NPR Highlights 'McCarthyism' Charge Against Wisconsin GOP

On Monday's Morning Edition, NPR's David Schaper slanted towards a professor and his allies in academia who object to a recent open records request into his e-mails from the Wisconsin GOP, playing five sound bites from them versus only two from a non-Republican source who thought their concerns were overblown. One of the professor's allies labeled the request a "contemporary version of McCarthyism."

Host Renee Montagne introduced Schaper's report by putting the issue in the context of the continuing debate over state employees' collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin:

MONTAGNE: The recent turmoil in Wisconsin over union rights for state employees has touched off a debate over the rights of professors at state universities. This new debate centers on a request by the Wisconsin Republican Party for e-mails from a University of Wisconsin professor. That professor had written a blog post questioning the Republican agenda. Now, the GOP wants to see e-mails he wrote that contain the words 'union,' 'recall,' and 'Scott Walker,' the name of the governor. NPR's David Schaper found the issue got a lot of attention at a gathering of political scientists this last weekend.

After noting that the open records request caused some "extra buzz" at the Midwest Political Science Association's recent conference, the correspondent continued that a "similar Freedom of Information request targeting the e-mails of professors and staff at the labor studies programs at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State University in Detroit...[was] filed by the Mackinac Center, a conservative public policy group." He added that "all this has some of these political scientists concerned."

Schaper's first four sound bites all reenforced the sense that the Wisconsin Republicans were on witch hunt against these professors:

PROFESSOR RANDAL JELKS, UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS: I think every academic institution's eyebrows went up, especially the public ones.

SCHAPER: Randal Jelks teaches American studies and African-American studies at the University of Kansas.

JELKS: I think that politicians are trying to intimidate academics from speaking out on issues, especially those who are in state-related institutions.

CARY NELSON, AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS: These e-mail requests, for me, were the first time I was willing to say this was a contemporary version of McCarthyism.

SCHAPER: Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors, and calls the requests an assault on academic freedom.

NELSON: There is a sense of thought control. There is a sense of intimidation. There is a sense of trying to make people fearful of exercising their speech rights.

SCHAPER: Nelson considers these broad fishing expeditions that could have a chilling effect on professors and what they write and what they say, even how they teach.

Instead of turning to a member of the GOP, or more generally, a conservative from Wisconsin, the NPR reporter played two clips from Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which isn't exactly a right-leaning organization:

LUCY DALGLISH, REPORTERS COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: I understand the argument, but I think people are engaging in a little bit of hysteria here.

SCHAPER: Lucy Dalglish is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

DALGLISH: Professors do not have a statutory protection for academic freedom.

SCHAPER: Dalglish says that doesn't mean academic freedom isn't important, but it doesn't trump the public's right to know, and that means some e-mails of public university professors should be open to public scrutiny, regardless of the motivation behind the request.

Schaper then explained that "Wisconsin's Republican Party and Michigan's Mackinac Center say they don't need to give a reason for making their request. No one from the Wisconsin GOP would talk on tape for this story, but in a statement, executive director Mark Jefferson says taxpayers do have a right to know if public employees are conducting themselves in an ethical manner." But he didn't explain why there wasn't any sound bite from a representative of the Mackinac Center instead. Note as well that he identified the Mackinac Center as "conservative," but didn't give any political labeling for either the American Association of University Professors or the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Near the end of his report, the correspondent recapped the accusations of the professors he featured earlier by turning to William Cronon, the University of Wisconsin, Madison professor at the center of the open records request:

SCHAPER: The University of Wisconsin is complying with the open records request, but is holding back some e-mails because of privacy concerns. For his part, Professor Cronon says he has nothing to hide, but told Wisconsin Public Radio he is disappointed the GOP is on the attack, instead of engaging in a thoughtful discussion about what he wrote.

PROFESSOR WILLIAM CRONON, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN: A naive part of me really kind of hoped that the Republican Party would rethink whether this kind of intrusive, very aggressive, highly partisan tactic that they've adopted is in the interest of the state. I don't think it is.

SCHAPER: Meanwhile, officials at Wayne State, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan say they're still trying to determine the appropriate response.

- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.