The Anatomy of a Lie: Right-Wing "Media Trackers" Strikes Again with Libelous Smear

The Wisconsin-based, right-wing website Media Trackers reached a new low on Monday when it printed a libelous story against the partner of State Rep. Mark Pocan, accusing him of sending bizarre text threats to a volunteer for Chad Lee, Pocan's opponent in his race for Congress. Although Media Trackers took down the story late in the day, the damage had been done. It was picked up by right-wing sources in Wisconsin and across the nation. The organization's "mea culpa" fails to apologize or take responsibility for its role in the smear and the outlet still has a picture of Pocan and his partner Phil Frank on the front page of its website with a note that it would "continue to follow developments in this story" -- as if there were a story to follow.

Bizarre Tale of an Attack

Kyle Wood, described as a "full-time volunteer" for the Republican congressional candidate Chad Lee, last week told the right-wing website the Daily Caller, that he had been physically attacked and choked in his Madison apartment by an unknown assailant for being gay but supporting a Republican running against a gay Democrat. The odd tale, accompanied by staged-looking photos, was picked up by the Franklin Center site Wisconsin Reporter and Breitbart blog. The Dane County GOP weighed in, issuing a statement backing Wood and his bona fides: "Wood is a full-time volunteer working with GOP 2nd District Congressional candidate, Chad Lee. He is brilliant, liked and respected by all who have worked alongside him on Lee's campaign."

But the story went mainstream when a legitimate new source, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, took the bait. Christian Schneider, a columnist that believes that "early voting is bad for democracy," detailed Wood's allegations in an online column on October 28. Schneider, a fellow at the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, later retracted the story while fatuously patting himself on the back for having doubts about it in the first place.

Media Trackers Smears Phil Frank

On Monday, October 29, the issue went nuclear when Media Trackers printed a list of "text messages" alleged to have been sent from Phil Frank to Kyle Wood. The messages were bizarre, racist, and threatening. The article and related tweets were meant to create the impression that Frank was not only responsible for the messages, but also for the attack on Wood. Media Trackers tweeted out: "EVIDENCE: @Mark Pocan's husband threatened gay Rep. vol. before brutal beating."

But Media Trackers had only Wood's word that the text came from Frank. Media Trackers' Brian Sikma explained to The Capital Times that they did not see the phone, or the text messages and could not confirm if Wood even knew Phil Frank's phone number. "He sent us the transcript of the exchange," Sikma said. But Sikma did talk to unnamed people who told him Wood was a great guy, raising serious questions about the role of Chad Lee's campaign in the matter.

WTMJ's radio host Charlie Sykes quickly picked up the story (audio attached below). Sykes not only interviewed Sikma on Monday morning, but actually read the lurid text messages over the air. Later WTMJ cameras arrived at Pocan's campaign headquarters. The story and the Media Trackers' emails which linked Frank to the beating were repeated and retweeted by the usual suspects including right-wing talker WIBA's Vicki McKenna, the Wisconsin Reporter, Breitbart apparatchiks, Red State, a Heartland fellow, and more.

Victim Recants, "No Validity" to Text Message Claims Says Police

On Monday at 5:00 p.m., news broke that Wood had recanted his statements about being assaulted and choked at his home, according to Madison Police Captain Joe Balles, who also told the Isthmus that the text messages "did not occur." Because the police are referring the matter to the Madison District Attorney's office they would not elaborate other than to tell CMD that there was "no validity" to the reports on the text messages.

Wood could now face criminal charges that include obstructing police or filing a false police report, and a libel suit by Phil Frank. But the role of Media Trackers in printing the unproven and libelous allegations bears closer examination, especially since days after the story exploded in its face, the organization has failed to take down its libelous tweets or a photo of Pocan and Frank on the front page of their website.

"No Decent News Organization Would Print These Types of Messages"

The text messages so eagerly embraced by Media Trackers seemed bizarre, a little like a poorly written high-school drama. "Remember your station in life and remember not to cross the husband of a powerful man," Frank allegedly wrote. Anyone who has ever met the modest and soft-spoken Frank, who spends all of his waking hours running a profitable business and worrying more about the pair's fluffy dog than politics, would have laughed out loud had the allegations not been so serious. Sikma's tweets repeatedly used the word "husband" and left the impression that Frank was behind the attack on Wood -- "I will be on @Charlie Sykes talking about @Mark Pocan's husband threatening beaten gay GOP vol," Sikma tweeted, coming to the defense of Wood as if he worked for the Human Rights Campaign.

Sikma did not bother to call Frank or Pocan who would have told them that the text messages were fabricated. By Monday, Frank had hired lawyers who are investigating a libel suit. Currently the Media Trackers website has a story on Wood's recant, which acknowledges that the claims against Frank "appear to be false" but lays all the blame at the feet of Wood and casts Media Trackers as the victim. Sikma fails to take any responsibility for his role in the matter and fails to apologize to Frank or Pocan for printing unfounded dreck that other reporters in Madison had looked at and refused to print.

The Capital Times points out the obvious problem: "from the beginning, neither Wood nor Media Trackers provided any evidence that the texts actually came from Frank's phone -- or that the texts were even sent from a phone at all."

Professor Stephen Ward, of the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism's Center for Journalism Ethics, commented on Media Trackers' unfounded attack on the spouse of a Congressional candidate. "This is incredibly bad practice. No decent news organization would print these types of messages without verification. It doesn't matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, it is unethical, especially when you are dealing with potentially harmful material. This is journalism 101."

But journalism is not what Media Trackers does. Although it says it is "nonpartisan" on its masthead, it was created to peddle lies and disinformation to advance a far-right agenda that only the Tea Party could love.

What Is Media Trackers?

Media Trackers' website says it is "dedicated to media accountability, government transparency, and quality fact-based journalism." Media Trackers does not disclose its funders on its website, but some information is known.

American Majority, the right-wing Tea Party group established in 2008, founded Media Trackers in Wisconsin as an "experiment" in January 2011. This was the height of the winter 2011 protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's union-busting and budget cutting proposals. The group quickly established its reputation as an attack dog organization with scant regard for the facts. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has long tracked their spin and distortions. Media Trackers responded recently by attacking CMD for screening Bill Moyers' documentary on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) with Mark Pocan, who is featured in the film. Media Trackers "exposed" that this writer gave a campaign contribution to Pocan who is also my neighbor and State Rep. CMD invited all the Wisconsin stars of the film to the movie, including the many professors and pundits who contributed to our "ALEC Exposed" investigation, which just received its fifth award for public interest research and excellence in journalism.

According to a 2010 article in AlterNet, over 75 percent of the funding for American Majority comes from the Sam Adams Alliance, headed by Eric O'Keefe, (who also helps lead American Majority). O'Keefe is a long-time Koch operative who sits on dozens of right-wing boards and organizations. SAM gets funding from the State Policy Network (SPN) which itself is partially funded by The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, a project of Charles Koch.

According to Mother Jones, Media Trackers was founded to be a "nimble attack blog ... that could quickly capitalize on the latest missteps by big-government politicians or the 'liberal' media -- essentially hard-hitting, opposition-research-style shops that prize scoops, speed, and scandal over policy briefs and press conferences." This turns out to be too charitable of a description.

Gutter Politics

Media Trackers has shown itself to engage in gutter politics of a kind that used to be rare in Wisconsin politics before the Koch brothers and Eric O'Keefe moved in. Media Trackers has thrown Wood under the bus stating, "Wood owes the public, Rep. Mark Pocan and his spouse Philip Frank, and law enforcement officials an apology," but has failed to apologize for its role in the hateful smear. Similarly, Charlie Sykes has criticized Wood and Media Trackers, but fails to take responsibility for amplifying the claims on one of the largest radio stations in the state. Sykes has long been a megaphone for Media Trackers spin and disinformation and is working with them on promoting a new hashtag -- #wiright -- to peddle information in the last week of the campaign.

Even though Madison police have made it perfectly clear that there is no validity to the text message claims, Sikma and Media Trackers have not taken down a photo of Frank on its front page, nor its Facebook post, nor its libelous tweets as other media outlets -- including WIBA's Vicki McKenna -- have done to their credit.


On Wednesday, Media Trackers was peddling more disinformation on U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin at the same time Sikma was taken apart in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by the state's top reporter for falsely claiming that Baldwin had voted against body armor for U.S. troops, a lie that has now been picked up and peddled by the Tommy Thompson campaign.

Sikma slams Wood's lies as "despicable." The same adjective applies to the misnamed Media Trackers.

Audio icon Brian Sikma on Charlie Sykes3.57 MB
Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.