Credit: Flickr/Alan Levine

When last I looked in
on the Illinois Radio Network, the reputation of the venerable news service had just been compromised. In late December the radio network was turned over to the Illinois Policy Institute, a champion of “free market principles” and the beneficiary of $625,000 in grants from Governor Bruce Rauner’s family foundation. If dispassionate reporting was the commodity peddled by the network, advocacy is the institute’s reason for being. Putting the two of them together didn’t look to me like much of a fit.

It still doesn’t.

Charlie Ferguson, the network’s president and general manager, said at the time of the sale that he was sure IRN “will continue to deliver an unbiased news product”—but Ferguson’s no longer a part of the operation. Neither are the two reporters he oversaw in Springfield and Chicago. They’ve been succeeded by young men with immoderate views. 

IPI tries to make its views felt in two arenas: the political process and public opinion. To those ends, it maintains a strong media presence. In addition to its own staff writers, for the past four years IPI has operated the Illinois News Network, whose role is to shine a light “on public policies that affect the residents of Illinois,” particularly on issues “relating to economic policy and government activities.” Editors generally understand this to be a partisan light—the news network, after all, gives away its stories; the point is to have them used.

The radio network, on the other hand, has been around more than 30 years, charging subscribers for straightforward radio feeds on breaking state news. Which means that within the folds of IPI, the radio network and the news network coexist like apples and oranges—and the apples are crushing the oranges into pulp. 

Thanks largely to having its own website, the radio network barely clings to a separate identity. But nobody pretends it’s an autonomous operation. The policy institute website says the radio network has “joined INN’s growing news service,” and includes IRN’s 39 client stations among the 256 media outlets outlets it says INN serves. INN and the radio network now have a common executive editor—Lori Browning, a former editorial page editor in downstate Belleville.  

Last month newspaper editors around Illinois received an e-mail from Browning introducing herself as the INN’s new head. She touted INN’s “solid reporting and commentary offerings,” promised “more unique watchdog and in-depth journalism from us,” and introduced a new “weekly opinion column for your use.” INN’s old columnist had been Scott Reeder, Browning’s predecessor as executive director. He’s quit to write a book (though he’ll continue to write occasional op-eds for the Sun-Times). 

Reeder’s successor, Austin Berg, an IPI staff writer, seems fully capable of filling Reeder’s shoes as a champion of the views of Governer Rauner. Seeking the slant of Berg’s mind, I came across a recent piece on “Rauner’s sensible budget proposals”—Berg calls them “reason for optimism in the Land of Lincoln.”

In such tendentious new company, could the Illinois Radio Network’s modest operation possibly remain uncompromised? Soon after IPI took it over, the radio network’s reporters in Chicago and Springfield both were doing something else. Dave Dahl in Springfield quit to work full-time for a local radio station, WTAX, where he’d already been moonlighting. John Gregory in Chicago says: “”Disagreeing with the network’s coverage of certain topics was the reason given when I was fired.” Gregory is now freelancing.

Now meet the replacements.

The new man in Chicago, Julio Rausseo, has kept such lively company in the past that the radio network might be the most mainstream forum he’s ever turned up in. Here he is in 2012 on the Corbett Report discussing the “police state takedown” of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago. (If you’re not familiar with the Corbett Report, judge it by one of its high water marks: a breathless, five-minute argument for 9/11 as a massive conspiracy and coverup.) And here’s Rausseo talking about a favorite bête noir, the Transportation Security Agency—four years ago with Alex Jones, the radio and TV host and self-described “icon of the burgeoning liberty movement,” and last December on The Rundown Live, an alt-news website whose founder lists as his concerns “9/11 Truth and government corruption,” “promoting anarchist philosophy,” and “cop watching.”

On his own blog, I found Rausseo fretting about the 2012 Republican race for president. It apparently amused him to call Mitt Romney “Willard” (his Christian name); it amused me that he raised the specter of the Bilderbergers, a group whose 15 minutes as the world’s evilest cabal of billionaire intriguers expired decades ago:

Will Ron [Paul] be next to publicly endorsement [sic] Willard for President? Will Rand [Paul] help Willard reel in votes from the liberty movement? . . . Only time will tell, but coming off the Bilderberg group meetings two weeks ago, Romney will be nothing more than a puppet similar to the man currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvanian Avenue. 

IRN’s new man in Springfield, Greg Bishop, joined the Illinois Policy Institute in 2014 to run the Illinois News Network’s radio operation. He’d been a reporter and radio host on WMAY-AM 970 in Springfield, where according to a 2014 profile in Springfield’s State-Journal Register, he didn’t try to play it down the middle. “Back in 2012,” wrote reporter Bernard Schoenburg, “Bishop made no secret of his support for Ron Paul for president. He got himself named as a delegate to the state Republican convention that year, even as he was reporting on Springfield city government and other news and doing a talk show. One of the issues he pushed at that convention, he told me later, was a right-to-work resolution saying public sector employees shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues.”

“Taxation is slavery,” Bishop said in 2013. “If you don’t pay, they’re coming after you with guns.” He was “sick of my taxes being used to fund

I hoped to hear from Bishop and Rausseo about their current assignments. Bishop said he’d be happy to talk, but my request needed to be cleared with his bosses. I wrote to both Browning and Diana Rickert, IPI’s vice president of communications, and I got nowhere. Rickert told me I was on a “fishing expedition.” 

Earlier, though, she and I had had a lively exchange about Rausseo. I said his preoccupation with the Bilderbergs and “Willard Romney” struck me as “not only opinionated but eccentric.”

Rickert came right back at me. “It appears you found one blog mentioning the Bildebergs yet you’re quickly calling that an ‘obsession,'” said her e-mail. (Actually, I hadn’t. I’d used that word about his fixation with the TSA.) “According to the Chicago Reader website, you’ve written more than six articles mentioning Bruce Rauner in the past year,” Rickert went on. “By your standards, are you ‘obsessed’ with him?

“As to the interview,” she went on, referring to Rausseo’s interview with Alex Jones, “Julio was asked to be on the show so he gave an interview. Not to mention this was four years ago when Julio was not working for a news organization. Does giving an interview = questionable company? Does my talking to you mean that I also am keeping questionable company?”

So touché! Rickert sent me links to three recent stories Rausseo reported for the Illinois Radio Network—here, and here, and here—and I couldn’t find fault with any of them. Rickert followed up a few days later with a second e-mail:

“Certainly the Illinois News Network has its work cut out for it if reporters like you are spending two weeks investigating other reporters, instead of our city and state governments that are covered in red ink.”

Rickert’s lively defense of her operation was in the best tradition of the pugnacious flack. But on second thought, flack is the wrong word. In an earlier era, a reporter was one thing and a flack was another, just as a news operation such as the Illinois Radio Network was one thing and a lobbying operation such as the Illinois Policy Institute was another. But the lines have hopelessly blurred.

Rickert, for instance, may be a flack, but as a sideline she writes op-ed columns for the Tribune (as Scott Reeder continues to do for the Sun-Times). Those columns are worthy enough that Rickert is a finalist for one of the Lisagor Awards the Chicago Headline Club will be giving out in May. And as further evidence of the proficiency of the IPI media operation, Austin Berg’s a Lisagor finalist for best blog post; Berg and two IPI colleagues are in the running for best short film documentary; and Eric Allie is a finalist for best editorial cartoon. An IPI staff project is a finalist for “best use of features video.” 

If so much splendid journalism is coming out of the Illinois Policy Institute, what’s the problem?

Consider a story Bishop wrote for the Illinois Radio Network the other day about Lou Lang’s graduated income tax proposal. Lang’s deputy majority leader of the Illinois house. The current flat tax rate in Illinois is 3.75 percent. Lang suggested starting it at 3.5 percent and climbing to 9.75 percent on income above $1 million.

Bishop rounded up prominent critics. The president of the Tax Federation of Illinois predicted high earners would move their money out of the state. Rauner’s press secretary produced a statement predicting a graduated tax would be “the straw that breaks the Illinois economy’s back.”

Who spoke in favor of Lang’s proposal? Apparently Bishop couldn’t find anybody. But give him credit. At least he didn’t quote the CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute—who hates the idea.