December 6, 2011

Anatomy of a Right-wing Smear Campaign, Volume One

What's truly troubling is that the baseless allegations toward Wisconsin Jobs Now ever became news in the first place.

On Tuesday, the community and labor group Wisconsin Jobs Now was cleared of wrongdoing during this summer’s recall elections against Senate Republicans. What’s truly troubling is that the baseless allegations ever became news in the first place.

Here’s what went down.

On August 1, a week before the recall election against Republican Senator Alberta Darling, the right-wing group Media Trackers issued an “exclusive” report claiming Wisconsin Jobs Now was caught engaging in allegedly illegal behavior by an anonymous source.

WisPolitics reported this on Tuesday:

[District Attorney Bruce Landgraf] noted in his letter that the investigation was initiated because Brian Sikma, the person who issued a Media Trackers press release based on the allegations, refused to cooperate.

So immediately after issuing the press release leveling serious allegations against an ideological opponent, Media Trackers failed to cooperate with the DA in charge of investigating the activity.

Then this:

Later, Bill Osmulski, a representative of the MacIver Institute, provided Landgraf’s office with the name of the witness to the Wisconsin Jobs Now activities, Collin Roth.

It’s unclear from the DA’s official report if it was actually Osmulski (from another right-wing front group, the MacIver Institute) who revealed the source’s identity, but it’s important to note that Roth is in fact a Media Trackers operative.

Then came the bombshell:

Q: All right. Did anyone tell you that in order to get a ticket for food you had to sign up to vote?

[Roth] A: No, not explicity.

Q: Do you have any other information that you could offer that would shed some light on this…?

A: …I can’t say if that was a necessary or that was explicit that one had to sign in and get in the van to take the food or the ticket

In other words, Media Trackers’s anonymous source knew the pro-union Wisconsin Jobs Now group did not engage in illegal activity. But that didn’t stop Media Trackers from “reporting” otherwise.

So this begs the question: if Media Trackers wasn’t going to cooperate with investigators (perhaps because they knew the facts weren’t on their side), why did they ever bother issuing a press release making such serious allegations. Simple. They only needed to smear Wisconsin Jobs Now for the short period before the recall election. They didn’t need to win a court case, they just needed to win a media war. And win they did.

The press release, recycled immediately by the MacIver Insititute with added opinion from conservative lawyer Rick Esenberg, obviously caught the attention of conservative talk show hosts like WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes, but the then-uninvestigated allegations even made the front page of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s local section with the headline “Voter ‘block parties’ probed; It’s illegal to combine free food, transit to polls.” The same day an Associated Press headline read, “GOP files complaint against Democrat Pasch”.

The investigation into serious allegations took months, but the headlines lasted days, right up to Sen. Darling’s victory on August 9.

The political relationship between the two front groups, Media Trackers and MacIver Institute, pro-corporate spokespuppet Rick Esenberg, and conservative mouthpiece Charlie Sykes is perhaps not incidental. Their common denominator is the Bradley Foundation.

In November, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported “With more than $600 million in assets, the Bradley Foundation provides a cornerstone for the conservative movement in Wisconsin and across America.” And not only does Bradley fund MacIver and Media Trackers, Sykes and Esenberg are both Bradey beneficiaries.

A similar story of widely circulated allegations and misinformation originating form Media Trackers unfolded recently when the group accused Sen. Lena Taylor and her mother of bribing underage, African American, citizens with cigarettes in exchange for signing a Scott Walker recall petition. Contrary to Media Trackers’s claims, the individuals were old enough to sign papers, and weren’t being bribed. (The only truth in their claims is that they were African American and signing recall papers.) Nevertheless, Media Trackers took their story to Sykes’s radio show, and the story was in the state’s largest media outlets within 24 hours.

These Bradley Foundation-funded smear campaigns will continue to infect our public discourse only as long as the media continues to take cues from Sykes and the garbage churned out by the likes of Media Trackers and the MacIver Institute.

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Cody currently oversees online communications, web development, and graphic design at One Wisconsin Now & the Institute, having served previously as Deputy Research Director.

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