When is a judge not a judge and a journalist not a journalist?
Perhaps, when their names are Dane County Circuit Court Judge John W. Markson and Wisconsin State Journal “investigative reporter” Steve Verburg, respectively.
Both men did unfathomable disservice to their professions recently by ignoring the shared foundations of law and journalism.
According to a story jointly reported and released by RightWisconsin and MediaTrackers: “A Dane County judge that just issued a decision in a high-profile regulatory case has sent annual contributions to one of the plaintiff organizations and he lied about the group’s policy positions. Judge John W. Markson is a regular contributor to Clean Wisconsin, an environmental activist group, and on July 14 he issued a decision ruling in favor of the group, and against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a farm that received a (Department of Natural Resources) permit for new construction.”
The story continues: “The state Department of Justice, which was serving as counsel to the DNR in the case, promptly objected to Markson’s decision and asked him to recuse himself since he financially supports one of the organizations that was party to the case. ‘While we appreciate that you are confident in your ability to be impartial in this case, the prior annual contributions to Clean Wisconsin still raises concerns. Accordingly, we ask that you recuse yourself from this case,’ wrote Jennifer Vandermeuse, an assistant attorney general, in a Jan. 6 letter to Markson.”
Markson again refused.
To make a long story short, the judge ultimately ruled favorably toward Clean Wisconsin.
Adding injury to insult, RightWisconsin and MediaTrackers also call into question the integrity of the Wisconsin State Journal’s “investigative” reporter Steve Verburg: “(Verburg) refused to point out that Markson was a donor to Clean Wisconsin and that Markson had blatantly lied about Clean Wisconsin’s opposition to a law that directly impacted the case,” the report indicated.
Objectivity and impartiality are supposed to be a shared value of the Third (judicial) and Fourth (journalism) Estates. Sadly, whether the ruling in this case is the appropriate outcome is almost irrelevant as any clear-eyed observer would rightly challenge the wisdom behind Markson’s involvement in it in the first place.
Whether the judge failed to recognize this fact or simply chose to ignore it is troubling in either instance.
That a reporter covering the case also chose not to disclose these facts does little to inspire confidence in the “watchdog media’s” responsibility to the public.
It will be interesting now to see whether the DNR chooses to appeal the ruling.