Friday, December 22, 2006

Big Radio Backs Down

Chalk one up for the power of protest. The news is spreading this morning that media conglomerate Clear Channel is reversing its decision to replace the progressive talk radio format on Madison's WXXM 92.1 FM "The Mic" with sports programming.

We blogged on this back in mid-November and urged people to join the protest, which included a petition drive, a December 12 rally that drew an overflow crowd and street theater in the form of a mock funeral procession to deliver the more than 5,000 petition signatures in support of keeping progressive talk on The Mic.

It worked. Clear Channel backed down. Citizens struck a blow for holding corporate media accountable for using the public's airwaves in a way that serves the public interest and respects local community wishes and needs. What happened here will send ripples across the country.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Necessary But Insufficient

Editorial reaction to last week's announcement of a bipartisan agreement on ethics reform has ranged from "it's about time" to "good first step" to "OK fine, but don't you dare think you're done."

Our sentiments exactly.

Ethics enforcement reform is long, long overdue. And it is sorely needed. But even if the governor and legislative leaders make good on their promise to act in early January to cement in place ethics reforms as strong or stronger than those spelled out in their agreement in principle, it won't be enough to restore Wisconsin's good name. Not nearly enough.

Without lobbying reform and campaign finance reform that put an end to vending machine electioneering and lawmaking, the Capitol will remain an ethical swamp.

Ethics enforcement reform and these other essential reforms go hand in hand. Wisconsin could enact the finest campaign and lobbying reforms in the land, but they won't be worth the paper they're written on if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced. Wisconsin's existing enforcement agencies haven't effectively administered or aggressively enforced our old laws. There is nothing in their track records to inspire confidence that they would do any better with new laws. Yet even a politically independent new enforcement authority with real teeth could only do so much if left to administer and enforce campaign finance and lobbying laws that have been shot full of holes.

The promised January special session on ethics reform will be a good warm-up act, but the main event will be the fight for campaign finance reform and lobbying reform. Predictably, the big business lobby described in the criminal complaint against Scott Jensen as one of the "four horsemen" – a reference to the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who signal the end of the world – is making it clear it likes things exactly the way they are. In a lengthy article in Monday's Wisconsin State Journal, one of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce's talking heads is quoted repeating for the gazillionth time his group's defense of legalized extortion and bribery. What WMC's argument boils down to is this: Money is speech. Secrecy is freedom.

Ethics enforcement reform alone won't drain the ethical swamp because the biggest problems don't have anything to do with activities that are against the law. The real scandal in Wisconsin politics is what's perfectly legal.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Law Doesn't Matter To 'All Children Matter'

One of the phoniest of the many phony front groups that now dot Wisconsin's political landscape, All Children Matter, is in hot water because of campaign literature it circulated in the 21st Senate District in an unsuccessful attempt to influence the outcome of that key Racine-area senate race.

The group's literature said there are "over $12 BILLION reasons to vote against (Democratic candidate) John Lehman," prompting a complaint to the state Elections Board that All Children Matter engaged in illegal electioneering by explicitly telling people how to vote without first registering as a political action committee and disclosing its fundraising and spending as required by state law.

Everything from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the Elections Board's own rules make it plain that using the words "vote against" qualify election lit or other campaign advertising as electioneering communications that are subject to all the disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits in state law. All Children Matter seemed to acknowledge it stepped over the line when it hastily registered as a PAC in Wisconsin three days after the complaint was filed.

Leave it to Elections Board legal counsel George Dunst to introduce doubt where there is none. In a memo urging board members to take no action against All Children Matter, Dunst wrote: "The statement 'There are $12 BILLION reasons to vote against John Lehman,' is the same as saying: 'Here is why I, and many others, are not voting for John Lehman,' but it is NOT the same as saying: 'You ought not to vote for John Lehman' or 'Don't vote for John Lehman!' The call to action in the first message – the advocacy in the message – may be inferred from my speech, but an inference is not enough. The advocacy must be express."

Fortunately, no one on the Elections Board took Dunst seriously. They agreed across party lines that All Children Matter's literature was indeed electioneering that should be fully disclosed and paid for in a way that is in keeping with Wisconsin's campaign finance laws. And they gave the group until January to fully explain who sponsored the anti-Lehman flier before taking enforcement action.

There is no question that All Children Matter violated state campaign finance laws. The only question is the severity of the violation. At a bare minimum, the group unlawfully engaged in electioneering without the authority to do so under Wisconsin law. The cancelled check the Elections Board has requested showing who paid for ACM's flier will show whether more serious offenses – such as filing a false report or using illegal campaign contributions – were committed that could result in criminal charges.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Honoring Comstockery

A Catholic bishop orders all the priests in his diocese to play a recording of his sermon on gay marriage, the death penalty and stem cell research at Sunday Mass. He forbids any "verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement" with his message. Naturally the bishop is given a free speech award by a civil rights group.

If only Anthony Comstock were still alive. He'd be smiling....