Conservative groups create own news outlets to counter alleged liberal media bias

2012-11-28T12:30:00Z 2012-11-28T16:51:18Z Conservative groups create own news outlets to counter alleged liberal media biasJACK CRAVER | The Capital Times | jcraver@madison.com madison.com

In 1962, Richard Nixon conceded defeat in his race for California governor, bitterly telling reporters that the press "wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."

In the decades since, the belief that the media is a covert — and in some cases overt — advocate of liberal ideology has become deeply ingrained in the conservative consciousness. Right-wing bloggers and talk radio personalities regularly depict mainstream reporters as members of an elite leftist clique, dogged in their determination to bring down Republicans and unwilling to challenge Democrats.

In Wisconsin, that belief appears to be as prevalent as it is elsewhere. While talk radio across the state is dominated by conservative voices and many of the state's largest newspapers regularly support Republicans for office, a number of conservative groups here nonetheless are working to push local media to the right or to supplant it entirely.

Some of the groups are patently political, while at least one abides by traditional rules of journalism. Most are backed by the same wealthy conservative organization in Milwaukee.

•    •    •    •

"We are a free-market organization," says Matt Kittle, bureau chief of Wisconsin Reporter, a news service founded at the end of 2010. "We investigate and we are watchdogs of waste, fraud and abuse."

Kittle works out of a tiny, nameless office in a building on North Henry Street, two blocks from the state Capitol. The modest setting belies the powerful institutional backing that Wisconsin Reporter enjoys. Like scores of other news outlets popping up around the country, WR is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a conservative, Virginia-based group that describes its mission as "filling the void created as the nation's newspapers cut back on statehouse news coverage."

Franklin currently has affiliates in 40 states. Some are clearly libertarian or conservative advocacy groups, such as the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, while a large number are self-described news websites, most of which focus on state politics and budgeting. Some, including Wisconsin Reporter, produce news articles that are picked up for publication in mainstream newspapers in their respective markets. Wisconsin Reporter articles, for instance, have appeared in 11 papers in this state and Iowa.

To our east, Franklin set up Michigan Capitol Confidential, a site whose most recent articles focused largely on budget problems that its writers attributed to public-sector unions. The anti-union theme is not surprising, given Franklin's libertarian orientation. In fact, the center's vice president for journalism, Steven Greenhut, published a book in 2009 entitled "Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation."

And yet, Kittle says his job is not to convert readers to a particular worldview. His job, he says, is to simply provide the facts on government spending.

"We write about choices — here are the numbers," he says. "Here's what you're paying, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. Is it worth it?"

Kittle, who began his career in Madison talk radio and later worked as a reporter for several publications, most recently the Southeastern Missourian, says he got the job to direct Wisconsin Reporter's fledgling team of three writers because of his investigative journalism experience.

"There were no (questions about) philosophy — there was no 'have you read Ayn Rand?'" he says of his hiring.

Last year, however, noted media blogger Jim Romenesko posted an account of a Madison reporter who applied for a job at Wisconsin Reporter, only to find that the application — from a job recruitment agency — included such questions as, "Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?" and "Name a good education reform idea that Wisconsin should consider."

The recruiter responsible for the application, Claire Kittle (no relation to Matt), is based in South Carolina, and runs an agency dedicated exclusively to finding talent for conservative organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council. She did not respond to a request for comment, but instead directed my inquiry to Greenhut of the Franklin Center, who happily discussed his philosophy of journalism with me.

A self-described libertarian, Greenhut says there is no ideological litmus test for reporters, but that he wants to make sure applicants are willing to ask the "tough" questions the organization seeks to answer about government spending and waste.

•    •    •    •

Predictably, some in the state have not welcomed Wisconsin Reporter with open arms. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, in particular, has sought to discredit it. The party's communications director, Graeme Zielinski, has at least twice ejected WR reporters from party events and has waged a campaign to get state newspapers to stop running its articles.

"They are bought and paid for by the same people who bought and paid for Scott Walker," said Zielinski as he ordered hotel security to make WR reporter Ryan Ekvall leave the state Democratic Convention in Appleton in June.

"We're hated by everybody," says Kittle, referring in particular to legislative Democrats, whom he says rarely respond to his calls. "We have to work more than twice as hard as mainstream reporters because we make a dozen or two dozen calls to make sure we have a Democratic voice in our articles."

The struggles Kittle describes are not unique to his organization. In fact, the proliferation of conservative media has allowed many politicians, such as Gov. Scott Walker, to ignore critical or liberal-leaning news outlets. Many Republicans, for instance, do not return calls from the Cap Times. And Zielinski barred me from attending state Democratic Party events in June after I wrote an article he didn't like about his battle against Wisconsin Reporter.

Indeed, compared to other Franklin outlets, Wisconsin Reporter has integrated easily into the state media landscape. While the Idaho Reporter, for instance, has been denied credentials by the statehouse press corps there, WR is a credentialed member of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association due to the fact that its articles run in mainstream print publications across the state.

But no matter how balanced WR attempts to make its articles, its financiers' close ties to the Republican Party will limit its mainstream acceptance.

For instance, as Greenhut admits, much of the money to fund Wisconsin Reporter comes from the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based group that has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to conservative causes over the past decade and is headed by Michael Grebe, a top GOP powerbroker. In 2010, according to tax records, Bradley gave $190,000 to the Franklin Center, earmarked to "support state-based reporting efforts in Wisconsin."

Another Bradley-financed group, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, is a self-described "free market think tank" founded in 1986 and currently headed by George Lightbourn, who served as Department of Administration secretary for Gov. Tommy Thompson. It received nearly $2 million from Bradley in 2010.

In addition to conducting academic research that makes the case for conservative policies, such as school choice, WPRI puts out a magazine, Wisconsin Interest, which often includes commentary from voices that are not particularly conservative, such as former Isthmus Editor Marc Eisen.

"I would say (Eisen's) politics are in line with Madison — the east side of Madison," jokes Lightbourn.

Indeed, Lightbourn argues that WPRI is not an organization engaged in politicking — that its central focus is pure academic research, which it publishes even when the results don't favor conservative positions.

But the ties between the organization and partisan elements of the conservative movement remain strong. Its political reporting, for instance, often comes from Christian Schneider, a former GOP legislative staffer who in 2010 was granted behind-the-scenes access to U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson's campaign, and later wrote a piece celebrating his candidacy against incumbent Russ Feingold. Johnson's campaign did not allow any mainstream media the same level of access.

And when, several years ago, WPRI hired UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein to conduct polling on a variety of political issues, liberal group One Wisconsin Now filed an open records request that revealed emails between Lightbourn and Goldstein in which Lightbourn urged the professor to downplay results showing poor support for school choice around the state.

"I'm concerned about (One Wisconsin Now director) Scot Ross types who would enjoy being able to portray WPRI's own data as showing lack of support for choice," Lightbourn wrote. "I know it's a pain in the ass but I've been burned a couple of times and I don't need to be the one holding the gas can."

A later Lightbourn email thanked Goldstein for cooperating, saying the revisions had "helped immensely with my correspondence with the board and other consumers of WPRI material."

The WPRI board chairman is Jim Klauser, another former Department of Administration secretary under Thompson and still a kingmaker in GOP races.

To Ross, the emails only vindicated his oft-expressed opinion that WPRI is a "junk science" outfit that works in concert with the GOP.

In keeping with the free market advocacy theme, Bradley also helps fund the MacIver Institute, a group founded in 2007 that describes itself as "Wisconsin's Free Market Voice."

Like WPRI, MacIver's organization is largely run by former GOP operatives, from President Brett Healy, who was the longtime chief of staff to former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, to recently departed spokesman Brian Fraley, who directed the Senate GOP caucus that was dissolved as a result of a scandal over campaigning using state resources that brought down Jensen and several other legislative leaders.

Unlike WPRI, MacIver has a news service that releases at least several online stories per week, some of which are straight, but many of which seek to celebrate Republican policy, discredit Democrats and — in particular — to sound an alarm about alleged voter fraud.

"I think WPRI is different from what MacIver does," says Eisen. "MacIver is in the hand-to-hand combat in the way that (Cap Times associate editor) John Nichols is."

In fact, in the months leading up to the June recall elections, MacIver partnered with Americans for Prosperity — a tea party group financed largely by the Koch brothers — to run a reported $1.2 million worth of pro-Scott Walker ads thinly disguised as "issue ads," in which various people around the state spoke of how Walker's collective bargaining changes had benefited them. As a result, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign filed a complaint against MacIver, alleging it had violated its status as a 501(c)(3) group by taking part in a political campaign.

"These groups are gaming the tax code to play electoral politics while masquerading as charitable organizations," WDC director Mike McCabe said in a statement at the time.

Current MacIver communications director Sean Lansing is also a veteran of GOP politics. A former staffer for state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, he later served as press secretary for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde, and then worked during the fall campaign for Americans for Prosperity. He nevertheless insists his new gig is nonpartisan.

"We are a nonpartisan group. Right or wrong, people tend to associate (free market advocacy) with conservative politics or GOP politics but we are nonpartisan and we focus on (free market) issues," he says.

•    •    •    •

While MacIver's partisan agenda is relatively transparent — it has not sought credentials from the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association — its methods are quite polished compared to those of Wisconsin-based Media Trackers, which was financed at least in part by two 2010 grants totaling $173,000 from Bradley to its parent group, American Majority, whose mission is to "promote liberty through limited government."

Matt Batzel, the head of American Majority in Wisconsin, says Media Trackers was developed in part to serve as a counter to liberal groups such as Citizen Action and One Wisconsin Now, whose talking points Batzel says often go unchecked.

"Given the liberal infrastructure in the state, Wisconsin was a good place to see how a watchdog would operate," he says.

To call Media Trackers heavy-handed would be a severe understatement. Its two principal writers, Brian Sikma and Collin Roth, are both former GOP operatives, and most of their articles allege some type of malfeasance on the part of Democratic lawmakers or liberal groups. Their attacks are sometimes outrageous.

The most notorious instance came a week before the Nov. 6 election, when lead writer Sikma made a bizarre allegation against state Rep. Mark Pocan's husband.

The allegation centered on Kyle Wood, a volunteer for Chad Lee, who was Pocan's Republican opponent for the 2nd Congressional District seat. Wood, who is openly gay, as is Pocan, had claimed the previous week that he was beaten up by a mysterious intruder who apparently viewed his work on behalf of a GOP candidate as treasonous to the gay community.

While police were still investigating his claim, Media Trackers posted a story alleging that, in the days before the attack, Wood had received threatening text messages from Pocan's husband, Phil Frank. The "transcript" of the text exchange was posted online by Media Trackers and featured a number of crude and occasionally racist remarks directed at Wood, Lee and Lee's wife.

When I asked Sikma whether he had checked Wood's phone for the text messages, he said that he couldn't — that the police had the phone. Instead, he accepted as fact an email that Wood sent him of the alleged text exchange, without any evidence that the texts were from Frank's phone or that they were even texts to begin with.

The whole story turned out to be fabricated. Wood recanted his claims, including the initial beating he had reported.

Why did Sikma forgo such an obvious reporting step? Just as a political campaign does not apologize for a negative attack ad, neither did Media Trackers, which has not responded to requests for comment on the issue.

While traditional media outlets took the opportunity to batter Media Trackers for its shoddy journalism, the group got a pass from its Bradley brethren.

"I'll leave it to Media Trackers to explain their reporting or motivations in running with the text messages," wrote Kittle of Wisconsin Reporter, in a column ridiculing "liberal media" outlets, specifically naming Isthmus, for their criticism of Media Trackers.

•    •    •    •

While traditional media is slashing positions and its influence wanes, conservative media is booming online, on TV and on the radio.

Even in liberal Madison, the top talk radio program (by far) is "Upfront with Vicki McKenna" on WIBA/AM 1310 — a show dedicated largely to ridiculing Madison's liberal culture and politics.

"The liberals by and large don't believe that they don't have their ideas reflected in different types of (mainstream) media," says McKenna in an interview, explaining why liberal talk radio hasn't matched its conservative counterpart. "Conservatives honestly felt like they'd been left out of the media landscape."

Ironically, as I talked with McKenna on the phone, over at WTDY/AM 1670, John "Sly" Sylvester was losing his job as the only significant progressive talk radio host in the state. On Nov. 21, Sylvester was called into a meeting by station management and fired, along with the entire news team. The future of WTDY remains unclear, but it is rumored that the station will switch to a sports format.

Sylvester had voiced an interpretation similar to McKenna's in an interview several days before the firing.

"I think a lot of the more educated liberals were already wed to public radio," he said, echoing a view held by many on the right that National Public Radio leans left.

And yet, even as conservative media prospers, its message is still largely focused on decrying the perceived liberal bias that dominates "mainstream" media.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is a favorite target of talk radio host Charlie Sykes, whose station, WTMJ/AM 620, is owned by the same company that owns the newspaper. Amplifying the irony, the Journal Sentinel's editorial page is generally perceived as moderate and its "Purple Wisconsin" section contains four bloggers who are current or former employees of Bradley Foundation ventures (Sykes is a WPRI commentator himself).

So how does Sykes explain his continued bashing of his employer?

"Delicious irony," he replied in an email to me, before pointing out that Journal Broadcast Group, the company for which he works, operates separately from the Journal Sentinel.

Journal Broadcast Group is financing a new media venture, RightWisconsin.com, to be launched early next year and headed by Sykes, which will mostly feature links to a variety of conservative media, such as MacIver, Media Trackers and right-wing blogs.

James Baughman, a UW-Madison professor of journalism, says he often struggles to convince conservatives that traditional media reporters are not bent on promoting a political viewpoint.

"A lot of them really refuse to believe that reporters can be objective," he says.

Sykes asserts these journalists don't always realize their ideology colors their reporting.

"Journalists are to bias what a fish is to water," he says. "They don't have any idea they are wet."

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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