican hands over at MacIver, who knew that they would be so super sensitive? Or maybe they are just trying to silence their detractors in schoolyard bully fashion, I can't make up my mind.
Liebmann said he wasn’t vouching for the factual accuracy of everything in Beilke wrote.
But I do most definitely agree with the idea that the traditional media should be careful in how they use information that comes from MacIver. Because I do think that it is a right wing spin machine run by long-time Republican partisans with very obvious goals that don't include the production of legitimate straight news.
Lawyer Tom Foley, who until early this year blogged at illusory tenant, tells me that he had told an online discussion group of liberal bloggers that MacIver’s claims were “blowing smoke” and that, in Blogging Blue’s shoes, he would have simply ignored the complaints.
Regardless of strategy, though, what everyone – left and right – agrees is that a serious threat of legal escalation is rare even in the contentious arena of political blogging here.
In 2011, a post by conservative blogger Kevin Binversie made a passing remark calling Foley gay. Foley, who is not gay, sent Binversie a letter threatening to sue, on the grounds that “false imputations of homosexuality” can be “defamatory on their face.” Binversie subsequently scrubbed the offending post and apologized, although Foley says the response fell short of the retraction and apology that state law libel law demands.
Foley, though, sees no comparison between that dispute and the MacIver/Wigderson-Blogging Blue dust-up. (For one thing, Foley says, he was interested in suing to test Wisconsin law on whether to be called homosexual is per se defamation. He says he would have liked to lose such a case – getting a decision that would destigmatize homosexuality under defamation law.)
In 2005 Robert Miranda sued radio talker Charlie Sykes in Small Claims Court over claims that Sykes blogged and then quickly retracted alleging Miranda’s involvement in a 1991 altercation between audience members and Mark Belling at a rally. Miranda won a $5,000 out-of-court settlement from WTMJ’s parent company, Journal Communications, that endowed a journalism scholarship.
Blogging Blue’s Wisnewski says he considers the matter resolved, but MacIver and Wigderson don’t sound mollified.
Beilke has so far not responded to a MacIver request for a complete list of every person and publication receiving the original column, the rewrite, or both, “so we do not know how far these lies have traveled,” Fraley says.
“We are keeping our legal options open.”
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