Consider the following fighting words. They’re the end-of-year message from the executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute to the friends of IPI.
Kristina Rasmussen suggested one last financial contribution “before we close out our year. . . . Your donation will go straight toward our efforts to fight business as usual in Springfield and to unleash opportunity for Illinois taxpayers and businesses.”
With your help, said Rasmussen, 2016 might prove “even better” than 2015—when IPI “weakened Illinois House of Representatives Speaker Mike Madigan’s hold on Illinois, fought against powerful unions, debunked the progressive rhetoric about Illinois’ economy, and helped launch local Right to Work in Illinois.”
Doesn’t this list sound a lot like Bruce Rauner’s agenda as governor of Illinois? Could it also be the language of journalism? Could it be both? Founded in 2002, IPI is a nonprofit that says it “generates marketable policy solutions to unleash Illinois’ talent and entrepreneurial ability,” and Rauner’s family foundation has given it some $625,000. The foundation turned off the tap when Rauner became a candidate for governor.
Bold new ideas don’t matter much if no one knows what they are. IPI offers content to media outlets around the state, and among the news shops that take advantage of it is the Sun-Times. It carries op-eds by Scott Reeder, executive editor of IPI’s media arm, the Illinois News Network. The Tribune buys op-eds written for it exclusively by Diana Rickert, who’s IPI’s vice president of communications. Both champion Rauner; when former governor Jim Edgar accused Rauner of intransigence last October, the Sun-Times carried a Reeder piece that mocked compromise and said that when Edgar was governor house speaker Mike Madigan “played him for a fool.”
Editor’s notes after both writers’ op-eds report their affiliation with IPI, but neither describes IPI or mentions the governor’s past role in helping to bankroll it. When I inquired, Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of the Tribune, and Jim Kirk, editor in chief of the Sun-Times, raised the same point: that Rauner no longer underwrites the operation. Journalism operates under a pretty elementary theory of what constitutes a conflict of interest: who paid what to whom yesterday and the day before doesn’t matter much. If Rauner were still giving to IPI, Kirk said, Reeder wouldn’t be in the paper. Dold said Rauner “isn’t in any remote fashion underwriting the work she does for the Tribune.”
Rickert and Reeder show up in the dailies in the first place because they offer partisan opinions forcefully expressed—take ’em or leave ’em. But the matter of the governor, IPI, and advocacy journalism can get more complicated than that—and it just did.
The PI’s media arm, the Illinois News Network, has a checkered reputation: it offers free news stories to anyone who wants them and hires reporters with pedigrees, but its reporters aren’t even allowed in the press boxes of the Illinois house and senate, on grounds that they work for lobbyists, not legitimate media. But as the year ended IPI picked up some street cred. It bought the venerable Illinois Radio Network from Saga Communications (terms undisclosed). The Illinois Radio Network provides news coverage—focusing on Chicago and Springfield—and sports coverage to 48 affiliated radio stations throughout Illinois (and also to WBBM AM in Chicago and KMOX AM in Saint Louis). It’s seen better days—its affiliate list has slowly dwindled as stations slashed or eliminated their news operations—but no one questions its credentials.
Now the Illinois Radio Network will be run by IPI’s Illinois News Network. Said John Tillman, CEO of IPI, “Both organizations have a history of promoting transparency and accountability in government.” Diana Rickert tells me the radio network will keep its own separate identity—for the time being, at least. “But we’re very much exploring the whole operation.”
The two houses of the General Assembly decide which reporters are credentialed and which aren’t—meaning the houses’ Democratic leaders make the call. And now that IRN is in the fold of IPI, a spokeswoman for senate president John Cullerton says IRN’s own media credentials will have to be reevaluated. The denial of credentials to IPI’s news network predates the Rauner administration; Rickert tells me INN reports from Springfield just fine without credentials, and adds that Cullerton and house leader Mike Madigan simply have an “ideological bias against the ideas of the organization.”
Charlie Ferguson, president and general manager of the Illinois Radio Network, told Bernard Schoenburg of Springfield’s State-Journal Register he’s confident IRN will be run as a separate organization and his reporters “will continue to deliver an unbiased news product.” Nonetheless, it looks like an old and honorable news service could become the newest front in Springfield’s political wars. In these wars, can journalists stay neutral? Is Rauner stockpiling allies?