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Investigative journalism center dust up just the latest press infringement

By Mark Pitsch

The state’s Republican-led budget committee may have done no greater favor for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism than voting to evict it from two tiny offices in UW-Madison’s Vilas Hall.

Since the early morning, back-room decision surfaced last week, the center has received the kind of national attention – from media and political sources of all ideological stripes – only winning a Pulitzer Prize might have generated.

But that’s the good news. The bad news is that the decision, labeled petty and vindictive by conservative talker Charlie Sykes and yet to be fully explained to the public, is just the latest in a series of high-profile attempts by public officials to stifle a free and open media:

• The Obama administration targeted the Associated Press and a Fox News reporter for doing their jobs – seeking information from government sources that could be important for the public to know.

• Gearing up to convince voters to let him lead the state’s public school system, Rep. Don Pridemore identified reporters he perceived as liberal and told his staff in a grammatically challenged memo to demand their questions in writing.

• Last fall, the Senate campaigns of Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin corralled the media in roped off pens that made conducting interviews and taking photos and video more difficult.

And just last week, prior to its annual convention, the state Democratic Party refused to allow Capital Times reporter Jack Craver to cover the event because of alleged journalistic misdeeds. Maybe he failed to treat the party and its leaders with the kind of kid gloves and deference expected of a political reporter from a self-proclaimed “progressive” newspaper. Recall, this is the same political party that forcibly kicked out another reporter last year, this one from Wisconsin Reporter, a conservative media outfit that writes from a “free-market” perspective. Ironically, Craver first caught the DPW’s attention by writing about, yes, the party’s dismissal of Wisconsin Reporter journalist Ryan Ekvall.

One of the more popular parlor games among journalists these days is debating which gubernatorial administration, that of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, or Gov. Jim Doyle, his Democratic predecessor, has better deflected and delayed routine media inquiries. Walker’s government seems to have one-upped Doyle’s. But to his credit, Walker has been downright magnanimous in answering questions from the press after various events in Madison and around the state. Something tells me he and his advisers find value in allowing him to tell the public why he does what he does. Were it so among state agencies.

Do you sense a pattern here? Perhaps Democrats and Republicans have found something on which they agree.

It bears repeating that the city of Madison was named for the Father of the Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights. James Madison believed that a truly democratic society relied on the free flow of information. His colleague Thomas Jefferson believed a free press was vital to the sharing of information.

There’s still a chance the Legislature will reverse the decision to remove the WCIJ from UW-Madison. The backlash has been that swift and nearly universal. And if it doesn’t, Gov. Walker could always veto the provision.

Whatever happens in the short term, however, the investigative center will continue to thrive. Nothing spells success in journalism like doing good work, and making a few enemies.

Mark Pitsch is president of the Madison pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal.

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