Burke campaign bars journalist from event with first lady; free press advocates cry foul


NOT ALLOWED IN: The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s campaign have barred Wisconsin Reporter from attending a political rally in Madison with first lady Michelle Obama.

By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Reporter was barred from covering a campaign rally Tuesday in Madison for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke and featuring first lady Michelle Obama.

Melissa Baldauff, communications director for the state Democratic Party, informed Wisconsin Reporter on Monday it wasn’t allowed to attend the event at the Overture Center because the online publication isn’t a legitimate news source.

This marks the second time in about a week the Burke camp has dictated press coverage of a campaign fundraiser in Wisconsin headlined by the first lady. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Meg Kissinger reported White House and Burke staff tried to block reporters from talking to crowd members Sept. 29 in Milwaukee.

Free press advocates denounced the decision.

Carol O’Leary, president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association board of directors, called the handling of Wisconsin Reporter’s request an assault on free press and criticized Obama and the Burke campaign for trying to control information released to the public.

“They are picking who they want to cover their stories … It’s not transparency,” O’Leary said.

The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which expressed disappointment with Burke and Obama for trying to prevent reporters from speaking to the audience in Milwaukee, supports wide media access to campaign functions.

“It seems to me that Wisconsin Reporter ought to be able to attend the event and report on it,” said Mark Pitsch, president of the local Society of Professional Journalists, a national journalism group.

Baldauff, who agreed to speak to Wisconsin Reporter on Monday outside the offices of the Democratic Party and Burke for Wisconsin, initially attributed the denial to a lack of space — even though a request for media credentials was submitted Saturday, shortly after the Burke campaign sent a news release outlining the logistics.

But that answer changed when Baldauff, who repeatedly declined to explain the process for selecting which media outlets can participate, was told Wisconsin Reporter would be doing a story on press being turned away from the political fundraiser.

“Well, you’re not the press though, so, thanks,” Baldauff said as she left the hallway and closed an office door.

Wisconsin Reporter, launched in 2011 by the nonprofit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is credentialed by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board to cover legislative sessions at the statehouse, and has been for years.

Wisconsin Reporter and the 27 other state news organizations under the Franklin Center umbrella have appeared on several national-reaching sites, including USA Today, Fox News, MSNBC.com, the Washington Times and Drudge Report.

“The problem with our political process is a lack of transparency, and the most recent move by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is an affront to free speech and the freedom of the press,” said Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center. “Having said that, I think we understand what’s at work here: Wisconsin Reporter has broken some of the most important stories in the state, not all of them comfortable for the Democratic Party leadership. We will continue to report the truth, and we won’t be deterred by petty, partisan politics.”

O’Leary, of the newspaper association, said limiting free press is a dangerous practice that can leave taxpayers and constituents in the dark.

“Not everybody reads the same information and goes to the same spots for their news, and if you’re cutting some out, it’s just selecting who you want to be reporting on you,” O’Leary said. “And I just can’t understand that.”

Burke, a Madison Metropolitan Board of Education member and former state commerce secretary, declined to explain why Wisconsin Reporter was banned from her rally with Obama. We approached her Monday outside of her campaign’s headquarters on North Pinckney Street.

“You know, I’m on the way to school board, and if I’m late, I have an issue there,” Burke said.

Robert Drechsel, a journalism professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and director the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics, told Wisconsin Reporter he can’t comprehend why the Burke campaign would bar certain media from Tuesday’s campaign rally, especially after the negative attention created at the Milwaukee event.

“I think it’s a very unfortunate thing,” Drechsel said. “It’s certainly not the call I would make.”

Maria Cristina “MC” Gonzalez Noguera, the first lady’s communications director, blamed the obstruction of reporters at the Milwaukee fundraiser on “an overzealous staff person,” according to Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl.

Even though Burke for Wisconsin spokesman Joe Zepecki called the Journal Sentinel newsroom to try to remove the press restriction references from Kissinger’s online story, Noguera said blocking reporters at an open press event was a mistake that won’t be repeated.

Wisconsin Reporter tried to contact the first lady’s press office to learn whether Michelle Obama’s staff was involved in selecting media to attend Tuesday’s rally, but those calls were not returned.

Burke trails Republican Gov. Scott Walker by 5 percent among likely voters in the latest Marquette University Law School poll.