UPDATED to reflect comments issued by WISC-TV after this report was first released.
By: Brian Sikma
A growing media flap is developing in Wisconsin as more members of the press and employees of news organizations are found to have signed recall petitions. The latest incident involves Rob Starbuck, a morning news anchor for WISC-TV, a CBS affiliate, in Madison. Starbuck and fellow WISC-TV employee Nan Roach appear to have signed petitions to force a recall of Governor Scott Walker.
After Media Trackers reported the signings, Colin Benedict, news director for WISC-TV finally responded to Media Trackers’ inquiries. He told Media Trackers that when he learned of the events he immediately “took action” and made sure “additional steps” were implemented in the newsroom process to prevent conflicts of interest in political reporting. “I directed that [Starbuck] not participate in any interviews related to the recall elections,” he said. Benedict also clarified that the signing was in violation of the station’s policy for newsroom employees.
Ms. Roach is not covered by newsroom policies even though she works for the station. Earlier in the week when Gannett Wisconsin Media owned up to its own employees who signed recall petitions, they appeared to draw no distinction between newsroom and non-newsroom staff.
Mr. Starbuck and Ms. Roach refused to comment about their signature on the recall petitions.
Starbuck is the husband of Wisconsin Public Radio host Joy Cardin. This writer has appeared on her show before and found her to be a fair and balanced interviewer.
Petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker and other Republican officials were circulated for just over 60 days starting in mid-November. The petitions are a matter of public record in much the same way that a campaign contribution might be. Unlike a voter registration form which merely enables a person to exercise their right to vote, recall petitions are comparable to a form of political speech indicating that the signer has an opinion about the political controversy surrounding the individual targeted by the recall effort.
On Sunday, Gannett Media Wisconsin voluntarily stepped forward to say that 25 of their employees at newspapers across Wisconsin signed recall petitions in a violation of the company’s stated policy. Gannett’s investigative team reported last week that 29 circuit court judges in Wisconsin signed recall petitions. That news caused a firestorm of controversy with judicial ethics experts and at least one national organization roundly condemning the judges who put their names behind a perceived partisan effort.
Members of the Gannett investigative news team were not among the employees who signed recall petitions, but the company is refusing to release the names and specific job positions of the employees who did engage in the political action.
Perhaps no other state political scene in America has been as volatile and intriguing as Wisconsin in the past year and a half. Even the GOP presidential race, a matter of anticipated interest in states across the country, has managed to sweep into Wisconsin almost unawares amidst the busyness of state politics. With judges, reporters and now a news anchor in the state capitol media market signing recall petitions, public confidence in any perceived impartial institutions may be at an all time low.