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Wisconsin legislators vote to kick investigative journalism out

Posted: June 5, 2013 | Tags: journalism

One of the most famous statements by the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, is: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is frequently attributed to the 18th century philosopher and statesman, even though, according to the "Yale Book of Quotations," it has never been found in his actual writings. Its provenance and exactly why it was said, in other words, remain as murky and elusive today as what happened early this morning, and why, just after dawn in Madison, Wis.  

For reasons as yet unclear, a group of Republican state legislators in control of the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee voted to kick the nationally respected, award-winning, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, better known online as “Wisconsin Watch,” off the University of Wisconsin premises. The Wisconsin Center has never received state money, and it has had a no-cash “facilities use agreement” in which it occupies two small university offices in exchange for providing invaluable student internships, classroom collaborations, guest lectures by veteran Center journalists, etc. It works closely with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and also Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television. 

Top officials at the University of Wisconsin today came out forcefully against the nocturnal mischief of the reckless Republicans. According to Gary Sandefur, the dean of the College of Letters & Science, which oversees the journalism school, “Arbitrarily prohibiting UW-Madison employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism is a direct assault on our academic freedom; simply, it is legislative micromanagement and overreach at its worst. For 124 years, the College of Letters & Science has promoted a fearless tradition of sifting and winnowing in which our faculty, staff and students participate in teaching, research and public service to gain a deeper understanding of the world and help solve critical problems. Micromanagement like that posed by lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee undermines our efforts. It is a threat to the tradition of the college, the university and the state."

I am certainly not objective about this matter. I have known the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s founder and director, Andy Hall — one of the most respected investigative journalists in the U.S. — for roughly two decades, and I am, in fact, one of its founding board members (vice president). There is no better run, more impressive nonprofit journalism organization in the U.S. or the world today. His statement today about this outrageous assault on press and academic freedom — not to mention truth and common sense — is a model of restraint and a testament to his fundamental decency and his Eagle Scout prudence and judgment, which you can read here

Meanwhile, what in the world were those feckless public officials thinking? Was it a specific investigative story they happen to dislike, or was it the very fact that there is a watchdog in the corridors of power closely monitoring their conduct in general in Wisconsin?

What’s next — book-burning?

Here’s hoping that more sleep and the full light of day improve their judgment and they manage to come to their senses. If not, good men and women must do something.

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