Why did Isthmus pull a critical public-art story?
Calling shenanigans on an unexplained un-publishing.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published.
The week of dunking on Bucky has taken a strange turn at one Madison publication.
On Tuesday afternoon, weekly newspaper Isthmus posted a story on its website in which staff writer Dylan Brogan criticized three of the large Bucky Badger sculptures that popped up around town this week as part of the "Bucky on Parade" program. (Full disclosure: Brogan is a friend of mine and helps produce the Tone Madison podcast; I also freelanced for Isthmus in 2012 and 2013, and worked with two of its current owners, Jeff Haupt and Craig Bartlett, years ago at The Onion.) Headlined "Calling shenanigans on three Buckys," Brogan's piece was way more incisive than my own take on the program. It focused in on how the program glorified UW-Madison athletic director Barry Alvarez ("There’s only one man in town who walks past a bronze statue of himself when he goes to work: UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez," Brogan wrote. "Thanks to Bucky on Parade, there will now be two statues depicting the former football coach outside of Camp Randall Stadium within feet of each other."); allowed coal-hungry power utility MG&E to sponsor a sculpture clearly meant to evoke clean energy ("Since when does greenwashing count as public art?"); and pointed out how a statue sponsored by Downtown Madison Inc. and Madison’s Business Improvement District apparently ripped off marketing campaigns already used in other cities.
Less than an hour later, the story was pulled down, as was an Isthmus Facebook post promoting it. People were already reading the story and discussing it on social media and Reddit, but the story URL went goes to a "Page not found." One Reddit poster shared a screenshot of the Facebook post. A photo gallery of the Buckys, without any real commentary, stayed up.
Brogan says his story's disappearance was not a technical glitch. "The publishers of Isthmus pulled the article shortly after it was posted," he told me Tuesday night. "It was not my decision." Isthmus publisher Jeff Haupt and editor Judy Davidoff have not responded to a request for comment; Davidoff is out of the office this week. As of this story's initial writing, Brogan's story had been down for about 18 hours, without any explanation from Isthmus. The publishers put the story back up on Wednesday, adding an explanation, but the way it's been handled so far is pretty amateur-hour and a disservice to Isthmus' editorial staff.
A publisher's note added to the story explained its nearly day-long absence this way: "This was presented as an opinion by the organization as a whole, so I decided to hit pause to sort through a few of these issues. Here is the story in its almost original form. This is Brogan's opinion, not mine, or that of Isthmus as a whole. One edit was made to note that."
This is a weak explanation at best. The post did initially say "Isthmus is calling bullshit on three Buckys that miss the mark," but writers commonly use their publication's name or a royal-we as a (perhaps flawed) device for the first-person perspective, and the story was initially published under Brogan's byline, not presented as a unified statement from the editorial board. Isthmus publishes a range of opinions, and this was clearly labeled as an opinion piece. It probably makes more sense to go ahead and use the first-person, as the piece does now, but that's a simple change that could have been made without a whole lot of fuss, and doesn't justify yanking the piece and taking nearly 24 hours to mull it over. It doesn't explain why this opinion in particular needed to be emphatically labeled as not being the opinion of the publisher or the paper as a whole. The fact that Isthmus also ran an un-critical photo gallery on Bucky on Parade this week undermines the notion that readers would get the impression that Isthmus as an institution was throwing down against the program.
Isthmus owes its readers a bit more, especially considering who its parent company is. Red Card, which bought the paper from its founders in 2014, is a prepaid meal plan for college students. A big chunk of Red Card's business is specifically providing meal-plan services to college sports programs, including UW-Madison's. Isthmus' associate publisher, Craig Bartlett, sits on the board of the Downtown Business Improvement District. And the paper pulled a story that picks on Barry Alvarez and the BID, leaving readers to wonder why, then eventually went to great pains to clarify that it was only one person's opinion.
Of course, we don't know for sure why they pulled it, but people who own a newspaper are more than capable of telling us, and hurt themselves by not doing so.
As plenty of readers have reminded us this week, complaining about Bucky on Parade might not be the most important thing a journalist can do. But, along with investigative reporting and state-level political commentary, a piece like Brogan's—critical, thoughtful, and asking us to think about an arts initiative is being used for blatant corporate messaging and sports boosterism—is exactly the sort of thing a valued weekly like Isthmus should be publishing.
Taking down a story, whether an in-depth expose or an inconsequential take, raises fraught ethical issues and creates conflicts of interest. To maintain the trust of readers, a careful thought process needs to be in place before actually scrubbing a piece from the web. If a story contains falsehoods or fabrications, or causes some kind of needless harm, a publication should come out and explain to the public what went wrong and why, and what its next steps are. Pulling a story without an explanation leaves readers with wide-open questions about the motive for doing so. Did the story offend an advertiser or a friend or business partner of someone in a leadership position at the publication? Is there a mistake in the piece that the publication wants to sweep under the rug without owning up to it? Did the publication fall short in its decision-making process before publishing the piece? And if this story was off-limits, what else is off-limits, and why? (A 2015 story for Columbia Journalism Review offers a good case study in why this all matters, and the Canadian Association of Journalists also has a helpful resource on the subject.)
People who own media companies have always had their business/civic/political/personal entanglements and there's nothing new about that. That's why are conventions for disclosing real, apparent, or potential conflicts of interest and addressing them in an appropriate, transparent manner—so that the interests of a parent company or publisher don't get in the way of journalists doing their job or wear down journalists' credibility.
In all fairness to Red Card, there's no way that Isthmus is a massive cash cow for the company, and it's better for the paper to have local owners than not. And it's possible for business folks without journalism backgrounds to take the responsibilities of owning a newspaper seriously. There are a number of journalists I respect on Isthmus' staff and freelance roster, and for the most part I've gotten the impression that the new owners haven't meddled very much in editorial matters. This makes the disappearance of the Bucky story all the more bizarre.