CAVEAT EMPTOR: Wisconsin right wing moves from stealth candidates to stealth web sites, ads and "news" | WisCommunity

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Wisconsin right wing moves from stealth candidates to stealth web sites, ads and "news"

Craven and sensationalist though it is, at least you can say the Drudge Report web site comes right at its readers and doesn't pretend to be anything but a collection of right-wing talking points. It's been that way since its inception in 1996, when the site hyped the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton tryst from an initial news break right past impeachment.

With the Drudge Report, as with many right-wing trolling operations in the '90s and the following decade, at least what you saw is what you got. Such a quaint era, compared to our own.

Whether it's arrogant overreach or a sign that ordinary measures don't work, fakery and trickery have become increasingly manifest as tools commonly used by conservatives. What you see is what you don't get -- or, rather, what you don't see is what you do get.

The GOP noise machine early in this new century widely adopted an echo-chamber method of spreading malicious factoids, political memes and outright lies. A "leak" of information (actually, a suggestively edited accusation) would be circulated round-robin among conservative blogs, web sites, print media, TV operations like Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" and elsewhere until someone in the mainstream news media couldn't resist jumping in to make the meme seemingly respectable.

And, once mainstream, the snark gained a certain cache of credibility. This is how the New York Times got totally snookered by the Whitewater accusations and then, later, by its own reporter Judith Miller's embedded Iraq War coverage, adding credibility to the Bush administration's "weapons of mass destruction" nonsense.

The excuse among legitimate journalists for taking such thinly sourced nonsense to a wider public via a more legitimate news operation was to cover the process and spectacle of the rumor's spreading, rather than consider the thin gruel of fact itself. Because, hey, the story was such a buzz among the buzz artists! Proving what Samuel Clemens wrote: A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.

And thus Whitewater, Travelgate and other "scandals" were used against Clinton. Since then, we have had to put up with endless iterations of the Benghazi, birtherism, Obamacare, Solyndra, IRS, ACORN and numerous other "scandals" directed at Democrats in general and Obama in particular. The penny press and its red-ink scandal-mongering are long gone (except for the supermarket tabloids and the New York Post) but the tactic itself, now amplified by the Web, continues to deliver the goods.

And now comes the newest conservative approach: pretending to be something other than conservative. Sometimes this just manifests as rhetoric from openly Republican and quite conservative lawmakers who hope at least temporarily (usually in an election cycle) to look more moderate, via soothing policy statements, such as Rep. Paul Ryan's newly professed concern for the poor even as he re-badges his efforts to gut the safety net.

Other times the approach is designed to sow confusion by creating stealth candidates who are really Republican but run as Democrats (Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is the most notorious example, along with a group of state legislative candidates who ran in Democratic primaries during the recall elections).

More and more, this stealth tactic also is used by conservative media and fake media outlets. Like trailblazer Fox News Channel, we now have Newsmax, a conservative "news" operation on the web, which has all the trappings of a mainstream, "fair and balanced" news organization, but which is just a propaganga machine. Newsmax for instance regularly places on left-leaning web sites its faux polls, which are ridiculous sounding to anyone with a sliver of political knowledge, e.g., "Should the NRA fight Obama on gun control? Vote Now!"

Here in Wisconsin, far-right religious organizations that own newspapers and radio or TV outlets increasingly preach conservative values. In my Milwaukee neighborhood, two free weekly newspapers now regularly spout Republican talking points while dumping on Democrats, all in a form that approximates journalism but really is not reporting, only a diary of blast-fax dispatches from the right. The papers are owned by religious groups.

A more subtle approach is taken by the stealthily conservative Wisconsin Election Watch. Progressive web sites including UppityWis (check out the blog roll to the right of this posting) sometimes hype apparently straight news stories from this reasonably professional-looking site. In reviewing Wisconsin Election Watch's actual work, however, one is hard-pressed to ignore that it's pretty much a mouthpiece for conservative interests. Here is how it describes itself:

Wisconsin Election Watch is an online, non-partisan, for-profit election news and information resource formed in 2013 that is dedicated to in-depth reporting and research about Wisconsin government and elections. Wisconsin Election Watch is focused on news and information about elections at all levels of government, elected officials, candidates, and issue referendums. Our goal is to produce detailed reporting that is focused on improving transparency at all levels of Wisconsin government and elections.

Well, the "dedicated," "non-partisan" and "in-depth" aspects definitely need some work. Wisconsin Election Watch's editor and project manager is Kyle Maichle, whom the site describes thusly: 

Kyle brings considerable political, research, and writing experience. After serving as an intern and College Progra#222222;">ms Coordinator for AFP-Wisconsin #222222;">[that's Americans For Prosperity, a Koch-funded group],#222222;"> he first started his professional career with the Lucy Burns Institute in 2008 working as a Content Editor for Judgepedia and Ballotpedia. In the same year, Kyle was transferred to the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance working as the full-time writer for Judgepedia. While with Sam Adams, he wrote content centered towards federal judges and covered the 2009 Wisconsin State Supreme Court election. In July 2009, Kyle was transferred back to the Lucy Burns Institute becoming their Technical Researcher and Writer for Ballotpedia. During his second tenure with the Lucy Burns Institute, he assisted Ballotpedia’s reporting team in producing content regarding local and statewide elections along with writing on state legislatures and issues not covered by traditional media. In 2011, Kyle became a full-time consultant for various campaigns and organizations for over two years.  

#222222;">The organizations described in the above passage are well interconnected and hold a number of conservative ties. For instance, the Lucy Burns Institute is an outfit run by the wife of Eric O'Keefe, who is an almost ubiquitous right-wing political operative. has noted that O'Keefe has extensive ties to the . O'Keefe is director of the and is also instrumental in that Chicago-based , which contributed to the founding of numerous tea party organizations, and also helped launch the .

#222222;">Sourcewatch concludes by noting: "O'Keefe is at the center of the 2014 'John Doe' criminal investigation of the campaign of Wisconsin Governor , Wisconsin Club for Growth, and numerous other 'dark money' groups."

Does Wisconsin Election Watch cover those John Doe proceedings? Yes, some, but really only with respect to the process begun by O'Keefe and others to use conservative courts to quash the inquiry before it can reach any conclusions that might lead to charges.

In general, the site's journalistic judgment is similarly skewed. Among its "Top Ten Wisconsin Legislative Stories of 2014," Wisconsin Election Watch recently listed as number 3 the removal of State Rep. Bill Kramer from a chamber leadership position by his fellow Republicans, after revelations that he sexually harassed and groped women. The Town of Waukesha Republican later was convicted on related misdemeanor charges and sentenced to five months in jail. He retains his legislative seat but did not seek re-election.

Whether this incident deserved the number three ranking among top ten 2014 legislative news stories (numerous sweeping and contentious public policy decisions by the governor and legislature showed up nowhere on the list), here are a couple other events that surely didn't deserve weighting similar to Kramer's own:

Coming in at Number 4, right behind Kramer, was the tale of State Rep, Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) collecting state mileage reimbursement on a suspended driver’s license in 2011. This story promptly made its way around the right-wing web circuit, for instance appearing on MediaTrackers, a site purportedly devoted to monitoring journalistic practices. Sinicki later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was unaware of her suspension at the time she made those trips. Election Watch didn't report upon or rate a rather similar incident involving a Republican lawmaker.

Coming in at Number 8: US Rep. Gwen Moore’s arrest at a minimum wage rally in West Milwaukee. Really? That was the eighth most important legislative story of the year? Hmmm. Election Watch solemnly noted: "The House Ethics Committee did not take any action relating to her arrest." Gee. I guess civil disobedience is still ethical.

To be fair, Election Watch has on a few occasions written of Democratic policy efforts, including that party's opposition to GOP-backed "right to work" legislation and "reform" of the Government Accountability Board in the upcoming session. Nevertheless, the site's frequentlly non-journalistic approach to its coverage in general maintains the oddly skewed emphasis. On Dec. 19, for example, a Maichle-bylined story breathlessly reported that, as the site's headline put it, "Milwaukee food bank actively lobbied against welfare reform."

For one thing, that headline is way over the top; after all, "welfare" in Wisconsin was "reformed" virtually out of existence all of three Republican governors ago. For another, a consistency question naturally arises: Does Wisconsin Election Watch ever report on "active lobbying" of legislators from right-wing organizations? You know, like via the American Legislative Exchange Council, or Koch-backed lobbying groups? Groups that spread money around campaigns on up to six- and seven-figure sums? Sort of. A little. Well, actually, not like the above example.

Here are the first few grafs of Maichle's clunky, food-bank opus:

During the holiday season, many non-profit organizations continue the Wisconsin tradition of food drives to provide meals to citizens that are struggling to make ends meet. However, one food bank in Wisconsin has been actively been [sic] lobbying against welfare reform in previous legislative sessions.

One food-bank in particular is the Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force. The food-bank describes itself as “free and local”.  However, [non-sequitur, here:] the food bank has made legislative advocacy as [sic] part of its priorities. The Hunger Task Force is the only food bank that has been a registered lobbyist in the Wisconsin Legislature for the 2013-2014 session... . During the 2013-2014 Legislative session, the Task Force spent $7,163.93 and logged over 96.2 hours influencing state lawmakers along with spending $11,538.95 and logging 100.5 hours lobbying during the 2011-2012 Legislative session.

In the 2013-2014 Legislative session, the Hunger Task Force lobbied against Assembly Bill 110 which would ban buying junk food with benefits from the FoodShare program. Hunger Task Force joined trade associations such as the Wisconsin Potato Growers Association along with food retailers like Kwik Trip in opposing the bill... .

Hey, what a scandal: A relatively small, private, non-profit interest group is working modestly against the GOP tide, actually trying to get legislators to consider another point of view, spending very little to do it. And all the while continuing to provide food to the needy. But look: In all of one year, Hunger Task Force reportedly logged 100 hours lobbying the entire legislative membership. That's about two hours a week on average, and far less than a minute per legislator. Clearly heavy business! Someone find Wisconsin's equivalent of Darrell Issa, quick.

Election Watch also has evinced unusual interest in the City of Milwaukee's streetcar project, a mass transit program heavily opposed by state Republicans. The site has run numerous stories on the conservative opposition. The coverage exclusively relates to that opposition, not the plan itself or why a locally and federally funded program should even upset anyone outside the city limits.

Don't get me wrong. There's a role for advocacy journalism, and there's a role for advocacy, period. However, Wisconsin Election Watch really isn't journalism (there seem to be no trained journalists aboard the staff, only politically trained operatives). And it's advocacy is veiled in the cloak of non-partisanship. If public policy analysis from a particular political point of view is worthwhile, it shouldn't have to be done under false pretenses. We're all for transparent government and transparent campaigning, aren't we?

Maybe you could argue this particular site is still finding its way, or maybe the staff is simply self-unaware. On the other hand, one of the site's advertisers is Americans For Prosperity, that Koch group. It bills itself as AFP in its ad, and a link to an external web page contains a spiel that makes the group sound like some kind of populist, grass-roots organizing effort that's anything but a shill for out-state, billionaire industrialists. Pretending to be something other than you are isn't much of a prescription for a robust political movement that actually believes in what it is selling.


December 30, 2014 - 2:03pm