Yesterday, I wrote a post on my Wired blog about a move by the GOP-dominated Wisconsin state legislature to shut down an investigative reporting program in the University of Wisconsin journalism school where I teach. I wrote the post in protest. Not only because I wanted to protest an infringement on academic freedom but because I wanted to remind people – including these legislators – that clear and determined journalistic inquiry is an essential part of a good democracy. With that in mind, Paul Raeburn, our chief Tracker, and Phil Hilts, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program, have invited me to post my essay here as well. I'm grateful for the opportunity.
For the last four years, I’ve taught an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Not typical, you might say, for a long-time science writer who spends most of her time telling stories about our chemical world.
But for many years, before I came to the university, I worked as an investigative newspaper reporter. And I think teaching it now is one of the most important things I do. I believe, no, I know, that a democracy cannot thrive in darkness, that we need a watchdog media to counter any government’s tendency toward secretiveness, that good journalists push so that information is honestly shared with the rest of us. To quote Walter Lippman, an early 20th century American newspaper columnist and writer: “A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society.”
I don’t throw that quote around in my class but I do begin any semester by reminding my students of the importance of open inquiry in democracy. I do quote another writer, T.H. White, on the need for clear and objective work, that our aim, in White’s words, is to “shed light not heat.” Oh, and I say that this is the kind of journalism that can give a voice to those who cannot be heard, the kind of inquiry that can balance the scales of power.
And I tell them that not all of us will become investigative reporters but that the skills we learn in the class – being a thorough researcher, being accurate down to the last comma, being a good and fair listener, being able to both gather evidence and evaluate it – are not only good skills for any journalist but good life skills for anyone.
Why am I telling you this, why am I writing this hymn to investigative reporting at this moment? Because although I am scheduled to teach an investigative reporting class in the fall – for very political reasons here in Wisconsin – it looks as though my class might be shut down. And I want to both explain how in the world that could be – how politics could interfere with such an outstanding educational opportunity – and make clear in more specific detail why this is a loss that echoes far beyond the university.
I teach my investigative reporting classes in collaboration with a small non-profit, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. WCIJ was founded in 2009 by Andy Hall, a long-time investigative journalist with our local paper, the Wisconsin State Journal. There exists an agreement in which our school provides the center two small rooms (and they are walk-in closet small) and in turn the center provides training services to our students, in classes like mine, and also hires university students as interns. They raise their own money for their operations. And they pay their interns, by the way, which many much wealthier publications do not do.
Over the years, in my classes we have taken a public service approach to journalism, researched and reported on everything from the use of smart drugs on university campuses to employment challenges for U.S. veterans to student mental health issues to the management of Wisconsin state parks. Our plan this fall was to research and write about some of the important agricultural issues in our state. Nothing too controversial there, you might think.
But, astonishingly, last week our legislative joint finance committee inserted a motion into the proposed budget that would ban the WCIJ from maintaining its offices on campus – and would forbid any university employee such as myself from working with the center. This despite the fact that there is no apparent budget issue here except one that works in our favor – we provide limited existing space in exchange for a remarkable benefit to our students.
Ascribing this action to "the committee" doesn’t really do the situation justice. This “budget motion” was created by the GOP members of a GOP controlled committee in a GOP dominated legislature (and if left intact will eventually land on the desk of our GOP governor, Scott Walker.) It passed on party lines, 12 Republicans voting for it and all four Democrats on the committee both voting against the measure and publicly denouncing it. And they weren't the only ones outraged – criticism has poured in from expected sources, such as the national organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and from unexpected sources, such as the outspoken conservative Milwaukee radio host, Charlie Sykes, who called it "a vindictive attack on a journalistic organization based on ideological grounds."
My department chair, Greg Downey, has been working to turn this around for more than a week; in a statement posted on the website of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication he called it "a direct assault on our academic freedom in research, teaching and service." The department has also set up a blog that, among other things, provides both a portrait of the ever-changing GOP explanation for this action – and its determination to see it through. My colleague, Katy Culver, put up a terrific tribute to the importance of this work at her blog at PBS Media Shift, highlighting some of the great reporting by our students. The University of Wisconsin has also spoken out in support of the collaboration. Addressing the finance committee action, the dean of the College of Letters and Sciences called it "legislative mismanagement and overreach at its worst." You can find an overview of events, coverage and reaction archived here at the center website. You can find links to all the terrific work done by my students. And you can find a link to this news story which warns that center itself might not survive this attack.
So I want to quote here in more detail from a letter sent to the finance committee by former interns of the center:
As students and graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who have previously interned, worked at or collaborated with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, we can attest that the award-winning Center’s presence on campus has been fundamental to helping us begin our careers as journalists. At the Center, we exposed how college campuses fail to support victims of sexual assaults; a former governor’s violation of state travel regulations; the exploitation of foreign workers in Wisconsin tourist zones, and conducted dozens of other important investigations. Many of us have built upon our experiences at the Center by later reporting for Wisconsin and national media including Bloomberg, the Associated Press and Forbes, in cities and towns across Wisconsin and the United States, and in several countries throughout the world.
A core mission of the Center is to train the next generation of investigative journalists. It meets this mission in large part by collaborating with UW faculty in the Journalism school to provide students with experience in using public records, data, interviews and other research tools in their investigative reporting. Having the Center on campus allows Center staff to collaborate closely with UW students on a daily basis. Both the involvement of UW faculty and the presence of the Center on campus are critical to providing students with the opportunity to learn the ethics, values and logistics of reporting for the public good.
And this letter raises the two issues that I think are critical here. One is that we want to teach young journalists to value "reporting for the public good". We need more journalists who care about that and we need more investment in that kind of reporting. And second, our legislators may feel that by taking this action they are either protecting themselves or punishing the center. But they are foremost punishing students. This is a move that diminishes rather than improves the quality of education at this uniquely great university that has thrived in a relatively small, mostly rural state in the upper Midwest.
And they are punishing the rest of us. We Wisconsin citizens who want honest policy from our elected officials. We American citizens who value democracy, who know that a government that operates in sunlight is a government that does best by the people it represents. We lose when we allow our elected officials to whittle away at independent watchdog journalism. To that end, let us hope that the concerned protests will change the committee decision or persuade the state senate, or even Governor Walker, to strike it down.
Let us hope they listen thoughtfully to the reaction and respond with decency. To that end, let me quote one more person here, William Borah, a U.S. Senator in the early 20th century, a Republican from Idaho, who served for more than 30 years starting in 1907.
Borah was a dedicated conservative. And one of things he believed we should conserve was an open democracy. He said: "Without an unfettered press, without liberty of speech, all of the outward forms and structures of free institutions are a sham, a pretense — the sheerest mockery. If the press is not free; if speech is not independent and untrammeled; if the mind is shackled or made impotent through fear, it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject and not a citizen."
I never defend journalism in all its incarnations; like everything we do, it's an imperfect ever-human enterprise. But the journalism that works to protect our rights as citizens, that stands up for democracy, that thinks that even the least powerful among us counts, is worth defending every day. Let us hope that we can be smart enough to recognize its value today, smart enough enough to know what was so clearly evident to Borah more than 100 years ago. And to preserve it.