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How the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism won

How the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism won

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Greg Downey, director of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, “breathed a long sigh of relief” on Sunday when Gov. Scott Walker vetoed a provision of the biennial budget that would have prohibited collaboration between his department and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

It had been a stressful fight. Up until Walker's veto, he notes, WCIJ had lost every legislative battle "badly." And as I noted earlier, some supporters of the center believed it hadn't done enough traditional lobbying to make an impact. 

On his blog, Downey lists 10 reasons he thinks the center prevailed in its fight against the measure. Here are some key points:

WCIJ’s relationship with the UW was well-defined and regarded as fair and beneficial for students and faculty. The “facilities use” agreement that had been negotiated between the two parties was not settled on a handshake — it was a clearly-defined contract that laid out expectations for the WCIJ to justify the office space it was granted by the UW. Essentially, there was nothing shady or unusual about the deal, argues Downey.

Meanwhile, he points out, the measure struck a nerve in the world of academia and journalism. The university saw the proposal to bar professors from collaborating with a certain organization as a threat to academic freedom, while the media lashed out at a policy that appeared aimed at limiting journalistic oversight of government.

“We found that the journalism community is more united by professional ethics than divided by partisan political-economic philosophy,” wrote Downey, referring to support the Center received from conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes as well as the Cap Times’ John Nichols.

WCIJ executive director Andy Hall echoed this point in an email, highlighting the support the organization received from student interns as well as from the Simpson Street Free Press, a newspaper written by Madison teens.

“They wrote passionately of the value of the center's work in their own educations and preparations for professional success,” he said. “I still become choked up when I read those words.”

Conversely, says Downey, legislative Republicans couldn’t come up with an articulate defense of their proposal. Nobody wanted to take credit for the idea, and the rationales they used to defend it varied wildly.

Some argued that it was improper for the university to collaborate with a private nonprofit, but then couldn’t answer questions about whether they were opposed to other such arrangements on campus, such as the Morgridge Center for Public Service. Others hinted the WCIJ’s reporting had a liberal bias. Some claimed that a relationship between a public entity and a journalistic organization would impede the ability of journalists to accurately cover government affairs. Perhaps a valid concern, but not one that Republicans applied to public broadcasting in Wisconsin or the many reporters who occupy the Capitol press room.

“The lack of coherence, consistency, and clarity from the attacking side was the biggest help we received in our own communication campaign,” Downey wrote.

Reached by phone, Downey said the experience of engaging in a political fight for his own department was new. He acknowledged that political battles are often awkward for journalists and academics, many of whom are averse to publicly expressing political positions.

“People have real concerns about appearing too political or too partisan, but if you go too overboard on those concerns, you really can’t talk about the issue,” says Downey. “Because at the end of the day, everything is political.”

Although Downey is heartened by the victory, he is worried the university will face similar political battles in the future.

“I fear that for many of my colleagues — and maybe for myself as well — such concern has already translated into a ‘chilling effect,’ making us less bold, less innovative, less creative, and more risk-averse in our research, teaching and service than we might otherwise be.”


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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.

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