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Jun-08-2013 16:23printcomments

Republicans Mistaken to Target University of Wisconsin Journalism Center

Wisconsin Reporter's Matt Kittle revealed that the center really doesn’t receive government subsidies.

Conservative talk-show host Charlie Sykes of Milwaukee
Conservative talk-show host Charlie Sykes of Milwaukee: The conservative talk radio host called a Republican effort to close UW’s Center for Investigative Journalism “vindictive,” “ideological.”

(MADISON) - It’s hard to know what, if anything, Republican legislators were thinking when the budget committee voted, 12-4, to boot the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from its offices at the University of Wisconsin. The legislators have been to slow to reveal their motives to the public or to the leaders of the journalism center and, following blowback in the media across the political spectrum, no one will own up to the motion.

At first blush, I was apt to agree with the Republicans. Why should taxpayers fund any sort of journalism, I wondered? Except that, as Wisconsin Reporter’s Matt Kittle revealed in a report Thursday, the center really doesn’t receive government subsidies. I use a qualifier because it is housed in a government-funded university facility. But its $400,000 budget comes from private foundations, news organizations and individual supporters. It receives money from lefty George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

It is housed in two offices at UW’s Vilas Hall, but in exchange for the small office space the center provides paid interns, guest lecturers and other educational services. I suppose that any deal with a public facility has some level of taxpayer involvement but this clearly is not a clear subsidy situation. It appears mainly to be a petty act against a journalism center legislators don’t like. It’s waste of time as news headlines focused on this silliness rather than on, say, a new report showing massive Milwaukee public school savings thanks to the GOP’s Act 10.

After perusing the center’s work, I conclude that the center’s work tilts vaguely to the Left. Its journalism product, though well done, often features stories that push for more regulations and increased funding of government programs. For instance, recent investigations took a jaundiced view of the state’s concealed-carry law and found misdoing by the state’s nursing homes. But there’s nothing outrageously ideological going on. Most of the stories come to benign conclusions, such as one that found that “Only three of the University of Wisconsin System’s 13 four-year campuses — Platteville, Stevens Point and Parkside — have more than half of students, faculty and staff signed up to receive text alerts.”

By the University of Wisconsin’s wacky standards, the center is practically right wing.

Because the Republicans are picking on this one center and not any of the many of the genuinely subsidized operations at the university, it smacks of unfairness – an effort to single out a journalistic voice that makes these particular Republicans uncomfortable for some unspecified reason.

But now the scrutiny over the action will make them even more uncomfortable. The Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement blasting the decision. Even more troubling for the GOP: Conservative talk-show host Charlie Sykes of Milwaukee called the action a “vindictive attack on a journalistic operation on ideological grounds.”

Sykes added, “[T]he 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.)” That has got to hurt to be compared to the Obama administration.

As vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, I’m sensitive to ideologically motivated attacks on journalists. We’ve gotten our share of criticism because our work tilts in a free-market direction. So sign me up for the “Support the Center for Investigative Journalism” effort.

On a personal note, I appeared on a panel in Madison with a CIR journalist (Bill Lueders) more than a year ago and was impressed by his fairness even if I disagreed with some of the points he made. The GOP should get out of the business of picking on journalists and get back to the agenda of governmental and budgetary reform.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.

Republished by permission from watchdog.org and Franklin Center




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