Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot pulled no punches last Tuesday night when criticizing the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the rest of the Wisconsin media for their coverage of the political abuses of the John Doe investigation into the campaign committee of former Governor Scott Walker and several conservative organizations.
“They all bought the narrative that Scott Walker won the election and then won the recall only because he had a lot of ‘dark money’ – it was ‘dark money’ – especially from the Koch brothers,” Gigot said.
The comments were made during a speech at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s fourth Annual Gala, a fundraising dinner for the free-market legal organization and think tank.
Gigot’s speech was mostly about how the Wall Street Journal broke the story of the political and prosecutorial abuses of the John Doe investigation on the newspaper’s editorial pages.
Describing the John Doe investigation in his speech, Gigot compared it to a novel by Franz Kafka.
“I often thought the metaphor Kafkaesque is overdone by some of us in the media,” Gigot said. “But this gets there pretty close.”
Gigot said the first he heard of the John Doe abuses from editorial writer Collin Levy, then based in Chicago, who had heard from one of those being investigated who was willing to be a source. Gigot said he was a little skeptical of the story at first, but then Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice published a leak from the investigation accusing Republicans of violating campaign finance laws.
“So here I could see was a classic case of an imbalance of power,” Gigot said. “The story of a secret probe somehow leaks to the press complete with innuendo of possible crimes. But the targets of the probe were barred from defending themselves in public.”
Gigot told Levy to tell his source, Eric O’Keefe of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, that he could be cited for contempt of court, fined and even go to jail for revealing the John Doe subpoena’s contents. Gigot also asked his reporter if she was willing to take the risks from reporting the story. Both were willing to go forward with the story and the first editorial appeared in the newspaper in 2013 about the John Doe investigation.
“Unlike the Journal Sentinel, we had the subpoenas and someone on the record,” Gigot said. “We reported the raids, we named the prosecutors who declined to talk to Collin, we put in a call. This broke the story wide open and other media outlets were suddenly obliged to pursue the details. So finally, finally, the other side of the story had a public hearing.”
O’Keefe then sued successfully to quash the subpoena. The judge also rejected the the theory of the John Doe special prosecutor that the protected speech, issue advocacy, of conservative organizations represented illegal coordinated campaign contributions to the Walker campaign, or express advocacy, the justification for the John Doe raids and investigation.
“In other words, the Milwaukee prosecutors had concocted a theory of coordination that was illegal itself, as Judge Peterson found,” Gigot said. “Yet the prosecutors wouldn’t give up. And (special prosecutor Francis) Schmitz sought a contempt citation against O’Keefe. Judge Peterson, to his great credit, did not go along so Eric was spared jail.”
Gigot explained why the case matters.
“First of all, prosecutors have enormous power. When they abuse it, we have a system of checks and balances,” Gigot said. “One of those checks is the courts and, in this case, the courts actually did their job.”
However, one of the checks on the prosecutors, the Wisconsin media, failed to do their jobs, according to Gigot.
“And in Wisconsin, the prosecutors had the media in their pocket,” Gigot said.
The Wisconsin case was not unique.
“I have seen this many times in my career and it’s one of the reasons why I got involved in this case, we paid attention to this,” Gigot said. “I’ve seen this happen so often. It happened in New York with Eliot Spitzer taking on people, charging them, forcing them into settlements through leaks even if it never goes to trial. With Jim Comey pursuing a single, innocent man for years in the anthrax probe after 9-11. And I saw it through Patrick Fitzgerald’s prosecution of Scooter Libby even though he never leaked the name of Valerie Plame.”
Gigot explained that it’s “relatively easy” for prosecutors to manipulate the press when conducting these kinds of investigations because they have the information of the prosecution and can control the release.
“No reporter, I can tell you this first hand, no reporter likes to wake up in the morning and see a competitor have a story and have their editor look at them and say, why didn’t you have that story?” Gigot said. “It gets to be pretty embarrassing. And a reporter who criticizes a prosecutor is going to be cut off. You see it time and again.”
The problem of prosecutorial abuse becomes worse when all of the local media are in agreement with each other about a story.
“And when it comes to campaign finance, I can tell you the media in this country, they all run like wildebeests on the Masai Mara Plain,” Gigot said. “All are running in the same direction.”
Dark money, Gigot explained, is just legal campaign spending by either the right or the left that doesn’t have to be reported. Still, the Wisconsin media bought into the John Doe narrative that there must’ve been something illegal about the Walker campaign rather than worrying about prosecutorial abuse.
“But the press, echoing prosecutors, wanted to believe the prosecution invention about coordination,” Gigot said. “Yet the real corruption in this case was not ‘dark money,’ it was dark power. By this I mean the awesome prosecutorial power of the state employing warrants, employing a gag order, to smother the free speech of political opponents.”
Later, emails from the special prosecutor’s staff and the staff of the Government Accountability Board (GAB) that were revealed in litigation showed the biases of the prosecutors and their case against Republicans.
“As so often happens with these groups, GAB had been captured by partisans and zealots who wanted to enforce their particular view of campaign finance law,” Gigot said. “And in the process, they were more than willing to trample the First Amendment rights of their political opponents.”
“Especially disappointing in all of this was the role of the press,” Gigot said. “I have nothing against the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I am online subscriber. I really enjoy their Green Bay Packer coverage. And I was a member of the Pulitzer prize Board for nine years and I think I voted for Milwaukee Journal entries at least two or three times. But you’d think the press, of all institutions, would zealously guard the institution of free speech.”
However, the newspaper took to defending the prosecutors as if it was “a righteous cause.” Gigot explained that the Journal Sentinel then began publishing stories about the Wall Street Journal’s alleged ties to the John Doe victims, including that editorial writer Stephen Moore was once the president of the Club for Growth in Washington D.C. However, Moore was no longer with the national Club for Growth, that organization is unrelated to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and Moore had nothing to do with reporting the Wisconsin story.
“The Journal Sentinel also included in just about every story that we were, get this, a conservative opinion page,” Gigot said. “As if that somehow made the facts of the matter, the facts of the subpoena, somehow less relevant or less accurate.”
Gigot also told how the Journal Sentinel reported he had received a “Bradley prize” from the Bradley Foundation whose president was Michael Grebe, the chairman of the Walker campaign committee in 2010.
“For the record, I never once talked to Scott Walker’s staff or the legal team about the John Doe,” Gigot said. “Not once. Our sources were all among the independent groups that were targeted by the John Doe.”
Grebe, Gigot pointed out, was not a source. The one time Grebe was contacted by Gigot, it was about an editorial about a possible settlement. Grebe told Gigot he couldn’t comment.
“Not only did the Journal Sentinel got it wrong, they got it completely backward,” Gigot said.
Gigot said the larger issue is about the conformity of the media marching in lock step to defend state power.
“The Wall Street Journal’s role in this story was not all that heroic,” Gigot said. “We were doing our jobs. It was merely doing what we were supposed to be doing and cover the other side of the story that the rest of the local and national press was ignoring.”
Gigot noted a few exceptions in the local coverage of the John Doe.
“Now there were some noble exceptions here in Milwaukee. Charlie Sykes was on the story, Watchdog and a couple of others were on that story,” Gigot said. “But we at the Journal had a bigger audience so we could help more.”
The prosecutors, Gigot noted, did not give up until the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the investigation was unconstitutional and the legislature re-wrote the laws concerning the GAB and the John Doe statute.
Gigot said there were a few lessons to be learned from the John Doe experience. Calling O’Keefe “the real hero,” the Wall Street Journal editor said there is no substitute for courage when fighting for your rights.
“Second, we need a free press, an independent press in this country, but we also need one that doesn’t enforce conformity,” Gigot said. “We need need an ideologically diverse press, an independent and fair press that makes an attempt to get the other side of the story. Especially when state power is involved and especially when fundamental rights like free speech are involved.”
Gigot said the third lesson was that our independent institutions worked in this case. The judiciary followed the law and “justice was done.”
“If at a great cost to the targets though maybe perhaps not enough cost for prosecutors,” Gigot said. “But at least justice was done in the end.”
You can watch the entire speech below.