Wisconsin lawmakers seek to hobble nonprofit investigative journalism center

By Andrew Lapin

Republicans in Wisconsin’s state legislature are looking to bar the state’s public broadcasters and biggest university from contributing to an investigative-journalism center that they collaborate with, a move that would severely hinder the site’s newsgathering and educational capabilities.

On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee added an amendment to a proposed state budget that would prohibit the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from housing its offices at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The center, which has four full-time employees, works with the university’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.

The university hosts the center as part of a resource-sharing agreement in exchange for the center gaining access to paid student interns, faculty assistance and guest speakers.

The motion, which passed through the committee 12-4, also would “prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”

Because WPR and WPT are university-owned and under the jurisdiction of its Board of Regents, the bill would prevent the state’s pubcasting employees from working with the center, which they do periodically. WPR has aired five stories from the center to date this year.

Michael Leland, news director at WPR, and Christine Sloan-Miller, e.p. of news and public affairs at WPT, issued a joint statement to Current Thursday expressing their disbelief.

“We were very surprised by this item in the state budget. It appears to place untenable constraints on both academic and press freedoms,” they wrote. Leland and Sloan-Miller pointed out that they cannot speculate on what will appear in the final budget, which the full legislature will vote on within the next few weeks and pass to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.

“The language we have seen certainly seems to say that we can’t work with the WCIJ. That would place unprecedented limits on our ability to access all resources that help us serve the public’s need for current, accurate and in-depth information,” they added. Both WPT and WPR are headquartered in the campus building that also houses the center.

The motion was authored by the committee’s Republican co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling. Assembly leaders do not identify which legislators introduce individual amendments.

The center, which launched in 2009, receives no money from the state. It has a $400,000 budget, which is supported primarily by individual donors and larger underwriters such as the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, according to its website, WisconsinWatch.org. Its full-time reporters and rotating cast of student interns collaborate on stories with the editorial teams at WPR and WPT, and investigations are often broadcast on-air.

Despite its public broadcasting connections, the center is not seen by either the statehouse or the pubcasters themselves as an extension of public broadcasting. Leland told Current the center is independent of its pubcasting neighbors.

During a Thursday media briefing, when asked why the state would refuse to support the center while continuing to fund WPR and WPT, Nygren justified treating the center differently by saying that public radio and pubTV are unique entities that lack competitors.

At the same briefing, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the amendment was intended to align with what he calls “separation of the press and the state.” Vos also told reporters he believed the center’s reporting was biased. However, other assembly members, including some Republicans, have criticized the amendment.

Nygren has come under scrutiny from the investigative center, which in 2011 pressured him to release names of insurance agents who had contacted him for lobbying purposes. Nygren’s office had obscured the names, in violation of the state’s Open Records Law. Staff reporter Kate Golden wrote an opinion column on the WCIJ website criticizing Nygren’s office.

Greg Downey, director of UW-Madison’s journalism school, strongly criticized the amendment in a statement posted Wednesday on the university’s website. The changes to the center “would harm our research, teaching, and service mission” and “would be a direct assault on our academic freedom in research, teaching, and service,” he said.

The Investigative News Network, a national hub of nonprofit newsrooms which WCIJ helped to found, also condemned the legislature’s actions. “Attempts to suppress or limit the Center not only undermine the educational experience offered by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but also the level and quality of civic information available to the citizens of the state of Wisconsin,” Kevin Davis, c.e.o., said in a statement June 6.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
Correction: The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is independently operated and was not established or created by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin Public Radio or Wisconsin Public Television, as misreported in an earlier version of the story. The center often collaborates with the university and its public stations on reporting projects.
This article was also published in Current, June 10 2013.
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