Misgiving: Conservative Media Cannibals Turn on Us – Are We to Blame?

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Wisconsin’s Very Own Conservative Pitbull

I hesitate to take on any conservatives because I am one myself. I am a free-market, libertarian-leaning constitutionalist. My goal is unity – even in this piece. But just as I know the “news” is affected by what you don’t report, the truth can be altered by what you don’t admit.

Something profound has happened in Wisconsin that is not limited to this state alone, and is an example to readers everywhere about the dangers of trusting a single source on it’s face. Not everyone has a great sniffer for truth, or that gut feeling that says, “wait a second.” Some savvy politicos take advantage of this.

sikmaMediaTrackers is a pet project of Drew Ryun, brother of Ned, the Founder of American Majority, a non-partisan candidate-training organization spanning a dozen states. Begun in January 2011 with Brian Sikma, an imported homespun writer from Indiana at the helm, Media Trackers began as a research entity with a simple mission:

“Dedicated to media accountability, government transparency and quality fact-based journalism.”

In the beginning, conservatives flocked to MediaTrackers because of their exposés of election and voter fraud, government corruption, liberal media bias and other juicy pieces. But it seems we got so caught up in wielding our “research” bat that we either didn’t notice or glossed over mistakes, even blatant disregard for simple journalistic ethics. Did we facilitate this behavior with blind ambition? Perhaps we allowed this to happen.

When an Organization Turns From Research to Oppo-Research

Beginning in August 2011, I was one of the first conservatives to share the MediaTrackers story on the infamous BBQ-chicken-for-votes story in north Milwaukee, WI. I was indignant. The local DA and others jumped into an investigation. Except, they found the story was based on one single eyewitness account. If true, no one could prove it was, and conservatives were left holding water. The investigation closed and there was zero prosecutable evidence that the illegalities ever occurred. Even alleged evidence of a crime had been pictured, but was removed from the article once the story became unprovable.

A simple demand for two sources would have halted this egg-on-the-face moment.

Not to be outdone, a month later MediaTrackers jumped all over New York City protesters for allegedly dishonoring the NYPD on the eve of the Sept 11 anniversary. The article said, “protesters in New York marching in solidarity with striking teachers in Chicago waved signs vilifying the New York Police Department on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.”

Of course, in the midst of Wisconsin’s teacher union melee and infamous Madison protests, this was easy fodder. I was one of those initially “stunned” by such brazenness. A photo of a sign that accompanied the article read: “Dear NYPD. Courage is stopping your fellow officers. Don’t attack unarmed civilians.”

When asked, Director Brian Sikma declined to comment on how he obtained the photo or if he had any additional evidence of such a protest. The photo has since been removed.

Then, the site inexplicably took a turn for the mud when it published a story October 29, linking the beating of a gay staffer, Kyle Wood for Republican Chad Lee to not supporting his challenger in a race, Democrat Marc Pocan, who is also gay. Sikma even claimed to have threatening text messages in his possession, between Wood and Pocan’s husband, Phil Frank that purportedly would prove this crime was political retaliation. Sikma even printed a full transcript of these alleged texts, three pages in length. But did they ever exist?

After the subsequent police report cast doubt on the story, Wood was exposed for having lied about the incident. He fabricated the entire story, even quotes and names. He recanted his account, leaving some confused about MediaTrackers’ claim about these texts. Wood was beaten, but his story was completely false, and the police could no longer trust his story.

The article has since been removed, and an apology was posted on MediaTrackers, but it never accepted responsibility for the haste in the story itself. Again, a simple two-source verification and a little self-discipline would have avoided the embarrassment this brought conservatives statewide.

It was such blatant disregard for simple journalistic standards that MediaTrackers was lambasted in several state publications, including Isthmus, which remarked, “The haste with which Media Trackers dispatched the texting story highlights a stark contrast between such new-media outlets and traditional news operations that consider ethical questions and journalistic standards before pushing the publish button.” We conservatives literally looked stupid for being aghast at such behavior, yet it was just a publicity stunt.

But, we did nothing.

Fast-forward to 2013: the state of Wisconsin is calm and improving in every area. Conservatives have won bitter battles over the state Supreme Court, Assembly, Senate, multiple recalls of legislators and the Governor himself. But now, MediaTrackers appears to be dissatisfied with the lack of easy targets, so they have turned their guns on ourselves, this time focusing on at least two primary races in the state.

Fact-Checker or News-For-Hire?

Since last year, MediaTrackers has published 12 stories (not “reports”) that are extremely negative, and almost libelous of recalled Senator Van Wanggaard, who formerly served Senate District 21. Wanggaard’s challenger Jonathan Steitz is both a friend of Sikma and fellow former board member of Wisconsin Family Action, a conservative family-centered organization.

Simply reporting negative stories is certainly within their purview but when MediaTrackers bows to outright deception in their stories it crosses a line. They have taken advantage that most people will not fact-check, and once accusations are made the explanations sound defensive and suspicious. Even if they are entirely true. Sometimes context changes the entire headline. But not at MediaTrackers, where the headline dictates the direction of the story.

An example of misleading headlines/stories:

“Wanggaard Open to Supporting Anti-Act 10 Chief for Mayor of Racine”

The anonymous source identified the words of GOP board member Sam Whalen as supporting this claim. Whalen denied this and criticized MediaTrackers for falsifying their story. They removed his correction in their comments and didn’t correct the story. Disclaimer: I was at this event and witnessed the alleged incident. It did not happen, and the source lied.

“Racine School Choice Caps Pushed By Wanggaard Stifled Opportunity”

Aside from disregarding the fact that “caps” were supported as a measured step by every school choice leader and the governor at the time, MediaTrackers left out vital info: Wanggaard’s bill removed all caps after the third year – they deliberately omitted this. They also put words in his mouth by saying, “he wanted to limit school choice opportunities for students because he didn’t want students to leave Racine Unified.” This was patently false, and he never said this. His gradual increase, then elimination of the limits, were in the original bill and they refused to allow Van to say so for the article.

“Wanggaard Flip-Flops on School Choice”

In this follow up, MediaTrackers sarcastically implied that Wanggaard flip-flopped on school choice, because he says the caps should be lifted statewide, while his original bill contained them. Except, of course, his original bill lifted all caps in it’s third year. Something they left out again. And Wanggaard always aimed for an unlimited, unrestrained system. How can you flip on something you never disagreed with? Again, MediaTrackers refused to allow Wanggaard to comment.

“Wanggaard, Taylor Bioscience Bill Lacked Prolife Protections”

A bill Wanggaard introduced directed some state funds into stem cell research. The arbitrary bill, introduced by two Democrats and two Republicans failed to go anywhere, and died. A few insisted early that the bill needed protections to avoid abuse by those who may use funds for embryonic research, but the bill never made it to the amendment process. Despite Wanggaard getting the endorsement of Wisconsin Right to Life, and being adamantly pro life, MediaTrackers implied he is not.

Wanggaard is not the only target of MediaTrackers. It now appears they are not hiding their news-for-hire tendency. Fittingly, they’ve made a move against state Sen. Joe Leibham, running in a four-way primary for the sixth Congressional District in Eastern Wisconsin.

The headline reads: “Leibham Holding Fundraiser With Lobbyist Tied to D.C. Madame.” They are literally implying that an unsavory connection between Leibham and a female pimp exist, even contrasting his being a married father and deacon of his church to the personal behavior of a lobbyist hosting the event. This led Santo Ingrilli, a local conservative writer to lament, “This entire story is about as newsworthy as something you would read in The Globe.  Where is the integrity MediaTrackers?”

Better Late Than Never

Now, after the evidence has become insurmountable, local activists and conservative bloggers are joining Santo Ingrilli and responding.

Purple Wisconsin blogger, Ashley Schultz published a scathing report on JSOnline, stating, “Conservatives face attacks from the liberal media and Democrats every day, and now thanks to organizations like Media Trackers, we’re spending more time focused on fighting each other than winning elections. Media Trackers says they are dedicated to ‘media accountability’ but the big problem here is – who is holding them accountable?”

Ingrilli himself expounded in his editorial, “If someone at MediaTrackers has a personal agenda to get certain people through the primary then by all means support your cause, but do it by talking up your candidate instead of attempting to destroy their opponent with garbage news.”

As if the whirlwind of discontent wasn’t whipping enough, respected local writer, James Widgerson finally had enough when he likened this new brand of MediaTrackers to a “Murder, Inc. outfit imported from Indiana to play in Wisconsin primaries.” He continued, “I’m going to take a cheap shot and point out for someone who claims to be a Christian, what Sikma wrote wasn’t very Christ-like.” Some have even resorted to using the moniker, “MediaHackers” for their disregard of media standards.

Finally, choosing perhaps to put peace above fisticuffs, beloved conservative columnist, Christian Schneider was sure to expose the “bitterness” of these unnamed groups, and – for once – give ample space in a major publication to Van Wanggaard’s explanation of his record. Wanggaard called these charges “garbage.” He opined, “we did more conservative legislation in the 18 months I was in office than they did for the previous four decades. And I think that’s awesome.” Of course, he paid the price for it. But he wasn’t recalled for not being principled enough.

Conservatives are better than this. We all have varied viewpoints on the same issues, but share almost identical motivations for free markets, less regulation, small government, increased individual accountability. We live in a world with those who disagree, and some will diverge on how to win the political war to achieve our ideals and make our communities better.

But can we really be effective if we are, as Shultz said, “spending more time focused on fighting each other?” To win elections we must persuade more people of our wise, proven message. Can we change minds when our own sources of “facts” are disingenuous, misleading, petty and telling only half of the truth?

I recently ran my concerns by one of the members of American Majority’s leadership – MT’s non-profit, sister organization. “I don’t know how can anyone ignore their behavior when they refuse to do basic journalism,” I said. The man defended them, insisting, “well, they’re not journalists though… they are fact-based researchers.” This left me astounded. Not only does this statement contradict itself, but their mission statement says, “Dedicated to media accountability, government transparency and fact-based journalism.” They are called, after all, “Media Trackers.” How can you hold the media accountable if you do not hold yourself to the same standards?

Whether directed at taking down liberals or conservatives, our standards should be higher. Politics is a contact sport, but at the end of the game, civility and sportsmanship is the higher order, and allows our republic to last as long as it has.

At times, it almost feels it’d be better to just return to a world before 1987, when Old Media ruled with their bias while conservatives merely wrote persuasive dissertations and opinions at Cato and National Review.

Conservatives will never win the battle for minds if our hearts are deceitfully wicked. We must hold these bad actors accountable as well.

“The man who reads nothing is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Disclaimer: Links to MediaTrackers were minimized, and none of the false stories were linked because I do not wish to provide them more traffic than they deserve. This was an editorial decision out of caution, not malice.