Gannett sanctioning of journalists promotes a new “McCarthyism”, reeks of hypocrisy

Within hours of each other on Saturday, Gannett News Group’s largest Wisconsin newspaper publishers wrote articles presented as an apology to readers. Several of its journalists in Wisconsin had signed the recall petition against Scott Walker, as discovered by its own Gannett internal investigative team of reporters. This trio of reporters, appointed to the “I Team” by Gannett statewide media include Erik Litke (Sheboygan Press), Kathleen Foody (Wausau Daily Herald), and Ben Jones (Appleton Post Crescent). They have conducted what in essence amounts to a “recall petition check” by an employer against their own colleagues, for the employer to use against them. None of the three reporters had any comment beyond saying that the “I Team” was assembled to cover “broad issues” of investigative journalism. Gannett is now sanctioning what is amounting to a new era of McCarthyism in Wisconsin, led by corporate money and power desperate to maintain the upper hand in state politics.

The articles were all published within hours of each other, and are strikingly similar – the same talking points are used, and in the smaller circulation papers, the articles presented were a more “Reader’s Digest” condensed version. The editorials were attributed to Genia Lovett (Appleton Post-Crescent), Richard Roesgen (Fond du Lac Reporter), Mark Treinen (Wausau Daily Herald), Kevin Corrado (Green Bay Press-Gazette), and Alan Hicks (Wisconsin Rapids Tribune). The links will allow readers to read the full articles and draw their own conclusions. It is clear each publisher is conveying a strikingly similar message.

The internal attacks on their own journalists bear striking resemblance to attacks against Wisconsin Judges discovered to have signed recall petitions by the same “I Team” of Gannett reporters on March 18.  Attacks were also launched against the highly non-partisan Wisconsin Judicial commission by supporters of David Prosser (Media Trackers); in response to their call for hearings on Prosser’s behavior and alleged unethical behavior. The attacks are, of course baseless, as the commission is composed of conservative, moderate, and progressive members of the legal community.

Attacks continue against Dane County Circuit Court  judges, based on their signing of the recall petitions. The Wisconsin GOP has filed a complaint against Judge David Flanagan for his refusal to recuse himself from hearing arguments and ruling on the Voter ID law. As Marquette University Law Professor Edward Fallone points out in a recent faculty blog, the charges are without merit:

“The signing of a recall petition is a right guaranteed by Article XIII of the Wisconsin Constitution.  It is a procedure whereby any voter can request that the continuation in office of an elected official in the State of Wisconsin should be put to the vote of the full electorate.  If a sufficient number of voters sign the petition, a recall election is held.  A recall can only succeed in removing the officeholder if both a sufficient number of recall signatures are filed and a majority of the electorate votes in favor of removal.  The Recall is democratic self-governance in its purest form, and along with the Initiative and the Referendum it is one of the three structural vehicles by which Progressive Era voters sought to bypass the influence that special interests hold on elected bodies.”

A new McCarthyism has arisen in Wisconsin, awakened by desperate Walker defenders. The same constitutional argument holds true for journalists – the recall is not only a Constitutional process, it is by definition a non-partisan process. The searchable  database was constructed with this very intent – a new “red scare” arising from a corporatic party willing to sacrifice the First Amendment for power, and Gannett has played along in shredding the protection of self-governance and expression afforded in the Wisconsin Constitution.

Not only has Gannett been complicit in this new political machine, they are a part of it. 2010-2012 Campaign finance records show that Executives at Gannett are held to a much looser standard of ethics when it comes to political expression. Here are the highlights:

2012 – Lynn Beal, Executive VP, $2,500 NABPAC (Natl. Assoc. of Broadcasters PAC)

Michael Feltz, Director of Sales, $2,500 Hultgren for Congress (R)

David Lougee, President, $3,000 NABPAC

Sandra McCaffrey, $500, Account Executive, Newt 2012 PAC

2010 – Lynn Beal, Executive VP, $5,000 NABPAC

David Lougee, President, $2,000 NABPAC

Douglas McCorrindale, CEO, $1,000 Quayle for Congress (R)

Ashley Thron, Marketing Mgr., $414, Christine Thron for Congress (R)

Robert Weiser, Gannett Inc., Rochester, $200, Natl Republican Congressional Committee

There are more – even some contributions for Democratic candidates. The fact is, Gannett is holding these reporters and judges (in their “unbiased” editorials) to different standards than their own executives, who contribute money directly to partisan campaigns. The result is a failure of journalistic integrity and independence.

All publishers listed in this article are currently at a Gannett conference being held in Washington, DC  and did not respond to requests for comment at this time. Badger Democracy submitted an email inquiry at the direction of Gannett Corporate Media relations. Here are the questions asked of Gannett, exactly as submitted in the email:

1. Under the Wisconsin State Constitution, the right to recall is afforded as non-partisan, and is protected similar to the right to vote. While the editorials summarily dismiss this counter argument, it is a fact that the process is by definition non-partisan. How does Gannett draw the distinction clearly between exercising one’s right to vote and exercising one’s right to sign a recall petition to unseat an elected official in a non-partisan constitutional process? For the record, tens of thousands of declared Republicans signed petitions.
2. Were all of the editorials written independently of each other and solely by the cited authors?
3. Did Gannett Management above the local publishers have any influence over the content of the editorial, or direct each publisher to compose these articles?
4. Does Gannett hold Executive Management to the same standard of ethics as employees and journalists? If so, how do its high level management justify political contributions in the thousands of dollars in recent election?
Badger Democracy is still awaiting a response.

This behavior pre-dates McCarthyism in Wisconsin. In 1901, Charles Pfister purchased the Milwaukee Sentinel, at the time a leading progressive newspaper (see “The Pfister Years” in the link). Pfister was one of the Republican bosses intent on preventing Robert M. LaFollette from attaining the Governorship and power for the Progressives. Pfister and the corporate machine (primarily railroads) used every method of scare tactic and misinformation to maintain power. In the end, they failed because progressives at the time took their fight directly to the people.

The people of Wisconsin deserve more from their news services than companies like Gannett provide, and require more to exercise democracy freely. That is why media conglomerates like Gannett are dangerous – and why the corporatics legislate favorably to them. Gannett in turn, does its part, not as the free “fourth estate,” but as the corporate propaganda machine – extolling the new McCarthyism of the recall.


12 thoughts on “Gannett sanctioning of journalists promotes a new “McCarthyism”, reeks of hypocrisy

  1. Good blog. Now, could you please get the WisDems to release this as a press release, and have you act as its spokesperson in follow-up interviews with the media?

  2. Exellent, vital work Scott. We need to be hammering our corporate media every time they tow the corporate line, especially with McCarthyist crap like this. If it means we pull some stunts and have to make a show of going directly to their newspapers’ offices, I say so be it.

    The corporate Wisconsin media is clearly allowing itself to have events spin in a way that goes to the Walker Administration’s favor, if not downright twisting everything around to take Walker’s side (witness the atrocious Journal-Sentinel editorials on Wisconsin job loss and making recalls tougher to come by), and it’s time they be held to account for it.

  3. This was a great artical. I thank you for reporting this. And thank you for letting me post this on facebook.

  4. Thanks Scott,

    I have not seen as much coverage about any of the Gableman and MB&F apparent conflicts of interests as there has been about recall signatures by judges and newspaper workers.

  5. And this speaks volumes for breaking up monopolistic MSM conglomerates as much as anything else, but I don’t picture Van Hollen riding in to the rescue.

  6. If you are able to vote you should be able to sign a petition. The petitions should never have been made public. There is no more reason for these petitions to be public than there is for the vote to be made public.

    • Thank you for noticing! Common sense dictates that this is a pretty poor branding attempt against one of the last right-to work publishers around. I’m going to show this to my students as an example on how NOT to “tag”…especially when the facts deflate the illusion..

  7. Finally, transparency! Your attempt to brand this as “McCarthyism” is cast against over 3 years of the most authoritarian administration to date. “You guys said He was good! You lied to us!”

    Obama has disregarded criminal acts by those he sympathizes with while going after his perceived “enemies” with vendetta like ruthlessness. I don’t have time to confuse you with the facts, but fortunately, citizens have the same access to distribute and process information as you. In essence, we KNOW this is garbage. If you say “McCarthyism” enough times, we won’t believe you anymore. Newspapers around the world muse if the USA re-elects Obama, he might take that as carte blanche to run roughshod over the Constitution. Will America be on it’s way to the same flat-out Socialism that Europe is running screaming from? We believe them before we believe you.

    It’s crystal clear: he already has.

    • Enough hyperbole, Kathy. The signing of a petition is as public as the voting process and both are protected by the State Constitution. There was one reason for the public posting of petitions, and we are seeing it now. It is exactly McCarthyism – suppression and retaliation against someone for expressing their personal opinion on the Walker Administration, encouraging (and in some cases, paying for) people to “expose” the offenders.

      As for Obama – you are not an avid follower of this blog, as you know I am not a big supporter of the President. One thing I can say with certainty – Obama is NOT a Progressive, nor is he a Socialist. Far from. Your beloved GOP has forgotten where it came from (Lincoln and populist Wisconsin grassroots), and is moving the debate so far to the corporate right, you cannot recognize that Obama is a moderate. Sad.

      Thanks for reading – I hope your students learn something substantive in your class – not just your ideological right wing talking points. Or I suppose they can just go work for Gannett and be a tool of the right. So much for the independence of the “fourth estate.” Again, sad.

  8. Signing a petition (PUBLIC) is NOT the same as voting (PRIVATE). Now everyone knows who hates the Gov. Who will ever believe their impartiality again. THAT’S what it’s about!

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