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Nonprofit investigative journalists at center of political battle?

By   /   June 6, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Andy Hall is in the business of getting answers to his often pointed questions.

But the veteran investigative reporter said he’s received nothing but silence from the Republican members of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Committee on Finance, which very early Wednesday pushed through a motion that would boot Hall’s Center for Investigative Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

“I haven’t heard from them,” Hall, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog news organization, told Wisconsin Reporter Thursday afternoon. “We didn’t know this was coming. We received no advance indications or warnings.”

Hall said he doesn’t know who’s responsible, that he has no idea who authored the measure.

Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, under fire in the legislature.

Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, under fire in the legislature.

Wisconsin Reporter, also a nonprofit investigative news agency, couldn’t get any answers from finance committee leadership, either.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairs of the finance committee, did not return calls seeking answers to the question it seemed journalists everywhere were asking: Why?

Why would the Republican-led budget-writing committee, on a 12-4 party line vote, move to prohibit the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents from “permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents.”

Beyond that, the measure would prohibit University of Wisconsin employees from “doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”

“I’d like to know the answers to those questions, too,” Hall said.  “Why would a measure target the center specifically, requiring it to move off campus? My understanding is there are a number of other nonprofit centers on campus that collaboratively work with schools across the campus.  Why we were singled out have no idea.”

But it would seem the answer can be found in the motivating factor behind so much policy in a state torn by partisanship: Politics.

While a long line of reporters, journalism school editors, journalism organizations and lawmakers have come to the center’s defense, some Republicans insist the watchdog isn’t watching the left as much as it is the right.

As the Wisconsin State Journal’s Chris Rickert noted in a column Thursday, Nygren suggested the center is biased in favor of liberal causes.

Nygren told Democratic Sen Robert Wirch  of Pleasant Prairie that if the state were “providing state facilities, state support for one of those (conservative) organizations, you might have a little different view on that,” according to Rickert.

At a news conference Thursday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said  taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund the center through the university and that the university didn’t do any request-for-proposals to set up space arrangements.

But the Center for Investigative Journalism doesn’t receive state money, according to Hall.

The organization’s $400,000 budget is funded through private foundations, individual donors and news organizations, like Hall’s former employer, the Wisconsin State Journal. True, the center does operate in two small offices in the UW’s Vilas Hall, but the space is in return for the organization’ providing paid internships, classroom collaborations, guest lecturers and other educational services, according to the WCIJ.

As Hall said, the six full-time summer interns who work for the journalism center at $10 an hour are part of the deal.

“That space is used every day by students,” Hall said. “The Legislature is telling students you can’t use this space to produce work for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.”

Maybe it’s the company the nonprofit keeps — or the donors it has attracted.

WCIJ has received $535,000 over the past four years from the Open Society Institute, founded and funded handsomely from backer of all things liberal, George Soros. And the center has received money from the Society of Environmental Journalists, whose mission is “to strengthen the quality, reach and viability of journalism across all media to advance public understanding of environmental issues.”

But WCIJ also has been awarded funding from the Ford Foundation in New York, the McCormick Foundation in Illinois and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Hall said one of the reasons the center reveals its major donors and the money it receives is to answer critics who may question the watchdog’s objectivity.

“Do we fall in lockstep with people on the left, or does our coverage reflect a wide range of viewpoints and commitments to exploring key issues in a nonpartisan manner? I believe we meet that standard,” Hall said.

Perhaps some of WCIJ’s recent pieces — with headlines like, “Dollars grease skids for school choice,”Public TV in dust-up over Koch film,” and “Banning local rules is national strategy” don’t do the center any favors with conservatives who regularly feel under assault by the mainstream media.

But the center has put together is share of stories that have ticked off liberals and Democratic Party leadership.

“We all get into the labels — left-leaning, right-leaning. You need to judge journalism by its content,” Hall said, noting that he’s proud of and stands by the center’s work.

WCIJ has picked up the support of a very vocal conservative. Charlie Sykes, radio host at Milwaukee’s AM-620  WTMJ, who holds court on perhaps the loudest bully pulpit in Wisconsin conservative talk radio, called the GOP motion a “vindictive attack on a journalistic operation on ideological grounds.”

“Does this sound slightly familiar?” Sykes asked. “At a time when conservatives should be embracing government restraint, the motion combines some of the worst aspects of the IRS and (Department of Justice) scandals — using government to punish those perceived as political enemies combined with a clear assault on the free press. (Not to mention that it now allows the UW to regain some of the moral high ground it lost during the slush fund scandal.)”

Plenty of Democratic legislators have castigated their Republican counterparts on the issue, as did a Republican senator known to be out of the good graces of GOP leadership.

“It’s petty, vindictive and out of line, and inconsistent with the maturity we expect on the finance committee,” Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, told Wisconsin Reporter. He was just getting warmed up.

“This smacks of the kind of tactics I have observed Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez utilize to silence their critics. This is thuggery at its worst,” said Schultz, who has come under fire from conservatives for not supporting  his party’s controversial collective bargaining reforms and mining legislation.  The senator is not a member of the finance committee.

Hall said he doesn’t know what the GOP’s motivation is. More important for an investigative reporter, Hall says he has no evidence to document what the motivation is.

He said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from journalists and First Amendment advocates nationally – from the New York Times to former sources of his investigations.

If politicians are trying to impede the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the method wouldn’t seem to be working. Hall tells Wisconsin Reporter the center has received an uptick in donations – about $1,000 worth – from previous contributors to new donors since Wednesday.

What’s next for the center? Will it pursue legal action? Those questions depend on what happens in the legislature, which has the ability to uphold the budget item or toss it. Same goes for Gov. Scott Walker, who has the power of the veto pen.

“Some lawyers across the country who specialize in student law and First Amendment coverage are watching this very carefully,” Hall said. “I have no doubt that if this remains in the budget it would be closely scrutinized by lawyers and very well could become subject of legal action. But I’m hoping that we don’t reach that point.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

 

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.