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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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How the Kyle Wood hoax went viral: Self-proclaimed conservative watchdogs spurn reporting basics
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Sikma never asked for physical evidence that the texts were real or attempted to verify them with the alleged perpetrator.
Sikma never asked for physical evidence that the texts were real or attempted to verify them with the alleged perpetrator.
Credit:FOX News

Media Trackers bills itself as a "conservative nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative watchdog dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government across Wisconsin through cutting-edge research and communications initiatives."

It is the website that on Oct. 29 ran a long blog post entitled "Mark Pocan's Husband Told Beaten GOP Operative 'You're a Marked Man,' Threatened and Harassed Via Text Message."

By that afternoon Isthmus and others were reporting that the alleged texts between Phil Frank, state Rep. Pocan's husband, and Kyle Wood, then a campaign worker for Republican congressional candidate Chad Lee, were made up. Pocan, a Democrat, and Lee are running for the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by Tammy Baldwin, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Madison police also updated an earlier incident report indicating that Wood, who is gay, had recanted previous statements about being beaten in his home.

The headline chosen by Media Trackers stated as fact that harassing texts were sent by Frank to Wood. Yet author Brian Sikma provided no evidence he had investigated the veracity of the texts. He nevertheless ran the alleged full transcript of the text exchange, which, when printed, ran three pages.

A reader using the handle "Badgerlvr" commented: "Thank you for doing the job that other 'reporters' fail to do."

In fact Sikma failed to do what professional reporters do: namely, confirm allegations before publication.

Sikma declined to elaborate on how he verified the story from Wood. "It would appear that Mr. Wood is the one that should be answering a lot of questions," he responded in an email to Isthmus.

After Wood recanted his stories, Sikma wrote a subsequent post noting that "individuals who know Wood verified the accuracy of his claims" but that the claims turned out to be untrue. But he took no responsibility for failing to check out Wood's sensational claims. "Media Trackers regrets that we were repeatedly lied to and misled. We regret that our readers were subject to the dishonest claims of a dishonest individual."

Critically, Sikma never asked for physical evidence that the texts were real or attempted to verify them with the alleged perpetrator.

"We can confirm that he never reached out to Phil or the campaign," says Dan McNally, Pocan's campaign manager.

UW-Madison journalism professor Katy Culver notes that Media Trackers promotes itself as a check on the allegedly liberal bias of mainstream media. But, she says, "If they're going to serve as an alternative voice, they have to have proof they can be trusted. They have to go through the same journalistic processes of verifying information that reputable news organizations go through. And I just don't see that."

One of the more suspicious elements about Wood's story was that he would speak only to conservative media organizations, ignoring calls from other news outlets, including Isthmus.

He brought the story of his attack to The Daily Caller -- described by the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch as a "conservative/Republican news-spin organization founded by conservative reporter Tucker Carlson and former Dick Cheney aide Neil Patel" -- which first reported it online on Oct. 25.

In his opening paragraph, author Dustin Siggins tied the alleged assault on Wood in his home to the race between Lee and Pocan, which both candidates have said has not turned negative: "A bitter and contentious Wisconsin congressional race saw a new level of antagonism Wednesday morning when an openly gay Republican campaign worker became the victim of an apparent hate crime."

Siggins also quoted Jimmy LaSalvia, cofounder of the gay conservative group GOProud, saying that "Wood's assault indicates 'hate and vitriol directed towards a gay conservative from gay liberals.'"

Though no evidence is provided for LaSalvia's statement, it established the theme for subsequent pieces in conservative outlets on the alleged assault: Wood's attackers were intolerant progressive gay men who are out to punish a heretic working for the opponent of openly gay lawmaker Mark Pocan.

The Wisconsin Reporter, a state news wire set up by the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, picked up the story next, running a long interview with Wood on Oct. 26. Two days later Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, published a long blog post in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after interviewing Wood.

Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes interviewed Sikma on Monday, selecting some of the text messages to read out loud. Sykes asked Sikma how he verified the messages but focused more on how "ugly" a story it is.

"What makes this rather extraordinary is that the victim in this case is a gay man -- a gay man -- working for a straight Republican candidate who apparently was threatened in the vilest and most vulgar terms by the gay partner of the openly gay candidate for Congress," said Sykes.

"When Charlie Sykes has the same agenda as Tucker Carlson at The Daily Caller, you're not using [your medium] to inform, you're using it to persuade," says Culver.

Media Trackers pulled its post Monday afternoon, as did Schneider, who replaced it with an explanation on how he came to write the erroneous initial post. "After a discussion with the editors, I decided to take the story down, thinking it didn't serve anyone to have a false story still circulating," Schneider wrote in an email.

But, as Culver points out, the Internet can't be erased. "It lives in other ways regardless." Schneider's post, for example, is still available in a cached version on the web.

By the time Media Trackers published its story on the alleged texts, Wood's story was gaining steam and getting national attention, despite the lack of verification.

"That kind of story moves with such speed, and as a reporter it can be very unnerving," says Culver.

Locally, The Capital Times covered the alleged assault on Wood, quoting liberally from The Daily Caller article. An Isthmus item referenced a recent cover story on the local Mormon community in which Wood had featured prominently.

Once Media Trackers posted its texting story, Larry Kaufmann, who writes opinion columns for Isthmus, urged us to follow up.

Kaufmann, who is Chad Lee's campaign treasurer, acknowledged he was not objective on the topic, but said he knew Wood and believed the texts were real.

When Wood recanted, we asked Kaufmann what he made of the whole thing. He said he knew "how incredible the story was" but was inclined to believe it because he knew Wood and had no reason to believe he was a liar. He said two people he knew had actually seen the text messages.

"In fact, there were text messages," Kaufmann wrote in an email. But, he added, they were "fabricated and sent from someone else's phone who was not the alleged harasser."

The haste with which Media Trackers dispatched the texting story highlights a stark contrast between such new-media outlets and traditional news operations that consider ethical questions and journalistic standards before pushing the publish button.

"One uses objective practices in as fair a means as possible to get to the truth," says Culver. "The other is trying to decide elections and trying to influence public policy."

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