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Journalism Center a Target

June 6, 2013

Legislation that would bar University of Wisconsin professors from working with a nonprofit journalism center and kick the center off the Madison campus is a "direct assault" on academic freedom, the UW journalism school's director says.

In a 12-4 vote during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee introduced a motion that would prohibit the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from occupying its two offices in a campus building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The provision would also prevent University of Wisconsin employees from doing any work related to the investigative journalism center.

Under a "Facilities Use Agreement," the center occupies UW-Madison's offices in exchange for providing the students from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication with paid internships, guest lectures and other services.

Greg Downey, who directs the School of Journalism at UW-Madison, said the center provides more than just internships. He sees the collaboration between the center and the school as a "great experiment."

"They're a resource for us to rely upon, and we're an academic resource for them," Downey said.

The Center for Investigative Journalism was launched in 2009 and distributes its stories to more than 230 news outlets across the nation. With Wisconsin's new budget provision, the center, which describes itself as "nonpartisan," will not lose funding. It is supported by private foundations, individuals and news organizations.

The center's executive director, Andy Hall, was "blindsided" by the motion, he said in an e-mail posted on Jim Romenesko's journalism blog.

"The Center’s award-winning journalism is making Wisconsin a better place by shining a light on key state issues to strengthen our democracy while training the next generation of investigative journalists," he added in the e-mail.

State Rep. John Nygren, a Republican who is co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, introduced the motion. He did not return telephone calls or e-mails from Inside Higher Ed. According to the Associated Press, he said state facilities should not be provided for the center.

When asked why the center might be a targeted by lawmakers, Downey said there is really "no context or explanation," but speculated that they might think the "center is acting in a partisan way." (Among its numerous funders is a charity affiliated with the liberal philanthropist George Soros, as conservative watchdogs are quick to note.) But Downey said the center has "never been shy" about scrutinizing the university and being a watchdog for those in power, be they Democrat or Republican.

Nygren may have a beef with the center stemming from a 2011 article written by Kate Golden, which described a push by the legislator to make changes to automobile insurance laws, while focusing on donations Nygren received from insurance interests.

Golden also wrote a column highlighting an open records battle between him and the center, titled "Contacts with lawmakers should be public."

Downey said he worries about the provision's broader ramifications.

"It had implications for how a public research university is able to mobilize its research and infrastructure with other organizations around the state," Downey said. "And two, for the ability for faculty to make decisions about who they are going to partner with and what's going to be best for them."

He also said he is concerned about the future "economic stability" of investigative reporting, and said that the center was helping to train the next generation of reporters.

Gary Sandefur, dean of UW's College of Letters & Science, which oversees the journalism school, affirmed his support of the collaboration between UW-Madison and the center in an article on the university's website.

"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," Sandefur said.

Downey said the journalism school will mobilize its staff, students and alumni to speak out to get the language removed from the budget. To take effect, the budget bill must be passed by both the Assembly and the Senate and then signed by Gov. Scott Walker, who has the partial veto power to remove some items.

 

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