The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's Puzzling Rebuke
Why would Republican lawmakers turn on an organization dedicated to remaining nonpartisan?
The Joint Finance Committee's measure booting the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from Vilas Hall, the beating heart of UW-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has turned into the little surprise story that could today, but it's still unclear to what extent the loss of the nonprofit news group's office on the campus would have on the plucky operation.
Staffed by investigative reporter Andy Hall; Bill Lueders, formerly the longtime news editor at the Isthmus alt-weekly in Madison; Kate Golden, a former Juneau Empire reporter with a knack for environmental stories; and an ever-changing roster of young interns and journalists (more than some daily newspapers in the state, in fact), the Center has built a reputation since its founding for pulling off serious reporting on a shoestring budget and sometimes catching the state's bigger media players off-guard. Lueders broke the story of Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's alleged choking of his colleague Ann Walsh Bradley, and the sheer number of deep-cutting environmental stories by Golden and others are enough to make the state press' job as environmental watchdog appear otherwise unfulfilled.
And there have also been enough tough stories for the Center to appear, to some business-minded conservatives, like a leftist organization impeding economic growth under the guise of protecting the "public good." Most recently, the Center's investigation of the state's "frac-sand" mining industry, which carts off sand used in the high-pressure drilling technique, excavated less than promising findings related to the business' employment and environmental impacts. These were stories that ranged from the sweeping to the minute, including the digging's potential for disrupting the habitat of a rare butterfly, the Karner blue.
The Center's major stories are almost never short and generally reported in a conscientious, by-the-textbook fashion that one could see as important experience for students at, say, a journalism school in Madison. Gregory Downey, director of the university's J School, fired back today in a tone of surprise and called the budget bill's ban on UW employees working with the Center "a direct assault on our academic freedom." The news group, in its own coverage of what it calls "an early morning attack" notes wryly that Joint Finance "recently relied upon our investigation into the reliability of GPS tracking of offenders to curtail the governor's requested expansion of GPS tracking until the reliability can be proven."
Hall repeats the Center's promise of not taking side or playing favorites, a goal academics, in following their research interests, are in no way bound to. One might see the irony in detaching from UW-Madison an organization that, in writing, at least, dedicates itself to objectivity and even-handedness.
The former State Journal reporter also says the Center's $400,000 budget is filled by "private foundations, individuals and news organizations" and no state dollars, with the space in Vilas Hall being provided under an agreement in which paid internships were provided to the journalism school's students.
I emailed Hall asking what impact the measure booting the Center might have on its financial welfare (if ultimately enacted) and will update here if I hear anything back.
(photo via Shutterstock)