MADISON, Wis. — A conservative radio talk show host and a moderate Republican state senator on Thursday both bashed a move to quash an investigative journalism center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted early Wednesday to force the Center for Investigative Journalism off the UW-Madison campus. The state budget amendment would also prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the news center.
In a blog post, WTMJ-AM radio host Charlie Sykes called the move “a vindictive attack on a journalistic operation on ideological grounds.” And Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate who frequently butts heads with more conservative members of his party, said he would attempt to remove the provision from the budget before the Senate votes on it.
“Journalism is a serious and important profession in our society, as much as many of us politicians from time to time wish it didn’t exist,” Schultz told The Associated Press. “It is one of the underpinnings of our civil liberties.”
The center is a nonpartisan investigative news organization that offers its stories free to mainstream media outlets. It operates rent-free out of two offices in the university’s journalism school. Under an agreement signed in 2011, the school covers the cost of utilities and Internet access, and in exchange the center hires some of its students as paid interns and provides academic support.
There was no debate about the center’s relationship with UW before the budget item came up as part of a larger motion shortly before 6 a.m. Wednesday following an all-night meeting. Budget committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, defended the proposal at the time, saying it was unfair that the organization was able to stay at UW rent free. He said Democrats would support removing a news organization they viewed as being right-leaning.
“We’re just being consistent,” Nygren said. “We shouldn’t be providing resources to this organization.”
Republican Senate President Mike Ellis, who is not on the budget committee, said Thursday he didn’t know anything about the provision going after the center.
“I don’t know why we would go after any element of a free press, even if we don’t like them,” Ellis said.
Sykes, in his blog post, said the budget provision “should especially appall those of us in the conservative media.”
“Imagine how we would have reacted if Jim Doyle and Democrat legislature had passed legislation targeting conservative talk radio or any of the independent new media watchdog groups that have arisen in recent years,” Sykes wrote.
He went on to praise the center, saying it does good work that irritates conservatives and liberals alike.
“Part of its job is to harass and annoy those in power and ask difficult questions and that makes political enemies no both sides of the aisle,” Sykes said. “That’s what a free press does.”
The budget must be approved by the Senate and Assembly, then signed by Gov. Scott Walker, before it becomes law.
Republicans control the Senate 18-15, meaning if only one other Republican joined with Schultz they could have enough votes to block passage. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, along with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both said they did not anticipate any changes to the budget as it passed from committee Wednesday.
Sykes called on the Legislature to remove the item and, if not, urged Walker to veto it. Walker has not said what items he may veto in the budget.
Schultz, himself a former Republican leader, said he believed there were numerous budget issues, including the investigative journalism prohibition, which could be revisited.
“I always think there’s room for changes,” Schultz said. “I’ve been around here with a lot of budgets and this is where the serious work gets done and you dig in and are tough.”
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