READERS OF THE Beloit Daily News probably have noticed in recent years an occasional byline from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
The paper has not published a lot of WCIJ stories — maybe a few dozen — but we have found it to be a valuable relationship nonetheless. The center devotes time to in-depth reporting on issues important to Wisconsin and then offers that content without charge to state media.
For example, the center broke the story about the physical altercation that occurred between Wisconsin Supreme Court justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley. It also has produced deep reporting on such things as frack sand mining, lobbying and campaign finance, environmental issues, state parks and much more.
Sometimes I find the content interesting for our readers, sometimes I don’t. We use what we think will serve our readers. But I have found WCIJ stories to be of consistently high quality, well sourced and written, and directed toward topics others in the state media have difficulty getting to in today’s helter-skelter news environment.
SO IT’S DISTURBING the powerful Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature — at the end of a marathon final budget session lasting until 6 in the morning — chose to directly attack the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. On a 12-4 party line vote the JFC adopted a measure to evict WCIJ from its University of Wisconsin-Madison offices. Further, JFC ordered that no University of Wisconsin personnel are to work with the center while being paid by the state.
To become the law of the land the JFC recommendations must be adopted by the full Assembly and Senate and signed by the governor. Legislators should strip this unwarranted attack from the budget document — for that matter, it’s obviously policy rather than fiscal and doesn’t belong in the budget anyway. Failing that, Gov. Scott Walker should draw a line through this wrongheaded item with his veto pen.
It’s not as if the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — a nonprofit, nonpartisan outfit supported by private donations — is dependent on the UW digs. Center Director Andy Hall — a longtime award-winning Wisconsin journalist with a solid reputation in the field — says he immediately received several calls offering new office space. The arrangement with the UW was never about square footage or finances. It was a partnership in which the center hired students as paid interns, cooperated with faculty studies and projects, and collaborated in classrooms with guest lectures and other services.
THE CONCERN HERE is with principle, in some ways similar to concerns about the Obama administration’s willingness to go after reporters when it didn’t like something it saw in their stories.
The Obama Justice Department’s targeting of reporters for The Associated Press and Fox News is a clear and repugnant strategy to intimidate and punish the press.
Likewise, the JFC attack on the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is an unseemly and petty swipe at a news organization that, presumably, upset the wrong folks in the majority party. The intended message could not be much clearer.
As Andy Hall put it, “In general, investigative journalists scrutinize the conduct of people in power. By the very nature of our work we make powerful people and institutions uncomfortable. We’ve irritated a lot of people.”
PERHAPS EVEN MORE disturbing is the second part of the JFC’s spiteful little snit. The 12-4 majority wants to block any UW employees from cooperating or working with the center.
Greg Downey, director of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communications — the arm of the university that actually established the cooperative agreement at the founding of the WCIJ — issued the following statement: “As written it would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching and service. Our faculty and staff regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects ...”
Even if the JFC majority thinks it has cause to spank the center with an eviction, an arbitrary legislative order for an academic institution to sever educational ties with a partner is stunning. And it came out of the blue, without warning or discussion with the UW School of Journalism or the center’s management.
That should give all fair-minded people pause, no matter their political leanings.
LOOK, READERS, those of us who have chosen journalism as a profession know when we do our job right there’s no winning popularity contests. Often, deep factual reporting is controversial and highly annoying — or worse — to powerful people and interests. Sometimes, those powerful people and interests take steps to retaliate. So be it. Reporters and editors scrutinize others’ conduct. We need thick enough skins to accept it when others scrutinize ours.
The pure petulance of the Joint Finance actions against the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism takes that natural adversarial relationship too far. It’s a shot across the media’s bow by the JFC’s Republican majority saying, essentially, “Challenge us at your own peril.”
We have a question for Governor Walker, Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald:
Are you really going to go along with this?
William R. Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News. To find out more about the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism go to its website (www.wisconsinwatch.org).