For a period of about 40 minutes Saturday, The Capital Times posted on its website and on madison.com a story that falsely said that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson were joining state Rep. Steve Nass, R-town of La Grange, in pressuring the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to purge its archives of posters from last year’s protests at the Capitol in Madison.
The story was based on a news release that purportedly came from Nass’ office, but was in fact fabricated by Madison labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki. He has drawn editorial cartoons for The Capital Times for many years on a freelance basis and he sent the fake release to a staff member who then forwarded it to Associate Editor John Nichols, who wrote the story.
The release seemed plausible because on Wednesday, The Capital Times reported that the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s School for Workers abruptly called off an event called “Art in Protest” connected to the Capitol protests after a Nass aide told its organizers that it would be in poor taste. The organizers said publicly that they called off “Art in Protest” for a “variety of reasons” and that “now is not the best time” for it, but the story paraphrased two informed sources anonymously saying that Nass’ office threatened the school’s funding.
Konopacki helped organize the canceled event, and in that story, he was quoted as saying: “I understand why the School for Workers had to make this move. They're in survival mode. But I'm outraged. This is an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and is an attack on academic freedom.”
Nichols wrote a short story based on the fake release and made follow-up calls to flesh out the story, but began to have doubts when he discovered that other sources had not heard about the release. He alerted editors to hold the story but it had already posted.
Questioned about the release, Konopacki revealed that he created it using Photoshop. He said he intended it as a prank (in an initial email he said he “wanted to point out the hypocrisy between allowing Wisconsin protest art in the Smithsonian but not at the Pyle Center” where “Art in Protest” would have taken place), but is apologetic about the confusion it created.
The Capital Times took the story down minutes after learning about the fabrication and regrets its publication, even for a brief amount of time.