Two tenacious news reporters named Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdogs

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Diedrich and Wisconsin State Journal State Politics Editor Matthew DeFour have been selected to receive the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, which recognizes an individual’s extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin. 

Diedrich was chosen as the 2022 winner, and DeFour is the 2020 winner. Because of the pandemic, no winner was chosen in 2021. Diedrich and DeFour will be honored at the 2022 Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner on Thursday, April 21 at the Madison Club in downtown Madison. 

The public is invited. Registrations are accepted until 5 p.m. this Monday, April 11.

The award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Newspaper AssociationWisconsin Broadcasters Association and University of Madison-Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

John Smalley, the now-retired editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, nominated DeFour for the 2020 honor, citing his tenacious reporting and “fearless” use of the state Public Records Law.

“His in-depth investigations and watchdog enterprise reporting have prompted change at all levels of government,” Smalley said, noting DeFour’s time covering Madison schools, Dane County and state government. 

Smalley highlighted DeFour’s 2008 coverage of the Dane County 911 Center’s mishandling of a phone call from homicide victim Brittany Zimmermann. The newspaper and other media organizations sued to force the county to turn over documents of the botched response

“The incident resulted in the county making several changes at the 911 center, including adding 11 operators, a new director and a renovated space with new equipment,” Smalley said.

DeFour also covered the Madison School District during the 2011 Act 10 protests and revealed through a public records lawsuit the identities of several doctors who had written sick notes to excuse teachers who skipped school to protest. The information resulted in disciplinary action against 11 doctors by the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board.

In 2015, DeFour’s effort to obtain text messages from top officials in Gov. Scott Walker’s administration hit a dead end after he was told there were no records to produce. But that didn’t stop him. It led DeFour to break the story that the administration had quietly changed state policy for retaining records so that certain “transitory records” such as text messages could be destroyed upon receipt. The administration later reversed that policy.

“Matthew DeFour has clearly established himself as one of the most consistent and credible watchdog journalists in the state,” Smalley said.

Diedrich was nominated for the 2022 award by Greg Borowski, a Journal Sentinel deputy editor who oversees news and formerly was the newspaper’s watchdog editor. Borowski described Diedrich as “methodical, disciplined, relentless.” 

“More so than any other reporter I have encountered, John often starts with a tip that others might ignore, overlook, or never even get,” Borowski wrote. “From there, his skills as an investigative reporter take over, as he digs in to patiently gather the documents and build the sources needed to shine a light on a problem.”

Among the many projects Diedrich has produced is Turned Away, a 2019 investigation into the little-known practice of “ambulance diversion,” by which hospitals are permitted to close their emergency rooms and send sick and distressed patients elsewhere. 

Acting on a vague tip that did not even include the victim’s name, Diedrich uncovered the saga of Tiffany Tate, who worked at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Tate had suffered a stroke while on the job, but paramedics declined to take her to the emergency room 350 feet away at Froedtert Hospital. She ultimately died because of delayed care.

Borowski also cited Diedrich’s uncovering of a botched U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives undercover gun-buying sting in which agents let dangerous felons leave the store with guns. Diedrich co-reported the Backfire series with his wife, Journal Sentinel investigative journalist Raquel Rutledge, who won the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog award in 2018. 

Diedrich’s most recent work includes Wires and Fires, an investigation with Rutledge, reporter Daphne Chen and intern Tamia Fowlkes into deadly electrical fires in impoverished Milwaukee neighborhoods, which was a finalist for the prestigious Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting and received other national recognition. 

The April 21 event also will feature the annual Opee Awards, bestowed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council to recognize outstanding efforts to protect the state’s tradition of open government — and highlight some threats to it. Other highlights include a reception (cash bar) at 5 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m., followed by the awards program. Proceeds benefit the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, participation of young journalists in the event and online investigative journalism training sessions for Wisconsin journalists.

DeFour and Diedrich join the list of Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award recipients, which includes: 

2011: Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

2012: The late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report, a go-to source for information on state government and officials.

2013: U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the chief author of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.

2014: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dave Umhoefer, a Pulitzer Prize winner for stories exposing the Milwaukee County pension scandal. 

2015: Journal Sentinel investigative health reporter Meg Kissinger, for her investigations into Wisconsin’s troubled mental health system.

2016: Madison attorney Robert J. Dreps, a champion of open government for three decades. 

2017: Gilman Halsted, a retired Wisconsin Public Radio reporter who produced award-winning examinations of the state’s criminal justice system.

2018: Raquel Rutledge, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Journal Sentinel who exposed fraud and abuse in a child-care program for low-wage working parents. 

2019: Jessica Arp, former assistant news director for News 3 Now and, for fearless political reporting including the Reality Check fact-checking series.