June 12, 2013

Commentary: Wisconsin Legislative Move Raises Serious Academic Freedom Issues

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WiscWatch

The punishment was doled out with little warning in a 12-4 party line vote of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, with Republicans holding the majority. At about 6 o’clock in the morning on Thursday, June 6, the soon-to-be not so secret double probation came in a provision in the state’s budget bill:

“Center for Investigative Journalism. Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”

Lyle Muller IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

Lyle Muller IowaWatch Executive Director-Editor

The center in this case is the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The organization is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that has a contract for space at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication to produce long-form investigative stories in partnership with other news media while training paid UW student interns to do this work and providing resources such as guest lectures for the school.

Journalism groups have come to the aid of the news organization, as expected, but the criticism has not stopped there. Critics of the Joint Finance Committee’s moves have included conservative talk show radio hosts and other Republicans who are embarrassed by such insipid churlishness. Yet, the provision remains in the state of Wisconsin’s proposed budget for next year, pending a final vote and judgment by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

NoteThe Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism’s Board of Directors, to whom I report, has issued a statement of support for the Wisconsin center. A point of disclosure: Andy Hall, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s executive director, is a member of that board but did not vote on the decision to write the letter of support. The Iowa center, which runs the news organization, IowaWatch, is modeled after the one under fire in Wisconsin and Hall has been a mentor and supporter for me in my role at IowaWatch.

True, the legislative move in Wisconsin, whose originator or originators Republican Party leaders have been loath to reveal, comes nowhere close to circumventing a free press. Journalistic freedom still can exist off campus. The Wisconsin center gets no money from the state of Wisconsin. Its $400,000 budget is funded by private foundations, contracts and donations.

Without doubt, though, this smacks of an attempt by government to circumvent the reporting of public affairs. It is an excessive attempt to interfere with the practice of meaningful journalism that informs the citizenry, and to diminish the training of our next generation of problem solvers in to do journalism in an ethical, thorough, trustworthy and meaningful way.

The real threat brewing in Wisconsin stems from whether or not a state Legislature should be able to tell universities exactly how to teach, and with whom they can cavort when teaching. Prohibiting UW employees from doing any work related to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism as part of being a UW employee is indefensible. Such a prohibition cuts off educators from doing public service and staying in touch with a topic they teach and from furthering good work so that the profession can improve over time.

Defining “any work” is troublesome. Does that include helping students develop a class assignment into the most accurate, fair and in-depth story possible that the Wisconsin center can distribute to the public? Does it include helping students get internships at the center? Or, working with the center while also serving as a graduate teaching assistant who wants to have the best knowledge possible when teaching others?

A public statement by Greg Downey, director of the UW’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication, provides an excellent defense of solid investigative journalism and academic freedom.

If this legislative proposal is allowed to stand in Wisconsin’s final state budget what else should be banned by law from affiliating with one of the nation’s most respect institutions of higher education? Consistency requires such an examination.

But wisdom also is in our toolbox when we make decisions.

Wisdom requires recognizing the quality the public derives from work done for the public good, and in a transparent manner. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism does both. Such a model would serve Wisconsin legislators well.

GO HERE TO LEARN ABOUT THE IOWA CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS JOURNALISM’S MISSION, ORGANIZATION, ETHICS AND EDUCATIONAL ROLE

 

 

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