What We Won’t See With WisconsinEye

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

From the September, 2004 edition of The Valley Scene

Five years ago, WisconsinEye Public Affairs Television Network proposed the development of a C-Span style channel for Wisconsin. All cable customers would see gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Wisconsin legislature. Seven former governors including Tommy Thompson support the concept. He praised WisconsinEye in his final State of the State Address.

WisconsinEye, a nonprofit corporation, is the brainchild of Jeff Roberts and John Henkes. Roberts is a former Capitol reporter and cofounder of the Wisconsin Radio Network. Former reporter Henkes was a media relations consultant for the UW System and served as Tommy Thompson’s first press secretary. The duo have not requested public money to get the network on the air. Instead they have raised private funds from the likes of the Kohler Trust, the Bradley Foundation, Xcel Energy and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. They need to raise $10 million in order to get off the ground by the start of the next legislative session in January. Revenue drawn from cable subscription would sustain the operation in the future.

True to form, the Wisconsin legislature and Doyle Administration have done everything possible to prevent WisconsinEye from becoming a reality. Doyle’s Department of Administration in October of 2003 released 15 pages of rules governing the broadcast. Included were requirements that only legislative committee chairs can decide who gets screen time. Additionally, WisconsinEye may broadcast only “professional, dignified and nonpartisan” activity and seek to prevent “arbitrary reaction shots.”

Then in August of this year the press reported that state officials were taking a “tough stance” in negotiations with WisconsinEye, going as far as to propose a ban on “potentially embarrassing shots of lawmakers.” Rep. John Townsend (R-Fond du Lac) said that embarrassing shots would include lawmakers shown sleeping in the chambers. Townsend claims that the conditions are designed to uphold the decorum and safety of the chamber and “would not prohibit broadcast of anything said in debate. We're not talking about anything that relates to censorship."

Isn’t that reassuring?

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Mike McCabe suggests that the lawmakers’ stalling has to do with fear of what the cameras might show the voters back home. He writes: “If WisconsinEye’s cameras were rolling unfiltered, people could see the shameful way ‘public hearings’ are routinely being conducted in the Capitol. They could watch their elected representatives allow special interest lobbyists to yammer on for 30 minutes or more about the merits of bills the lobbyists themselves wrote, while ordinary citizens who in some cases travel for hours to attend the hearing are forced to wait hours more, and then are rudely interrupted and finally cut off after no more than five minutes of testimony.”

Even if WisconsinEye does eventually get on the air, don’t expect that we will see anything even close to resembling “democracy in action.” That’s because the Wisconsin legislature allows representatives to go into closed partisan caucus sessions to hash out major policy decisions. The proposed agreement with WisconsinEye specifically rules out broadcast of the proceedings of closed partisan caucuses, "except at the invitation of the caucus." Such an invitation is about as likely as the legislature passing real campaign finance reform. That is, not very likely.

The existence of the closed partisan caucuses makes a mockery of the values of open government promoted by WisconsinEye. McCabe told Don Huebscher of the Eau-Claire Leader Telegram that secrecy is common: “A lot of the business that the public ought to be privy to is done behind closed doors . . . The opportunity for meaningful public input is almost nonexistent. Deals are struck in leaders’ offices and party caucuses. The public has no access to those places.”

Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin offers a more blunt assessment: “In 1977, Wisconsin had the cleanest elections and the most honest and untainted public policymaking process in the nation. Today, our politics are conducted in a special interest cesspool, and public policy is made behind closed doors with a campaign cash register. Even the Chicago Tribune has taken notice of the ongoing mess here.”

The fact of the matter is that even if WisconsinEye gets off the ground, we will not be able to watch the legislature’s most dastardly deeds. The mislabeled “Job Creation Act,” for example, was written by a handful of business lobbyists in concert with the governor’s office and a handful of legislators. After a public outcry against the original bill, the governor sent negotiators back into secret session to work out a “compromise.” Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said of the resulting bill, “Not only did those interested in the bill have but one working day to digest and study its multitudinous provisions, but legislative leaders refused to allow an opportunity for further public comment and testimony in regard to the changes that had been made.” WisconsinEye will be of limited value if all it can show us is brief, partisan debates filled with lobbyist inspired talking points worked out in secret.

In July Jeff Roberts said that if the legislature does not act soon, WisconsinEye could be doomed: "I don't think we could even possibly go another six months or even three months (without a contract). We need to have a deal." Too bad that even if the network does begin broadcasting, it won’t cure the disease of secrecy that ails the legislature.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.

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