As a man of habits, albeit many of them bad, I spend the first hour or two each morning perusing websites of other newspapers and the many columns and political stories linked by the handy site, WisPolitics.com.

Lately, I’ve noticed a new credit — WisconsinReporter.com — appearing at the top of political stories mainly running in weekly newspapers in the area. The Sun Prairie Star, for instance, last week carried a piece from “Wisconsin Reporter” that said the three Democratic senators facing recall votes had received roughly 25 percent of their campaign funds from donors outside the state. Robert Wirch, Jim Holperin and Dave Hansen had raised $329,000 collectively, of which $83,000 came from out of state.

But out-of-staters were less likely to send money to the recalled Republicans, the story contended, implying that Alberta Darling, Dan Kapanke, Robert Cowles, Luther Olsen, Randy Hopper and Sheila Harsdorf, unlike Democrats, had the backing of real in-state people. The six Republicans had amassed $2,450,855, of which only $170,168 came from out of state, just 6.9 percent.

It was a unique way of spinning numbers, using percentages to negate the fact that the Republican senators had pulled in twice the amount of out-of-state money as the Dems.

The story went on to report that “unions continued to funnel money to recall efforts,” but never mentioned the funds coming from corporate PACs, right-wing anti-gay and pro-life fronts and other cultural war organizations that have made a habit of spending lavishly on Wisconsin races, including this spring’s Supreme Court contest between David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg.

Curious, I went looking on the Web for WisconsinReporter.com. What is this new wire service-like provider of news to local papers?

Turns out it’s a new service concocted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a conservative nonprofit that has had its hands in the tea party movement and the pro-Scott Walker rallies on the Capitol Square. The group refuses to disclose its funders.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising that another of the stories on the WisconsinReporter.com site begins with this “objective” lead paragraph:

“The signs are everywhere: Recall Walker. And the cries from protesters still can be heard at times around the Capitol: Recall Walker. But Gov. Scott Walker isn’t listening. Instead, he’s working to get Wisconsinites working and business growing.”

The Franklin Center’s services might be likened to a print version of Fox News, the “fair and balanced” cable station that promotes conservative views and lambastes liberal ones 24 hours a day.

It was founded in January 2009 “to serve as a national organization dedicated to training and supporting investigative journalism and journalistic endeavors at state-based think tanks and other state-based groups, individuals and organizations,” according to Wikipedia. Its purpose “is to promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.”

One might say, at first blush, though, that only Democrats get that altruistic scrutiny.

Franklin’s president, Jason Stverak, claims he’s an “expert on nonprofit journalism.” However, according to the website http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/02/group_pushing_the_group_behind_the_conservative_poll_of_walkers_budget_plan_wisconsin_poll_has_gop_ba.php"> Talking Points Memo, Stverak has had no previous work in journalism, but has worked with the arch-conservative Sam Adams Alliance, was North Dakota director of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential committee, and for six years ran the North Dakota Republican Party.

WisconsinReporter.com was launched in January of this year and claims to have undertaken a watchdog role on state government while localizing stories to certain districts: La Crosse, Kenosha, Eau Claire, Wausau, Stevens Point, Chippewa Falls and Beloit.

In other words, it’s yet another endeavor by opportunistic conservatives to jump in to fill a void created by the economic woes of traditional media. Media that want to use the stories can do so for free. You have to take your hat off to conservatives for being creative in spreading their message and masking their true identity.

Still, this effort represents yet another dangerous blow to the traditions of objective news reporting and, I’m afraid, the future of America’s democratic discourse.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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