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George Soros’ Influence on Wisconsin Journalism Exposed

We connect the dots between George Soros, Wisconsin’s flagship university and Wisconsin Watch.

Wisconsin Watch, a 501(c)(3) organization that disseminates news stories to many prominent media outlets statewide and is housed at the taxpayer-funded UW-Madison campus, has taken more than $1 million from an organization founded by George Soros over the years. Wisconsin Right Now discovered that the group is still prominently pushing out stories by a writer, Howard Hardee, who was dispatched to Wisconsin by a Soros-funded organization to work on “election integrity” stories and projects.

When major media outlets like WTM-TV and the Wisconsin State Journal run stories by Wisconsin Watch or Hardee, they fail to advise readers that he’s a fellow with a Soros-linked group. The group says that “hundreds” of news organizations have shared its stories over the years, giving them wide reach.

Several years ago, Republicans in the state Legislature tried to get the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which runs Wisconsin Watch, kicked out of its taxpayer-supported campus offices because of its long Soros’ money trail and perceived liberal bias. That effort failed due to Scott Walker’s veto pen. By 2016, Wisconsin Watch was claiming it no longer takes Soros money. The center’s deal with UW-Madison also involves providing “educational services” and offering paid student internships.

However, the group lists Hardee on its staff listing and runs his stories prominently and pushes them out to news outlets all over the state; the group he’s a fellow with, First Draft, received money in 2020 from a Soros’ group and other liberal organizations.

First Draft and Hardee are also part of a big collaboration on election reporting with UW-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that they’re calling an “Election Integrity Project.” Nowhere in their toolkit, which advises readers on how to avoid misinformation (one example it uses is from conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna), do readers or taxpayers learn about the partisan slant of First Draft’s funders, including Soros, or the Election Integrity Project’s funder, Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Hardee co-authored a Nov. 12 story that appeared to be trying to influence public opinion on the presidential election in Wisconsin and elsewhere by turning a factual story into a supposed conspiracy theory. That story misleadingly attempted to discredit factual reporting Wisconsin Right Now did on Milwaukee’s top elections official misplacing a key voting flash drive on election night. She did misplace it. She admitted it in a letter. The partisan spin attached to that story seemed obvious, so Wisconsin Right Now decided to look deeper into the funding sources of the groups.

The Nov. 12 story was written by “Howard Hardee (Wisconsin Watch) and Keenan Chen (First Draft).” It was the top story on Wisconsin Watch’s website for days. The story quotes a First Draft “writer and researcher” as saying “Readers should also be skeptical of a news source that isn’t completely transparent about how it’s funded.” (Wisconsin Right Now is completely self-funded.)

Wisconsin Right Now reached out to the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison and its School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and Meredith McGlone, the director of News & Media Relations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, got back to us. “UW–Madison is committed to providing our journalism students with a top-notch education that supports the principles of objectivity and transparency,” she said.

“The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. In keeping with journalistic best practices, the Center publicly shares where its funding comes from and does not allow funders to influence editorial decisions. ”

She added, “UW–Madison provides office space to WCIJ in exchange for WCIJ providing educational services and paid internships to UW–Madison students.  Regarding the Election Integrity Project, we are dedicated to ensuring that this and all other university research is objective and evidence based. The university receives funding support from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum. We have policies in place to prevent funders from inappropriately influencing research. The Election Integrity Project is a non-partisan effort funded by a grant from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies. This funding is disclosed on project materials posted to the Center for Journalism Ethics website.”

But how non-partisan is all of this really? Decide for yourself:

Big Spending to ‘Beat Trump’?

Wisconsin watch

The materials touting the Election Integrity Project claim it’s a “nonpartisan initiative of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW–Madison in collaboration with First Draft and with the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies.” A Wisconsin Newspaper Association article announcing the project says, “Howard Hardee, a former Wisconsin State Journal reporter and current local news fellow at First Draft News, will be the lead reporter on the project.” It also says it received $83,000 in funding from Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craig’s List, is a major Democratic donor, whose slew of donations to liberal campaigns include $100,000 in 2020 to the Biden Victory Fund. An August 2020 article in Forbes Magazine reported that Newmark, “the billionaire behind Craigslist is spending nearly $200 million to save journalism, beat President Trump and end information warfare.” Newmark makes his anti-Trump views obvious on social media.

McGlone insisted, “First Draft did not provide funding to the Election Integrity Project. First Draft is listed as a collaborator because it helped promote and distribute the project’s work.”

Hardee’s staff bio for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism calls him, “the election integrity reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a local fellow with the international journalism nonprofit First Draft News. ”

In March 2020, First Draft announced that Hardee was one of five fellows in key battleground states who would “work across the US to monitor mis- and disinformation online and provide training on best strategies to counter it.” The article says they “have received training and developed plans tailored to their five states…Embedded in their communities, each is working with a local media organization or collaboration.”

Materials from the election integrity project

Readers of the materials publicly presented by the Center for Journalism Ethics and Wisconsin Watch would not know that First Draft is funded by Soros unless they thought to drill down to First Draft’s own website funding page. Readers of Hardee’s Wisconsin Watch stories that are replicated by major news organizations all over the state face a similar lack of immediate transparency. Would any readers think to dig that far down? If you’re, say, a reader of WTMJ-TV’s story on its website, would you think to go to First Draft and find its funding page and then research the funders of the organizations listed? Would the average reader take that many steps or should the news organizations make the funding sources explicitly clear on their own websites? Again, you decide. Wisconsin Right Now did ask WTMJ-TV’s news director for comment and received none back.

Andy Hall, the co-founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, in an email response to Wisconsin Right Now’s questions, didn’t dispute any of the Soros’ funding, but he tried to explain it away by saying it didn’t influence coverage. “The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism stands by its 12-year record of journalistic independence and financial transparency,” he told Wisconsin Right Now.

Another “major supporter” of the Wisconsin Watch is The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times in Madison, which is a liberal newspaper. It also received money from the Ford Foundation, described by Influence Watch as having “given a great deal of money to left-wing and center-left organizations since its founding.”

Who Funds First Draft? Its Soros Money Trail

George soros

First Draft is funded in part by Soros’ “Open Society Foundations,” according to First Draft’s own website. The group received Open Society Foundations funding in 2020. Open Society Foundations lists Soros as “the founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations.”

The First Draft group also takes money from a foundation run by the parents of disgraced Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer; from Facebook and Google; and from other foundations known to donate to left-of-center causes, including Newmark’s. Influence Watch, which itself has been criticized for right-wing bias but is rated high on fact checking, says of one First Draft donor, Democracy Fund, “The organization contributes to center-left and left-wing media organizations, groups seeking to infringe on campaign speech rights, left-of-center voter registration organizations, and nominally non-aligned public policy organizations.” There are other examples like that on its donor list, such as the Media Democracy Fund, which Influence Watch describes as “a left-of-center activist organization” that is tied to left-wing “dark money” groups.

On its website, the group claims its mission as follows, “Today, we need access to the truth more than ever before. But in this polluted information environment, it’s never been harder to know what to trust, and never easier to be misled. Disinformation is targeting and damaging our communities, all around the world.”

Wisconsin Right Now asked Hall about this all too, and he responded, “First Draft’s funders are publicly available. Information about Mr. Hardee and the Center’s relationship with First Draft is published on our Staff and Funding pages. You may have also seen further information in our public announcement regarding our efforts to support election integrity and counteract efforts that could strip citizens of their power, and in these Election Integrity Project toolkits to help the public and journalists identify what’s credible and what’s not.”

He revealed that Wisconsin Watch stories are picked up by news organizations all over the state, writing, “Our journalism is nonpartisan and fact-checked. All of the stories published by Wisconsin Watch, the Center’s newsroom, are always available for free at WisconsinWatch.org. We make the materials available at no charge to news organizations, and hundreds of them have shared Wisconsin Watch’s reports with their audiences since we began operations in 2009. During that period, we have collaborated with dozens of news organizations. We always retain full journalistic independence.”

Indeed, this is a nationwide trend.  MRC reported that Soros has heavily funded non-profit “news” organizations, to the tune of at least $48 million. He’s also attempted to influence higher ed to combat what he sees as rising authoritarianism.

George Soros Backed Money to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism – How Much?

How much money has the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism/Wisconsin Watch taken from Soros backed organizations? Its website says:

“The Foundation to Promote Open Society, which works in cooperation with the Open Society Foundations in New York City, awarded the Center general support totaling $50,000 in 2009, $100,000 in 2010 (to be spread over two years), $35,000 in 2011, $350,000 in 2012 (to be spread over two years), $350,000 in 2014 (over two years) and $200,000 in 2016.”

That’s $1,085,000.

The website for the Open Society Foundations says, “The Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, are the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.” What is the Foundation to Promote Open Society? According to Influence Watch, “The Foundation to Promote Open Society (FPOS) is one of two major grantmaking foundations funded by liberal financier and billionaire George Soros. It is closely affiliated with the Open Society Foundations (OSF; formerly Open Society Institute).”

In 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “some 30% of the (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s) funding has come from Soros-funded entities.” At that time, a conservative writer had accused the Wisconsin center of skewing reporting on an altercation between liberal and conservative state Supreme Court justices in favor of the liberal’s perspective. Co-founder Andy Hall told the JS at that time that the Soros money came with no strings attached and other non-profit journalism orgs took it too.

“As you know from having read WCIJ’s Policy on Financial Support, it establishes and requires journalistic independence: ‘Like many news organizations, the Center maintains a firewall between news coverage decisions and its sources of revenue,'” Hall wrote Wisconsin Right Now. “WCIJ’s financial supporters shall have no voice in WCIJ’s editorial decisions. All donations, sponsorships and other forms of financial support are subject to compliance with the Policy on Financial Support, including provisions for transparency, the disclosure of donors’ identities, and the prohibition on donations from political parties, elected officials, or others whose contribution may affect public perception of WCIJ’s independence. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of the Center’s funders or their products, services or opinions.”

Hall responded, “In accord with that policy, WCIJ voluntarily makes public a complete list of donors — including the amounts of money provided by major contributors. We also publish our tax returns and audited financial statements.”

The Soros money has been controversial for some time. “Does anybody really believe this was not a George Soros operation from the get-go?” asked an opinion article in the Lakeland Times in 2011. That article continued:

After all, Charles Lewis, a board member from day one, has Soros connections way back to when he ran (and founded) the Soros-funded nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. WCIJ board chairman Brant Houston also has connections to Soros as chairman of the board of the Investigative News Network, another Soros-backed operation, and he’s cofounder of the global Investigative Journalism Network, which has received consistent support from the Open Society Institute, according to its website. So the Soros money was bound to cascade into the WCIJ from the very beginning. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as there’s full disclosure, but there wasn’t full disclosure at the start, just the opposite.

The article by Richard Moore alleged the Wisconsin Watch stories focus on “topics that careen leftward.”

Who is behind Wisconsin Watch? Wisconsin Watch’s managing editor and co-founder is Dee Hall, the former Madison newspaper reporter whose reporting on the state caucus scandal, which targeted Republican legislative leaders Scott Jensen and Mick Foti in part, but also Democratic leader Chuck Chvala, was widely criticized by conservatives as biased. Her husband, Andy Hall, helps run and co-founded the site.

The Misleading Wisconsin Watch Story on the Flash Drive

Wisconsin Watch wrote its revealingly misleading narrative on Wisconsin Right Now’s story, that factually reported the news that Milwaukee’s top election official had misplaced a key election flash drive. The official herself later admitted that what Wisconsin Right Now reported was true in a letter to the Wisconsin Election Commission.

That wasn’t good enough for Wisconsin Watch, which seems to be opining in its story that it isn’t news that Milwaukee’s top elections chief briefly couldn’t find a flash drive with voter information and later blamed it on the Legislature requiring her to stay up for 24 hours on election day.

They ignore completely the angle that police officers felt they were being intimidated to stay silent and make a big deal out of Wisconsin Right Now factually reporting that, at the time of the story, no one would comment. The angle that the Elections chief later claimed in a letter that the misplacement didn’t affect the election wasn’t known to our reporter at the time of publication… because she, the Police Department, and the mayor’s office wouldn’t comment. Wisconsin Right Now pointing out that key sources wouldn’t comment in a brick wall of silence is painted as somehow “conspiratorial” by Wisconsin Watch, even though it’s responsible journalism to let readers know who you tried to reach for comment. It all builds up to obvious spin that any election claims must be treated as instantly suspect or conspiratorial.

In contrast, Wisconsin Right Now has published stories debunking false election claims, and we’ve reported, without spin, facts readers deserve to know – such as on the misplaced flash drive.

Wisconsin Watch then censored author Jim Piwowarczyk’s full response after Howard Hardee asked for comment.

This is what Piwowarczyk wrote Hardee, but Hardee censored and refused to run:

Wisconsin Watch is revealing its political bias despite its 501(c)(3) status. You’re just editorializing now and subjectively reading things into our story that aren’t there to spin and shape your own political narrative. In contrast to Wisconsin Watch, our story is built on verified facts that not a single person, including you, has disputed. Nowhere in our story did we ever say the flash drive was “tampered with.” For you to read that subjective accusation into a paragraph that simply informs readers that the key players in the story refused to provide any information or comment is evidence of blatant bias on your part. We don’t have any further comment because it’s clear you’re just trying to spin a narrative here.

Wisconsin Right Now asked Hall about the ethics of censoring Piwowarczyk’s full response. “In a recent report, we quoted you accurately, summarizing your position,” he said. “We stand by the story.”

Interestingly, Wisconsin Watch takes election officials’ word for it that the flash drive situation didn’t affect vote totals. Although Wisconsin Right Now haven’t implied and aren’t saying otherwise, we would note that it’s interesting an “investigative journalism” site would simply take government officials’ word for it, especially the very official who misplaced it in the first place. Checking the rhetoric of government officials, rather than treating it as unquestioning gospel, is supposed to be a foundational principle of investigative journalism.

Indeed, the Wisconsin Election Commission spokesman, who is quoted by Wisconsin Watch on the misplaced flash drive, is also a financial donor to Wisconsin Watch. Hardee didn’t disclose this information in the story. Wisconsin Watch posts its tax returns on its site, but stopped with 2018.

For days, the media ignored the misplaced flash drive story until the election chief finally wrote a letter admitting that everything we wrote was true – she misplaced the drive. This wasn’t good enough for Wisconsin Watch, which subjectively opined that WRN “implied” the misplaced flash drive equated to voter fraud. We did no such thing. Our story reported non-disputed facts.

Which is news and which is opinion, in that context?

Wisconsin Watch Past Biased Coverage?


Wisconsin Watch claims on its website that it maintains a “firewall” between its funding sources and news coverage, insisting, “funders exercise no control over the Center’s editorial decision,” but others have detected bias in its coverage.

In 2018, Badger Institute pointed out that readers of news sites that run Wisconsin Watch’s stories wouldn’t know that it has received so much money from Soros over the years. Badger Institute’s story reported that Soros’ funded groups have given money to other non-profit journalism ventures throughout the United States.

“Despite receiving much of their funding from left-leaning individuals and organizations, most nonprofit journalism operations, such as WCIJ (Wisconsin Watch) and ProPublica, say they are independent and not influenced by donors. Yet over and over, their articles are closely aligned with causes and political viewpoints of its donors, including those of Soros,” the site wrote, noting that Wisconsin Watch stopped taking Soros money in 2016.

One project on Wisconsin Watch’s website about Scott Walker was described by it as, “a collection of the Center’s coverage of Walker’s time as governor, from his attack on public sector unions to his record on the environment.”

Concluded Badger Institute, which has received heavy funding from the Bradley Foundation, “WCIJ is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it cannot directly engage in campaigning or electioneering. However, the group is legally allowed to have a perspective, and its stories reflect that… Coverage has been decidedly critical of Walker’s administration.”

Wisconsin Watch has collaborated with the liberal Huffington Post on a reporting project. It has run headlines that say things like this:

October 2018 story headlined, “As Trump Disparages Immigrants, Midwest Dairy Farmers Build Bridges to Mexico.”

October 2017 story headlined, “Secret corporate cash funded posh convention hideaway for Paul Ryan, GOP lawmakers.”

Those are just a couple of examples.

They also ran a guest column from a writer who opined, “we must continue to be vigilant in the face of Trump’s tendency, first as a candidate and now as president, to engage in bombast and exaggeration.”

Wisconsin Right Now asked Hall about bias claims, and he responded, “We invite the public to read, listen to and watch our news coverage, and to hold us accountable if they perceive a story to be inaccurate or unfair.”

You be the judge.

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