Sunday, November 19, 2006

UW Hires Remainder of Capitol Press Corps

Back in July, the University of Wisconsin System began taking applications for three new positions within the System President's office. One would be an executive level position (which has since been filled) and the other two would be assigned the tasks of media relations and lobbying the Legislature.

On Friday, Wispolitics reported the names of the ten finalists for those remaining two positions. The list contains many of the people one would expect to apply - capitol staffers and lobbyists.

However, there is one name on the list that stands out. Tom Sheehan is a reporter for Lee Newspapers who has been covering the Capitol for a number of years. His reports run in the La Crosse Tribune, the Wisconsin State Journal, and other state publications. He is also a finalist for one of the UW System positions.

In order for Sheehan to be on the list, he had to apply in July or August. Since that time, he has continued to file reports not only on UW issues, but issues the UW finds important: Gay marriage, affirmative action, etc.

This strikes me as a naked conflict of interest. Here's a reporter lobbying for a job with the very entity that he's trying to cover. If you're a reader of any of the publications that run Sheehan's articles, shouldn't you know that he's likely giving the UW a complete pass on issues so he doesn't kill his chances of getting this job? Isn't it possible he's promoting issues favored by the UW, to cast himself in the best light?

Furthermore, aside from what he wrote in articles that he actually did file, one has to question how many stories he decided not to cover that may have cast the UW in a bad light and hurt his job chances.

To wit: On October 5th, Sheehan wrote an article about affirmative action within the UW System, and whether doing away with the practice would actually threaten veterans' ability to gain entrance into the System. Of course, the UW favors affirmative action in admissions, so the scare tactic on which the article is based seems like it could have come right out of the UW's talking points.

On July 30, Sheehan wrote in an opinion column about the Kevin Barrett controversy within the UW System, but barely mentions the UW's culpability in giving Barrett a job. He merely mentions:

Administrators were forced to choose between Barrett in a case of perceived "academic freedom" and Nass, a perennial critic. With about 28,000 System employees looking on, administrators stuck with Barrett.
Academic freedom versus Steve Nass. It's really that easy, right? Actually, the UW chose "academic freedom" over things like "factual integrity" and "responsible use of tax dollars." Steve Nass only served as a red herring served up by people looking to make the UW look more favorable. Barrett was criticized for being a crackpot; does Nass deserve equal condemnation for pointing it out?

Furthermore, Sheehan wrote article after article after article about the gay marriage constitutional amendment (some of them totally absurd), and it was clear where he stood. Purely coincidentally, he happened to share the exact position that the UW Administration held - against the amendment.

Of course, reporters and columnists are free to apply for jobs within state government as they see fit. Tom Sheehan is probably a great guy. But shouldn't we as readers be aware of possible conflicts of interest when they file reports that are supposed to be objective?

SIDE NOTE: This answers your question about why I have failed to be critical of Victoria's Secret - I figure my job application is working its way through upper management right now.

UPDATE: Astute reader e-mails me to point out that former Eau Claire Leader-Telegram Managing Editor Doug Mell is now spokesman for the UW-Stout. To his credit, Mell actually challenged the university system on occasion in his Leader-Telegram editorials.