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Thursday, May 10, 2012 11:19 am

Write wingers

While the mainstream press cuts back, conservatives step in


Necrophilia is legal in Illinois, and the legislature is cracking down.

Who knew?

The Belleville News-Democrat and St. Louis Post-Dispatch in February broke the news that state Rep. Daniel Beiser, D-Alton, is sponsoring a measure outlawing posthumous hanky-panky, which attracted attention as far away as England, where the Daily Mail published a blurb. But there wasn’t a peep in the Chicago Sun-Times. Or the Chicago Tribune. Or the Associated Press, the wire service that provides news large and small to newspapers large and small throughout the nation.

Leave it up to Illinois Statehouse News to report that the House on March 28 voted 114-0 to make sex with a dead person a felony offense. The story by the news service dedicated to goings-on in state government ran in the Daily Ledger in Canton (population 14,498) and the Daily American in West Frankfort (population 8,125). Even the Alton Telegraph, hometown newspaper of the bill’s prime sponsor, used the story by Illinois Statehouse News to keep readers abreast.

In Chicago, the NBC television affiliate used quotes contained in the Illinois Statehouse News article, as did democraticunderground.com, a website dedicated to liberal principles and making fun of the GOP.

“What will Republicans do for dates?” wondered commenter rfranklin in a response to the piece posted on the democraticunderground.com website.

Such broad reach is the goal of the fledgling news service that begs for attention from anyone with a printing press, computer or satellite dish.

“As part of our mission to supply robust, far-reaching coverage of Statehouse and government news, Illinois Statehouse News encourages all Illinois news broadcasters, media organizations and citizen journalists to steal our stuff,” the news service says on its website. “Yes, that’s right. Steal it.”

Even papers that pay for Associated Press coverage of state government are turning to Illinois Statehouse News.

“I think they move some pretty good stuff,” says Jim Shrader, publisher of the Alton Telegraph. “We trust the content, and that’s why we choose to use it. … It’s one more news service that doesn’t increase my expenses.”

Shrader says that Illinois Statehouse News produces stories that the best-known wire service doesn’t provide.

“I understand that AP is short of manpower – they’re (the wire service is) going to get what they’re fed,” Shrader says. “I don’t want to say it (Illinois Statehouse News product) has more of a downstate focus, but it’s not quite as necessarily Chicago-centric.”

Necrophilia aside, Illinois Statehouse News aims for greater impact than “Hey, Ethels,” old-school journalistic lingo for inconsequential stories read over breakfast that provoke little more than chuckles or a gee-whiz.

Soon after it started operations, Illinois Statehouse News in 2009 reported that lawmakers between 2003 and 2008 had awarded 197 scholarships to relatives of campaign contributors. It was the sort of slog through public records that takes months, and it provoked a reaction from Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who said in an online comment to the story that the speaker has voted to abolish the scholarship program and would do so again.

Illinois Statehouse News publishes online and offers its stories for free to media outlets.

The report received an award from the National Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. More than two years later, the scholarship program remains, although lawmakers in the Senate recently voted to kill the program. Over the years, the controversial scholarship program has taken plenty of hits – the Chicago Sun-Times last year, for instance, reported that federal prosecutors were investigating a former Windy City state representative who had given $94,000 in scholarships to four children of a campaign contributor during the time period analyzed by Illinois Statehouse News, which didn’t mention the representative’s name in its report.

Scott Reeder, former Illinois Statehouse News bureau chief who recently became a national reporter for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit that funds the news service and similar bureaus around the nation, noted that a bill to abolish the scholarship program was debated, but died, in the session following the Illinois Statehouse News report. Then again, it wasn’t the first time that lawmakers had introduced bills to abolish the program.

“You never know in journalism if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship,” says Reeder, who remains based in Springfield. “We want to be more than the newspaper of record. We want to be doing meaningful reporting, focusing on the why and the how, not just the who, what, when and where. Why is this happening? How did we get here?”

But Illinois Statehouse News, which has no advertisers on its website and appears only online and in whatever papers print its stories, isn’t yet on everyone’s must-read list.

“They don’t move the needle,” says one Statehouse correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity because his employer wouldn’t approve of a reporter criticizing a competitor. “They’ve lacked any kind of influence. They tend to go ignored. I don’t get the sense they’re moving the agenda in any way in Springfield.”

Boots on the ground
Founded in late 2009, Illinois Statehouse News is playing with the big boys, at least in terms of body count. With two full-time reporters covering state government, the news service has as many Statehouse watchdogs as the Associated Press, the State Journal-Register and WUIS radio. No media outlet has three.

It’s a far cry from just a few years ago, when the AP and the State Journal-Register each had at least three reporters and smaller papers such as the Champaign News-Gazette and the Rockford Register Star had Statehouse bureaus that are now closed.

Where the money is coming from isn’t clear.

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, based in Alexandria, Va., is paying the bills for Illinois Statehouse News and similar bureaus set up in several other states. The center also gives grants for journalism projects to conservative think tanks and online publications that typically say they want to hold government accountable and spotlight fiscal foolishness.

Jason Stverak, Franklin Center’s president, is former head of the North Dakota Republican Party. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Franklin Center was launched in 2009 with help from the Sam Adams Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit which has also given grants to such organizations as the Tea Party Patriots Foundation.

Neither the Franklin Center nor the Sam Adams Alliance will reveal where they get their money, saying that donors have a right to privacy. That’s problematic for critics who find irony in the Franklin Center and its news bureaus railing for transparency in government. The source of money to pay for reporters while mainstream media outlets are cutting back is irrelevant, according to the Franklin Center. What gets reported is what counts, the center says.

“We ask questions from a free-market, pro-taxpayer perspective,” writes Steven Greenhut, Franklin Center vice president of journalism, in a column posted last month on the center’s website. “We provide all the perspectives and follow traditional journalistic standards, but we focus on waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars – on questions that aren’t always asked in the newspaper world.”

In a 2010 article published in Washington Monthly, Laura McCann, an editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, blasted center-backed bureaus for sloppy reporting. In New Mexico, a report on alleged vanishing federal stimulus money turned out to be a case of typos: Government bureaucrats and nonprofit agencies had mistyped zip codes, making it appear that billions of federal dollars had gone to congressional districts that didn’t exist, according to an Associated Press analysis of the report that was picked up by major media outlets.

The Franklin Center, McCann wrote, is more a “political attack machine” than a legitimate news outfit, and it counts on mainstream media outlets to pick up slanted stories without checking facts.

Illinois Statehouse News, initially denied an office with a door at the Capitol complex, employs two full-time writers, including bureau chief Jayette Bolinski, pictured.

“That kind of ideologically motivated, willfully misleading muckracking may be a well-worn strategy among partisan operatives,” McCann wrote. “But it isn’t journalism.”

Some organizations promoted by the Franklin Center have a clear political bent. For instance, California Watchdog, a West Coast news operation that the center promotes on its website, wears its politics on its sleeve.

“If you want to see why California is in such a mess, make sure to watch the video of Gov. Jerry Brown’s appearance on ‘Face The Nation,’” a writer began in a calwatchdog.org story posted under a category entitled Breaking News.

Nonetheless Greenhut, who founded California Watchdog before joining the Franklin Center, insists that the center does not support partisan journalism.

“I’m glad to pick on Republicans,” Greenhut says. “I think it’s more pro-liberty, free-market, pro-taxpayer, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t mean we’re aligned with a political party. … I believe a lot of the criticism is because we’re free-market oriented.”

Evenhanded in Illinois
Illinois Statehouse News was not immediately embraced by the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association, which decides whether organizations will be granted office space in the Capitol complex.

When Statehouse News asked to be admitted to the association in 2009, the press corps balked.

“They wanted immediate membership without having any track record, without showing us that they were a legitimate news group,” recalls association president Ray Long, who writes for the Chicago Tribune. “They did not tell us anything about who they were or whether they were something like a lobbying group or something like that. We wanted to know what they did, and we wanted them to establish a track record.”

Long said the association also wanted to know about ownership and funding.

“They did not want to give that,” Long said. “In fact, they said they did not identify their owners even to their reporters. … It’s not so much a question of who the owners are, because we’ve all worked under a variety of unusual owners, but it was a question of whether they were serious about being an objective news outlet.”

The association initially decided to grant space in the so-called bullpen area, usually reserved for visiting reporters, which has no doors to allow private conversations. The association eventually took a vote and gave Illinois Statehouse News an office with a door.

“They had established a track record,” Long said. “We hadn’t heard complaints of them being overtly or even covertly slanted.”

Long compares Illinois Statehouse News with radio and television outlets that were not at first welcomed with open arms by newspaper correspondents. When broadcasters first showed up to cover state government decades ago, they were not allowed to ask questions at press conferences until newspaper reporters were finished, Long says, nor were broadcasters allowed onto the House floor.

“With that in mind, we wanted to do this right – we just tried to use due diligence,” Long says. “We basically tweaked our bylaws. … The obvious realization was that we had to address the idea of nonprofit journalism and how it would be, kind of, the new wave of journalism, as opposed to AP, which is kind of nonprofit.”

Steven Greenhut, a vice president of the nonprofit that oversees Illinois Statehouse News, says that the news service isn’t partisan but its writers ask questions from a pro-liberty, pro-taxpayer perspective.
Charlie Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at University of Illinois Springfield that provides interns to help newspapers and broadcasters cover the legislature, also took a wait-and-see approach when Illinois Statehouse News asked for students.

“There had been serious reservations raised,” Wheeler recalls. “In general, it was concern that this would be some kind of shadow right-wing operation, because of who the funders were purported to be, and they would be churning out propaganda in the guise of news.”

After reading the product for the better part of a year, Wheeler agreed to provide interns. The stories, he says, showed no slant, and they were getting picked up by media outlets throughout the state.

“It looks like pretty straightforward news to me,” Wheeler says. “I think they have a pretty decent following.”

But some still view Illinois Statehouse News with suspicion.

“I think they’re always going to be suspect because of who funds them,” says Rich Miller, publisher of Capitol Fax and capitolfax.com. “Overall, they have a conservative slant on some things. So what? Are they unfair or ridiculous? No. Are they a decent addition to the Statehouse? Sure.”

Greenhut, a former editorial editor for the Orange County Register, says that Franklin Center and its news bureaus are here to stay.

“I’ve hired 12 people in three months, and I always get that question about longevity,” Greenhut says. “We’re growing, I’m hiring – what about newspapers?”

Overseers at the Franklin sound like founding fathers as they talk about their mission.

“What we do is undeniably oriented toward limited government,” says Will Swaim, Franklin Center’s managing editor who supervises the center’s news bureaus and was once editor of OC Weekly, a California alternative newsweekly. “The reason the First Amendment exists at all is because our founding fathers knew that an independent newspaper and independent press was critical to the functioning of democracy. We’ve got the financial wherewithal to actually fill the gap created by the retreat of the mainstream media.”

Every writer employed by a center-funded bureau or whose salary comes from a center grant is required to attend training sessions organized by the center, where writers are taught such nuts-and-bolts as how to file records requests and told that it’s OK to write with attitude, so long as points of view can be defended with facts.

“I’m not a believer in unbiased journalism – the most dangerous journalist is one who believes he’s unbiased,” Swaim said. “If you believe you’re unbiased, you are a case of journalistic malpractice waiting to happen. … We’re here to produce argumentative essays.”

But, for the most part, such essays haven’t appeared in Springfield, where Illinois Statehouse News has yet to uncover a major scandal or publish anything that led to criminal charges or investigations or resignations or a new law. Most stories are news-of-the-day reports on such happenings as the recent Senate vote to abolish legislative scholarships or moves to cut health benefits for retired state workers.

Miller, whose state politics blog includes a link to the Illinois Statehouse News website, says that’s OK. Papers that may not otherwise run stories about state government are printing offerings from Illinois Statehouse News, and that’s a good thing, he says.

Despite initial concerns about bias, Charlie Wheeler, director of the public affairs reporting program at University of Illinois Springfield, says that reporting by Illinois Statehouse News has been both straightforward and widely read.
“The more people who are reading state-related news, in my view, the better,” Miller says. “I think it’s mostly meat-and-potatoes stuff, and it’s good that they haven’t run anybody (journalists) out of business yet – that was a big worry.”

There are signs of enterprise, with varying degrees of golly. Was anyone surprised that legislators are ducking tough issues in an election year, as Illinois Statehouse News reported in March? On the other hand, opponents of government waste might have gotten a charge out of an April story that revealed the state and the city of Chicago are spending $1.9 million to subsidize 47 new charging stations for electric cars in the Chicago area, bringing the number of stations to 73, when there are just 18 cars registered in the area that could use the stations.

An American tradition
Jayette Bolinksi, hired barely a month ago as bureau chief for Illinois Statehouse News, said that she left her job as web producer and occasional police reporter for the State Journal-Register because she wanted a change after a dozen years as a professional journalist.

“There was a time when I thought I would be at the SJ-R my whole career,” Bolinski says. “So many things have happened in the newspaper business the last few years, it became difficult to stay there – it was hard to watch friends being led out the door.”

And so Bolinski jumped from one of the state’s oldest newspapers, which has been laying off editorial staff, to Illinois Statehouse News, which didn’t exist three years ago.

“I really like the concept of what they’re doing,” Bolinski says. “It’s a way to fill the void that’s been left in the news business. I would like to help effect change. I would like to help people understand how their money is being spent, whether it’s being wasted or not. … Sometimes, it’s nice to go back to the roots and have a fresh start.”

If Bolinski and her colleagues at Illinois Statehouse News end up spouting partisan propaganda, they’ll be in good company. The notion of objectivity in the American press is a relatively recent invention. During the 19th century, newspapers were unabashedly partisan – the infamous 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr was fueled in part by a letter published in the Albany Register, a paper aligned with Hamilton’s party. More recently, newspapers owned by the Copley Press, former owner of the State Journal-Register, consistently endorsed Republican presidential candidates. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that Herb Klein, a Copley Press editor, was given leaves of absence to work on Richard Nixon’s political campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s, eventually leaving the top editing post at the chain’s flagship paper in San Diego to become Nixon’s press secretary in 1968.

“If you look at the long history of journalism, starting in the 1690s, most of the time, it’s been a press of partisanship,” says Loren Ghiglione, a professor at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University. “It’s continued even after World War II.”

As evidence, Ghiglione points to the 10 daily newspapers published in New York during the 1950s. Each, he says, held its own place on the political spectrum, from the World-Telegram and Sun on the right to the Daily Worker on the left. One experimental tabloid wouldn’t accept advertising on the theory that money from businesses opened the door to corruption, he says.

“If you look at the papers, you know where they stood,” Ghiglione says.

Greenhut, who professes himself a libertarian, says you don’t have to look any further than mastheads.

“Look at the names of the newspapers, for heaven’s sake,” he says. “The Democrat. The Republican. The Vindicator. Freedom Communications.”

Journalists shouldn’t hide from points of view, Greenhut says, and his news bureaus don’t want to be part of a pack that goes to the same press conferences and ends up writing the same story.

“There’s really no point for Franklin to exist if we’re doing stories people can get everyplace else,” Greenhut says. “It’s a great time for journalism. Instead of hawking newspapers on street corners, we’re trying to get eyes on websites.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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