For many years now, conservatives have been complaining that the media is dominated by liberals. The evidence of that has never materialized, although evidence to the contrary is abundant. The common sense perspective is that the media is as liberal as the giant, multinational corporations that own them.
To conscious observers, the assertion that right-wing propagandists have infiltrated the news business would not be regarded as much of a scoop. Fox News has built their empire on it. But there is a new wrinkle that is gaining momentum and it must not be allowed to establish a foothold on the journalistic landscape.
The Associated Press (of all people) published a story on a troubling trend wherein overtly partisan operatives “are bankrolling startup news organizations around the country.” It is an apparent attempt to exploit the ailing news business by “fill[ing] a void created by the downsizing of traditional” media. These efforts are almost exclusively run by conservatives and are popping up nationally in places like Michigan, Texas, Florida, Montana, and more.
The pseudo-news enterprises are deliberately trying to pass themselves off as traditional news sites on the Internet. But their origins are somewhat mysterious, as is their financing. The reporting jobs at these outfits often pay better than conventional news gigs, sort of like PR. In applications for local press credentials these groups refuse to identify their financial backers. If nothing else, that absence of transparency is sufficient cause to be suspicious.
This initiative to inject rightist propaganda into local reporting did not spring up out of nowhere. Two years ago I wrote an article about plans just like these that were just being formulated. They were hatched by the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-wing think tank that argued that…
“The long-term decline in newspaper circulation presents the conservative movement with an excellent opportunity to increase its influence with the media. Falling readership and tighter budgets are forcing newspapers to dedicate fewer staff to investigative reporting. As a result, they are increasingly relying upon nonprofit organizations to fill the gap.” […and…] “[B]y aggressively getting involved in investigative journalism conservative nonprofit organizations stand to enormously change the terms of the media debate, perhaps in much the same way that Fox News and Talk Radio revolutionized media coverage.”
The National Legal and Policy Center has received about 73% of their funding since 1995 from the ultra-right Scaife Family Foundations who are famous for financing wild conspiracy theories and extremists in the media. The plan, then as now, is for conservative think tanks to produce stories that they could feed to newspapers and television who, due to their desperation for content, would gladly publish it. This is not unlike the Bush administration’s illegal distribution of propaganda through the use of video press releases and payoffs to pundits and celebrities. It is just shifting it to the private sector where it could pick up steam from aggressive fundraising, marketing, and the absence of oversight.
This plan is now beginning to take shape. The AP’s reporting documents precisely the sort of journalistic charade that conservative strategists have been plotting for years. This makes it more critical than ever to be vigilant and to pay attention to where the “news” is coming from. And don’t be shy about exposing the masquerade and embarrassing any press outlet that engages in it.
[Correction] I received an email from Peter Flaherty, president of the NLPC, demanding that I “cease and desist from making defamatory statements” about the organization. The statements Flaherty regards as defamatory are pretty funny:
- 1) He objected to my reference to the “Scaife Family Foundations.” Flaherty argues that there is no such thing. However, there are several foundations associated with the Scaife family: The Scaife Family Foundation (not plural), the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Carthage Foundation. NLPC has received funding from all of them and that is what I was referring to. Apparently Flaherty’s objection is to my having capitalized the words “family” and “foundations.” Duly noted.
- 2) He objected to my linking to donor figures at Media Matters. I consider them to be an authoritative and reliable source, and until I am shown otherwise (which Flaherty did not do), I will continue to cite them as a source. However, Flaherty may be correct with regard to my statement that “73% of their funding” came from the Scaife groups. It appears that 73% of their funding from foundations came from the Scaife groups. not their total funding. Duly noted, but that’s still a huge chunk of their foundational support and the distinction doesn’t diminish my argument one bit. The point is that the NLPC is a significant beneficiary of the largesse of the uber-conservative Scaife empire.
That’s pretty much it. Of course, neither of these issues are remotely defamatory. Unless, that is, Flaherty considers it defamatory to overstate the funding they get from Scaife-related groups. His response suggests that he is embarrassed by the association with Scaife. But what’s really funny is that he never refutes or objects to my main point: That his organization advocates a deceptive initiative to covertly disseminate partisan propaganda to desperate news enterprises. I guess that’s something he’s proud of.
With this cease and desist notice Flaherty has gone out of his way to intimidate a blogger exercising free speech over what amounts to a typo and a misappropriation, but he doesn’t bother to counter allegations of unethical journalism. That’s a revealing illustration of conservative priorities.