Wisconsin Examiner reporters lead the way

Highlights from a year of digging up the truth in the Badger State

December 16, 2022 6:15 am
Examiner staff

The staff of the Wisconsin Examiner. From right, Isiah Holmes, Baylor Spears, Erik Gunn, Henry Redman and Editor Ruth Conniff.

Examiner reporters have done a lot of great work over the last year. 

Among our most timely stories of 2022 was Deputy Editor Erik Gunn’s reporting on the fallout from the revival of Wisconsin’s Civil War-era abortion ban. The same week the ban went into effect, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gunn interviewed cancer doctors who described how the ruling had upended their practices and the lives of their patients. Pregnant women who needed chemotherapy or radiation do not qualify for the 1849 abortion ban’s life-of-the-mother exception, one doctor explained. When the 1849 law was passed, “none of these [cancer] treatments existed,” she told Gunn. “So the law doesn’t speak to that.”

Gunn also covered the unintended consequences of Wisconsin’s outdated abortion ban on contraception and in-vitro fertilization, and on the state’s OB-GYN residency programs and the risk that they could lose national accreditation.

Another timely 2022 story concerned efforts by conservative groups to remove books that touch on racism and LGBTQ issues from school libraries. The New York Times wrote about this nationwide phenomenon on Dec. 12. National Public Radio interviewed an author whose own book has been banned on Dec. 14.

In Wisconsin, Isiah Holmes was ahead of the curve, breaking the story earlier this year about the coordinated effort to ban books by conservative groups, local citizens and Republican state legislators.

Holmes’ three-part series on GOP efforts to ban books in schools developed from a tip he received last April from a source in the legislative district of Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona). The source sent Holmes screenshots of private messages that included a book list and emails to a school library from James’ office. Holmes filed an open records request with James’ office and received the list of books and numerous emails that showed James was reaching out to school districts. There were also communications with other GOP legislators about removing “inappropriate” reading materials and punishing educators for providing them.

Holmes’ first story ran On May 31, detailing the list, James’ connection to the list, and the broader legislative strategy to ban books in the state. The next day Gov. Tony Evers warned in a speech that if Republicans achieved a veto-proof majority in the Legislature, they would ban books. An AP story on Evers’ comments cited Holmes’ reporting on the banned book list.

On Sept. 8, Holmes followed up with a story about the banned book list resurfacing in Waukesha County. After the first story, he had received more confidential tips from a different source regarding the use of the list to ban seven books in the Elmbrook School District. Several months later, an open records request to Elmbrook led to Holmes’ Oct. 12 piece on the seven books removed from the Elmbrook library, under a new library policy that also subjected student check-outs to surveillance.

On Nov. 28, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published its own story on the “now public” banned book list. 

Big Lie coverage

Another example of the Examiner leading the way was Henry Redman’s coverage of Wisconsin’s role in the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and undermine confidence in voting.

Redman was one of a handful of reporters who covered a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the state Capitol in December 2020 that served as a precursor to the riot in the U.S. Capitol a month later on Jan. 6. He reported that at the rally, Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell alleged there “was no evidence fraud did not occur,” and stood by as other speakers including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell attacked the election administration system. 

In July, the New Yorker published a story about Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to undermine state elections, citing the quote Redman reported from Spindell as an example of those efforts.

The Examiner isn’t just reporting on the big stories everyone is watching. We are also digging up news about under-the-radar efforts that affect the people in our state in dramatic ways.

Take Gunn’s reporting on Michael M. Bell’s campaign of the last dozen years to find out what really happened the night his son was killed by a Kenosha police officer. When Bell demanded that the city release the bullet that killed his son and accused an officer and a city administrator of providing false information, Gunn dove into the story, showing how the facts that have been uncovered so far led a grieving parent to suspect local officials were engaged in a cover-up.

Or take Redman’s ongoing, groundbreaking work over the last two years on the DNR’s failure to adequately protect Wisconsinites’ natural resources.

One important scoop started with a tip Redman received in August 2021 about illegal logging in the northwoods of Wisconsin. He interviewed nearly a dozen sources, consulted hundreds of pages of DNR documents and traveled to the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest in Vilas County to cover the story of two Northwoods residents fighting to protect trees near lakes from being aggressively logged.

Those two residents had alleged for years that loggers were violating state rules by cutting too many trees too close to shorelines. Their crusade to stop the logging led to several audits of DNR practices and an ongoing effort to review the methods foresters use when deciding how many trees to cut down near northern Wisconsin’s famous lakes.

Redman has continued covering the committee that develops rules for logging and its members, including companies that profited from cutting the trees. 

After Redman’s initial story was published in September 2021, Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio followed up with their own stories on the effort he first publicized to protect the state’s northern forests. 

This year, Redman examined the problems with a DNR pollution trading program that enrolled a farm with a history of violations and a pattern of resisting efforts to make it stop polluting. He wrote a series of articles on St. Croix County residents’ fight for clean water after a massive manure spill at the Emerald Sky Dairy. Through an open records request, Redman reported on text messages and emails that showed Natural Resources Board member Frederick Prehn coordinated with Republicans when he refused to vacate his seat after his term ended. And he has stayed on the Prehn story ever since. 

Welcoming a new reporter

In October we welcomed a new member of our staff. Reporter Baylor Spears previously worked for our sister outlet the Minnesota Reformer. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Spears worked in Washington, D.C., covering education policy and Congress as part of the Medill on the Hill summer program and then as an editorial fellow at Washingtonian magazine. In Wisconsin, Spears has hit the ground running, getting to know her way around the Capitol while writing a story on freshman orientation for newly elected members of the Legislature and interviewing legislative leaders on their plans for the new session, which she will be covering for us.

Keep reading: There’s a lot more great reporting coming in the new year.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.