[updated] Free speech, the spin machine and the MacIver Institute: an open letter to the Cap Times

21 March 2012
Sometimes thinking and tanking go hand in hand. Image.
Dear Capital Times editors,

I am curious as to why the Dustin Beilke piece on the MacIver institute ("Beware of the MacIver spin machine") lived such a short life on your page

I have been following this little drama with interest over the past couple days, as the post came and went, and was relieved to see this morning that it had made it past the blog round and into your forum.  This relief was immediately troubled, however, by how quickly it was removed, and I would like to suggest that this removal lends unwarranted credibility to the contention that there was anything wrong with the opinion Mr. Beilke put forth in his post.

I read the piece and found it said nothing that had not been said (and published) many times of the well-catalogued and undeniable bias of the alleged "think tank," and was only defamatory in that the facts of this case point to the obvious conclusion Beilke puts forth: the MacIver Institute is a very thinly veiled propaganda arm of the Republican Party, masquerading as a "news" outlet.  If the facts of this case are inherently defamatory, that does not mean they are untrue; Mr. Beilke is merely the messenger.

I hope that you have not bowed to the specious and unsubstantiated claims of "libel" that James Widgerson so vaingloriously delivered yesterday.  I would hope, rather, that you examine the piece of its own merits and err on the side of recognizing freedom of expression and freedom of press.  If the MacIver Institute is free to spin every story into Governor Walker's favor, Mr. Beilke should be equally free to point out the obvious fact that they are doing so.

Thank you, and I look forward to sharing this story with all my friends when it reappears (hopefully soon) on your site.

Heather DuBois Bourenane

UPDATE ( 21 March 2012): The Dustin Beilke is now published here on Citizen Action of Wisconsin for those who would like to see what all the hullabaloo is about.



Update #2 (22 March 2012): Response from the Cap Times


The Cap Times was quick to respond, and I have to admit, they have a compelling reason for pulling the piece in light of the reasons explained by editor Chris Murphy. Frankly, I find the errors minor and more a question of While I still hope they follow up on this story (which has become even more of a sensation following today's publication of 9 facts and a note of opinion by Blogging Blue), I can see now why they withdrew the original post. I was concerned that pulling the piece gives unnecessary (and inaccurate) leverage to the MacIver Institute, but wonder now if perhaps pulling the story isn't actually the best and only way to deal with it, as opposed to giving MacIver an open platform for providing their counter-argument and watching the fireworks explode.
Several of us heard from both Brian Fraley and James Wigderson about factual problems with the piece. In particular, they said that it has been some time since Fraley lobbied for the insurance industry and that Wigderson denied being part of an ongoing Republican GOTV operation aimed at suppressing Democratic votes. Dustin apparently agreed that these were problematic because he removed both statements from a revised version of his piece.
It's true that neither of these assertions was central to Dustin's real thesis -- that the MacIver Institute is operated by people with long and deep ties to the Republican Party and so it should therefore not be treated as an objective source of news -- but it's my experience that the main point gets lost when there are problems with the facts. If Dustin had been working for us or if we had commissioned the piece from him, we might have had him correct it and then explain to readers what was going on, but the fact was that the piece had already appeared elsewhere and the discussion about its aftermath was going on elsewhere, too. Rather than devote a lot of staff time to a piece that wasn't ours and that was already proving to be problematic, we decided to just take it down.
I don't think doing so implies that we are any less skeptical of the institute than we have been in the past. In recent weeks, we have taken sharp editorial stances toward them ourselves (http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/editorial/john-maciver-would-not-approve-of-the-distortions-being-made/article_ffed9605-5e89-5055-afba-075116a09a11.html) and allowed others to question their operation as well (http://host.madison.com/ct/news/opinion/column/bill-lueders-ad-campaign-comes-close-to-the-line/article_1f10c87c-2cdb-11e1-adfc-0019bb2963f4.html). We won't have any hesitation about doing so in the future either, but we'd like the ensuing conversation to be about the merit of the arguments and not whether the underlying facts are correct. 
Chris Murphy, Managing Editor, The Capital Times.

So thanks to the Cap Times editors for allaying my fears and for being a steady voice of reason as we've all struggled to come to terms with the assaults on democracy and free speech in Wisconsin. I will never forget this piece in particular, from September 2011: "The Epic Arrogance of Scott Walker." This was the piece that inspired me to write an open letter to Brian Williams, which led to going on the Ed Show (and calling Scott Walker a tooljob on national tv), getting a death threat, speaking at the November rally, and generally coming to terms with the fact that if I don't do everything I can, I'll never shake the feeling that I haven't done anything at all. So thanks, Cap Times, and even if you don't publish the revised piece, I look forward to your continued exposure of MacIver's curious disregard for objectivity.

13 comments:

  1. Good points - here's a few more. Libel is a false statement of fact which is defamatory (ie damages one's reputation). Dustin's letter is an opinion piece. It also says nothing false. And the parties mentioned have such poor reputations there is nothing to damage. I am amazed that the CaptTImes would pay any attention to the little people at MacIver who are whining about this.

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, it's a fallacy to believe that the people behind MacIver are 'little people.' Oh, Wiggy may be, as well as the other day-to-day staffers. But at least two members of MI's Board of Directors are MAJOR players in the Koch's personal sphere of priveleged 1%ers out to buy our democracy (Kuehne and Fettig.) This outfit was set up and funded by Koch et al to help prop up their right-wing agenda and chosen political puppets in Wisconsin. They don't like being exposed for the propaganda factory that they are.

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  2. So, do I understand this correctly: a blogger is accused of being a closet Republican, and that blogger then claims he's been libeled? I can certainly empathize with the shame he must be feeling, but as they say, truth is an absolute defense against a charge of libel.

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  3. No one expects an absence of errors. We've all seen slipshod opinion pieces as well as news items. The proper response is a correction, not "toss it down the Memory Hole" or threaten to sue. In response to the MacIver claims of the falsehoods, BloggingBlue quickly removed and retracted it. In response to a phone call from MacIver, the Cap Times pulled it as well.

    I have a copy of Bielke's piece as it once appeared on BloggingBlue and at the Cap Times web site. Would you like me to post it as a comment, so we can discuss it? I don't see MacIver stepping forward to have a civil discussion about it.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, John. A friend just informed me that the piece has been reposted on the Citizen Action of Wisconsin page (http://citizenactionwi.org/myblog/beware-of-the-maciver-spin-machine.html) so I added an update with the link above if anyone wants to read it.

      I agree; if there are errors in the piece they should be corrected, not withdrawn from public view.

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    2. As far as I can tell - and I asked them repeatedly for details - MacGyver's beef is that the writer repeats all the scuzzy stuff its personnel have been involved with over the years in the present tense.

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    3. If it's really the ORIGINAL original I, for one, would like to see it. I've seen the various versions as they've made their rounds, and if the Citizen Action version is the real deal, I honestly cannot fathom what Widgerson has his undies in a bundle about.

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    4. I've since learned that Bielke has revised his piece and re-sent it to the same mailing list he used the first time. So now there's another version, with tenses changed as Gnarly suggests.

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  5. Thanks for posting that Heather... Um, this was the "libel" that Mr. Widgerson was complaining to bitterly about? Really? Goodness.

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