Near the end of a marathon, all-night session last week, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to insert a perplexing measure into the state budget.
In a vote along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, it included a provision that would prohibit the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from occupying any University of Wisconsin-owned property.
For readers unfamiliar with the organization, the privately-funded WCIJ was formed in 2009, and has since collaborated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication to produce more than 65 major reports and reach over 18 million readers worldwide with its investigative reporting.
Some of the subjects include questioning the high-speed rail line planned between Madison and Milwaukee, DNA testing in proving the innocence of a dozen Wisconsin prisoners, the rising number of low-income students in Wisconsin schools, and recently, reporting on the malfunctioning of GPS-powered ankle monitors that prompted a halt to that program’s funding.
The center provides a valuable, public service form of journalism that is an endangered art in today’s media environment. As publications go online and the public expects more information than ever before without being willing to pay for it, newsrooms across the country are shedding staff like snakeskin to increase profit margins. Subsequently, long-term investigative projects — the most expensive form of journalism — suffer, leaving nonprofit organizations like the WCIJ to pick up the slack.
Its work to be essential to shining a light on what’s happening inside the state Capitol, no matter who happens to be in power.
Despite being tacked on to the state budget, the center receives no direct state funding. In exchange for using two small offices within Vilas Hall, the center hires at least five journalism students as paid interns per year; collaborates with school faculty on research, teaching and other reporting projects, and shares expertise that advance journalism education at the university. Its presence on campus is one of the main reasons UW’s journalism program is one of the nation’s most highly ranked.
These benefits would appear to be more than a fair trade for a little office space in a state-owned building. So, perhaps the most perplexing piece of this late-night blindside is the Legislature’s intentions. Voting the center off campus will save the state no money. It will not even kill the organization; rather, it only forces it to move and forbids university staff from working with the WCIJ.
What it will do is allow the conservative Legislature to get back at the organization for what it perceives as a liberal bias in its reporting. Republican leaders said they believe newsgathering organizations should be separate from government agencies, and yet they did not target the intertwining roles of Wisconsin Public Radio or Wisconsin Public Television. State Sen. Alberta Darling reportedly has said she did not believe the university should have any arrangements with nonprofits, and yet she left the Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics in place just down the hallway.
If the budget passes with this measure intact, it might make legislators feel better about striking a blow at the “liberal media.” But the real damage will be a dent to the Wisconsin Idea, a concept the state and public university system have touted for more than a century. This idea — which holds the concept of “sifting and winnowing” for the truth as one of its highest principles, that research completed on campus should enrich the lives of all the states citizens — was true 100 years ago and it continues to be so today.
Perhaps it is time for our state legislators to review their Wisconsin history.
– Daily Jefferson County Union