This week's release of 27,000 emails linking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to his staff's illegal engagement in political activities while he was Milwaukee County executive did not occur through the generosity of state officials, but through the diligence of journalists.
The emails and hundreds of court documents made public under court order Wednesday came about after a five-month battle in which several news outlets, led by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joined forces to demand access to public records.
The emails, including those from private accounts, revealed that some of Walker's staff were discussing and illegally performing campaign work on county time and in county offices in 2009 and 2010. They were discovered through a Milwaukee County District Attorney investigation dating back to 2010 that has already resulted in the convictions of six county staffers.
The investigation was conducted under Wisconsin's so-called "John Doe" provision, a special secret inquiry that strictly limits information that can be revealed during the proceedings and even after their completion. Among the findings was the existence of a secret email router in the county executive's office that allowed staffers to send and receive emails through private accounts not monitored by the county's regular email system.
The county staffers targeted in the probe included Walker's former chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a single count of felony misconduct in public office and was sentenced to six months in jail. When she appealed her conviction last year, The Journal Sentinel sought to gain access to the emails, which had been sealed by the court during the investigation and subsequent appeals.
The newspaper's effort to obtain access dates back to August 9, when Editor Martin Kaiser submitted a public records request to the current Milwaukee County executive seeking access to the emails.
When Kaiser's letter received no formal response, lawyers for the Journal Sentinel filed a motion on September 18 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court requesting that the district attorney be ordered to return the emails and other related documents to the county executive, who would then be required to make them available as public records.
"Ordinarily government communications, whether by email or paper or any other form, are presumed public under our public records law," said Robert J. Dreps, the newspaper's attorney. "These were never available for request under the public records law because their existence wasn't even known until they were swept up as part of this criminal investigation."
On September 27, the judge hearing former Walker staffer Rindfleisch's appeal ordered that numerous documents from the original John Doe investigation, including private emails from Rindfleisch's accounts, be released to the appeals court.
The Journal Sentinel followed two days later with a letter to the judge urging that those records not be sealed so that the newspaper can gain access if its motion is granted. On October 3, Rindfleisch filed a motion to seal the documents in her appeals case, including the emails.
As conservative legislators in nine states renew the push for restrictive voter ID laws, their efforts have been aided by state media outlets that continue to ignore or misinform readers on the issue.
Republican lawmakers in several states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- have stated that new or more restrictive voter ID rules will top their agendas in 2013. (Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all those states but New York and West Virginia. In Virginia, the GOP controls the House and maintains a 50/50 split with Democrats in the state Senate.) These proposals come just weeks after the 2012 election, in which there was no evidence of massive voter fraud.
A Media Matters analysis of the largest newspapers in each state found that coverage of these new voter ID initiatives has been largely devoid of context about the overstated dangers of voter fraud or of the significant influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy organization dedicated to pushing a homogeneous conservative agenda state-by-state. Only four of the nine newspapers covered the 2013 initiatives at all, and only one mentioned ALEC.
Wisconsin-based radio host Charlie Sykes may want to be the next Glenn Beck.
But a new marketing project aimed at spreading his hard conservative talk brand beyond home station WTMJ of Milwaukee to web, video, social media and perhaps other media outlets owned by parent company Journal Communications is drawing concern in the state's media community. Sykes' burgeoning network of platforms resembles nothing other than a smaller-scale version of the former Fox News host's sprawling web-based empire.
"That is a fair comparison," says Don Walker, a 34-year veteran of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is also owned by Journal Communications. "Glenn took this huge, I think risk, getting off Fox, or he was pushed, and he left Fox to form this very, very different venture. I think there is some comparison to that Charlie is making a move in a direction that he senses that he can make a move nationally, that he can make a move in a national direction."
That potential move is causing distress in the ranks of the state's journalists, including among reporters at the Journal Sentinel who say the paper already suffers from its association with Sykes' hard-right views.
Several newspaper staffers point to Sykes' partisan approach as undermining the paper's image as the source for fair, unbiased news.
"I know that it frustrates some people," Craig Gilbert, who works out of the Journal Sentinel Washington, D.C., bureau said about his newspaper's staffers. Gilbert called Sykes "a guy who takes sides in all these political battles" and said the radio host's show "certainly has an impact on the Republican party, all of the conservative talk, on Republican primaries. It's a venue where if you are a Republican politician, you can speak to your base in a sympathetic environment."
"I think there's probably people out there who feel we're this large cabal and that we're force-feeding our particular views on all our products," he said about Sykes' impact, later adding, "he does this show, I think it is highly, highly partisan, there is no mistaking where he is coming from. I think a lot of people, including journalists, feel that most of the time he is there just to repeat Republican Party talking points."
In just the last year, Sykes, 57, has used his platform to become a major voice in the nationally-followed recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and more recently has enjoyed access to GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose congressional district is just south of Sykes' home base.
A former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal (which merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995) and one time editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Sykes launched his radio show nearly 20 years ago on WTMJ. He also hosts a Sunday morning political talk show on WTMJ-TV and this year produced his sixth book A Nation of Moochers (St. Martin's Press, 2012).
But it may be Sykes' newest effort, the ambitious Conservative Politics Digital Project, which will extend his reach even further. The project, using the website RightWisconsin.com, seeks to take his outspoken conservative approach and expand it to many platforms, including podcasts, web columns, videos, and on-location events.
Given his recent high-profile connections to some of the country's conservative leaders -- and the backing of a communications company that owns 48 television and radio stations in 12 states -- observers say Sykes has the platform to push his far-right views nationally.
"He is a smart, ambitious guy and I would not be surprised to see him go beyond WTMJ," said Jim Romenesko, who runs an influential media news website and worked with Sykes at Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s. Asked if Sykes could reach that national level, Romenesko added, "I think so, he's smart, he's very quick and I think he has what it takes to really capture the audience's attention. He knows how to play that talk radio game."
An online ad for a managing editor of the Conservative Politics Digital Project indicates it will be a very direct effort to push a conservative message, describing it as "a new suite of digital products related to Charlie Sykes and targeted at Conservatives in Wisconsin."
Dozens of voter ID laws have been introduced in state legislatures over the past two years, including particularly strict measures passed in seven states in 2011 -- Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and Wisconsin. There is widespread evidence that this surge of voter ID laws stems from model legislation crafted in 2009 by a conservative group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But a Media Matters analysis has found that the largest newspapers in the seven states that enacted voter ID laws in 2011 have largely ignored ALEC's influence. Indeed, of the newspapers examined, only Rhode Island's Providence Journal mentioned any connection between the state's voter ID bill and ALEC.
The conservative media are cheerleading Wisconsin Republicans' use of questionable tactics to ram through a union-busting bill. However, when Democrats were in charge of Congress, they were consistently accused of subverting democracy or acting unconstitutionally, even though they were using well-established procedures to pass their agenda.
Numerous print media outlets reported that Sen. Barack Obama represented the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in the 1990s in a lawsuit, but they did not report that the Department of Justice was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit with the League of Women Voters and others. The lawsuit sought to require the state of Illinois to implement federal law on voter registration.