Just as quickly as it embraced his bogus assault allegation, the conservative mediasphere has turned against Kyle Wood with a vengeance.
“LIAR: gay GOP volunteer lies about beating, intentionally slanders Rep. (Mark) Pocan. Prosecute him. Now,” said a tweet from Vicki McKenna, Madison’s favorite right-wing radio host (WIBA/AM 1310).
“Apologies won't cover this one; he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” wrote Milwaukee talker Charlie Sykes (WTMJ/AM 620) on his blog.
“(Wood's) conduct is despicable,” wrote Media Trackers’ Brian Sikma, the author of the original article that alleged that state Rep. Mark Pocan’s husband, Phil Frank, had sent a series of threatening text messages to Wood.
On Monday, Wood recanted the story he had told Madison Police about being attacked last week at his south Madison apartment. A campaign volunteer for Republican congressional candidate Chad Lee, Wood, who is gay, had said his beating was in retaliation for not supporting Lee's opponent, Pocan, who also is gay.
Prior to Wood's admission, however, Media Trackers posted a story on its website entitled “Mark Pocan’s Husband Told Beaten GOP Operative 'You’re A Marked Man,' Threatened and Harassed Via Text Message.” The story quickly went viral in the right-wing blogosphere. Madison Police Capt. Joe Balles told the Wisconsin State Journal there is "no validity" to the text messages.
In an apology to readers Tuesday, Sikma accepted no responsibility for publicizing the debunked accusations. He simply reassigned victimhood from Wood to Media Trackers:
“Media Trackers regrets that we were repeatedly lied to and misled. We regret that our readers were subject to the dishonest claims of a dishonest individual. Despite the best efforts to verify the accuracy and integrity of certain claims, a cover-up sometimes works.”
Wisconsin Reporter, a conservative news site, also referred to Media Trackers as a “victim” of Wood’s deceit.
And yet, Media Trackers neglected the one simple step that would have made clear whether Frank indeed sent the texts: Checking Wood’s phone.
When I asked Sikma Monday whether he had verified that the texts came from Frank’s phone, he told me Wood had sent him a transcript of the text exchange by email. He, therefore, did not have verifiable evidence that the text was sent from Frank’s phone number – or any phone at all.
He explained: “(Wood's) phone was in the possession of investigators.”
But the police did not have the phone on the day that Media Trackers ran the story. In fact, Sikma provided me Wood’s cellphone number and told me the phone had since been returned to its owner. (Wood has not returned phone calls or answered the door to his apartment.)
So why didn’t Sikma simply ask Wood if he could look at the text messages on his phone?
“Our final statement is (on the website) and I have no further comment,” replied Sikma in an email Tuesday morning.
That Sikma failed to check Wood’s phone for the evidence aroused suspicions even from sympathizers, such as Sykes. “I always think these things need to be approached with a high degree of skepticism,” he said on his show Monday, shortly after interviewing Sikma about the story.
Another conservative writer, Christian Schneider, who last week published an interview with Wood in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, expressed doubt about the story -- given the lack of documentation -- in a series of emails to me Monday.
The Wood incident will likely bring unprecedented negative attention to Media Trackers, which, despite its claims of nonpartisanship, operates largely as a pro-GOP opposition research outfit. However, the way in which the site approached the investigation was in keeping with its history of publicizing dubious claims about Democrats and liberal groups.
Last month a headline on the website accused unidentified “liberal protesters” of “vilifying NYPD on the eve of 9/11 anniversary.”
The article alleged that New York protesters who took to the streets in solidarity with Chicago teachers (who were then on strike) were carrying signs that read the following: “Dear NYPD. Courage is stopping your fellow officers. Don’t attack unarmed civilians.”
The article was accompanied by a photo of a man with such a sign. However, Sikma declined to comment when I asked him how he obtained the photo, and whether there was more evidence of “protesters” demonstrating against NYPD.
And in keeping with Media Trackers’ aggressive style, the group made no apparent effort to contact the targets of its latest investigation – Mark Pocan or Phil Frank – until after the allegations had been debunked.
In an interview last month, Sikma told me his group will occasionally reach out to officials who will be affected by its stories.
“There are times when something is pretty murky, when we want to give somebody the benefit of the doubt,” he said at the time. “If the information is pretty clear cut, then it’s not necessary.”