By Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Clearly not pleased with Wisconsin Reporter’s news coverage, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin on Friday sent a tersely worded email to Wisconsin Reporter, threatening to let loose party “activists” in a campaign to expose the news bureau’s “obvious bias.”
First Amendment experts call the party spokesman’s threats petulant and “out there,” asserting that the official’s threat to influence the status of Wisconsin Reporter’s statehouse credentials borders on free speech suppression.
Graeme Zielinski, communications director for Wisconsin’s Democrats, criticized a Wisconsin Reporter staffer about a recent interview conducted by the Heritage Foundation with Gov. Scott Walker.
Zielinski was quoted in the Wisconsin Reporter’s story about the interview saying the Walker administration’s proclamation of economic victory is “right-wing fantasy, a total lie.”
Wisconsin’s economy created 9,500 jobs in June, more than half of the total 18,000 positions added nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of labor.
Zielinski pointed to neighbor Illinois as outpacing Wisconsin’s economy. The Land of Lincoln, however, shed 18,900 jobs in June, pushing the state’s total jobless to north of 600,000.
“In your Walker water-carrying article, you made all sorts of arguments for Scott Walker, then used a snippet of my quote, and then used apposite information to debate me. IN MY OWN QUOTE. I’ve never seen that before in my life,” Zielinski wrote in the email to the staff writer.
In short, Zielinski said Wisconsin Reporter is some kind of shill for the Republican Party and isn’t balanced in its news coverage.
Then, the Democratic Party spokesman goes on to write “What happens next.”
“What happens next is that I contact the publishers and editors of the papers that publish you as ‘unbiased,’ and let them know our deep concern about the obvious bias that permeates your entire operation,” Zielinski states in his email.
“Then, we let our activists know which papers publish you, and they write the publisher and editor. Then, we contact the Capitol press pool and let them know about our concerns about your credentialing.
“And we continue on until you actually admit to the truth of your operation.”
What is the “truth of the operation?”
Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the nonprofit open government advocate that owns and operates Wisconsin Reporter and several other news agencies like it in the U.S., calls Zielinski’s assertions “factually incorrect.”
“Wisconsin Reporter’s content is trusted by tens of thousands of individuals in Wisconsin who get our stories, whether through our newspaper partners, our website, or they read it on Facebook or Twitter,” Stverak said. “The people of Wisconsin have come to rely on Wisconsin Reporter for trustworthy and credible content so they know what’s going on, not only in Madison but across the state.”
Wisconsin Reporter, which launched operations late last year, distributes its news products to more than a dozen daily newspapers throughout Wisconsin and northeast Iowa.
“But just because you disagree with a story does not mean you should be able to threaten the ability for that news organization to put out credible news content,” the executive said, calling the Democratic Party spokesman’s statements to Wisconsin Reporter a “direct threat” to the freedom of the press at large.
“The people of Wisconsin and citizens across the country rely on the ability of a free press to not only provide them information of what’s going on in government but of the principal actors in government,” Stverak said.
First Amendment experts have their concerns, too.
Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspapers Association, served 20-plus years in government relations in the often politically rancorous state of Illinois, and she said she has never seen anything like Zielinski’s email to Wisconsin Reporter.
“To have a party official put something in writing like that is pretty out there,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of emotions. Politics are bubbling to the surface in a way we don’t normally see with editorial products, but this is uncharted territory.”
Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Missouri School of Journalism, said most of Zielinski’s threats are petulant but not pure attacks on the First Amendment.
“I’m not a gambling man, but I’m betting he’s going to back down on telling the publishers of the papers you serve that you suck before you go out of business,” Bunting said.
Where the Democratic Party spokesman stood as of Friday evening was unclear; he did not return a phone call and emails from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
The more serious challenge, Bunting said, is the threat to affect Wisconsin Reporter’s press credentials to cover Capitol news.
Below is Graeme Zielinski email to Wisconsin Reporter Bureau Chief M.D. Kittle