By Steven Greenhut | Watchdog.org
It’s been a weird week, as I’ve been caught up in the left-wing echo chamber.
On Tuesday, the Huffington Post published my column complaining about the sorry state of journalism – at least as it is practiced by some elite news organizations that have tried to “expose” the funding of the Franklin Center, the parent organization of Watchdog.org.
As I explained in this piece, a number of left-wing, nonprofit journalism enterprises have been recirculating stories on the subject, breathlessly trying to portray us as right-wing-funded shills for the Republican agenda, without bothering to look at the substance of our work. First, Media Matters wrote a piece about us, followed by a piece by the Center for Public Integrity that cites Media Matters, then Media Matters echoed CPI. The estimable Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review then regurgitated the same stuff without bothering to contact anyone from our organization. When we contacted the Guardian and CJR, they wouldn’t allow a rebuttal — but instead asked us to post our response in the readers’ comment section.
But after I called them to account in Huffington Post, a reporter for CJR finally contacted us with some follow-up questions. That reporter, Sasha Chavkin, also is listed on his [Note: originally we called Sasha “her”; thanks, Sasha, for correcting us] own website as a writer for Center for Public Integrity (one of the activist groups I mentioned in the Huffington Post), which confirms the circular nature of this hit-piece phenomenon and strikes us as a conflict of interest. Given our experiences with these groups, and the nature of the same-old fund-related questions he sent along, I decided to post his questions and our answers below and let readers make their own judgments.
Here are the CJR questions:
1) In the course of working with the Franklin Center, have you ever discussed the editorial content of your work with representatives of Donors Trust, the Knowledge and Progress Fund, or Americans for Prosperity?
2) Earlier this week, you wrote a post for the Huffington Post that criticized media outlets, including CJR, for repeating flawed reporting about the Franklin Center. One story that you criticized was a Center for Public Integrity report, which you wrote inaccurately claimed that a Franklin Center story had been disputed by the AP. Are there any other inaccuracies in the CPI report, and in particular about the details of your funding?
3) Should reporting by mainstream media be more like that of the Franklin Center?
4) The current lead story on the watchdog.org site is entitled “Lefty clearinghouse funnels federal cash to militants,” and its lead sentence says that the Tides Foundation bankrolls “Islamic militant organizations.” What Islamic militant organizations is the article referring to, and how has the Tides Foundation funneled federal cash to them?
Here are my responses:
I’m pleased that the Columbia Journalism Review has decided to take our advice and contact the subject of its latest investigation before publishing the story. This indeed is progress. It appears from your questions, and CJR’s articles on us, that you’ve already reached your conclusion and are now belatedly trying to find evidence to back the claims you’ve already made. You are investigating the sources of our funding, as if there is anything there to actually investigate beyond what you, CPI, Media Matters, the Guardian and other lefty publications have already written.
That’s one way to keep the story alive, but is it a story worth telling? We state these things publicly and repeatedly. Yes, Franklin Center is funded by donors and, no, we do not publish their names to respect their privacy. Left-wing journalism enterprises also are funded by donors and often do not publish the names of their donors, but we haven’t seen any reports from CJR on those groups. If you believe that conservative donors undermine our journalism, then surely you must believe that liberal donors undermine the journalism done by those outfits. Then again, I suspect that the real problem is one of political philosophy: we have a different take on the news than you do.
Personally, I welcome news reporting from all outlets. The more the merrier. So this fixation on right-wing funding sources seems conspiratorial and strange to me. Note that our work has appeared in myriad mainstream newspapers and national publications. Check out our stories on Watchdog.org and you might be shocked at how often we take aim at Republicans, how we criticize corporate welfare, promote civil liberties and present favorable articles on proposals to legalize marijuana. It would be nice if someone in this echo chamber would judge us on the character of our content rather than on the perceived biases based on assumptions about our funding.
By the way, since my reporters don’t know who funds the Franklin Center, I’m not sure how they can be unduly influenced by these supposed “dark money sources.”
Here are answers to your specific questions:
1) We don’t discuss any funding-related issues. No one outside of our editorial board determines the stories we cover or how we cover them.
2) Here is the AP story that directly disputes the CPI claim. CPI reporter Paul Abowd’s story about Franklin Center contains fundamental errors and omissions designed to defame the good name we’ve built through our good work. The story suggests that donors shape our content and that we’re a mouthpiece for a political party. The Guardian story falsely claims we are leading a campaign to stop wind farms on behalf of billionaire conservatives.
It’s tacky that CPI would use the term “called into question” to imply that our Watchdog stories are routinely debunked when that term can be applied to any journalism enterprise. Someone can call into question any news story published anywhere. It’s just ironic that in the only example CPI cited of our supposedly inaccurate journalism, it was CPI that got it wrong.
3) As someone who writes for mainstream media and who has hired reporters who mostly come out of mainstream media, I can assure you that one finds excellent reporting everywhere. We’re proud of the reporting we do at the Franklin Center and encourage readers to judge for themselves. But I do think the MSM would have more credibility if its reporters did as we do at Franklin and simply admit our worldview upfront rather than pretend that they are neutral even as they choose stories and story angles that tilt in a particular direction. But we all can learn much from each other.
4) We’ll be writing more about the groups to which Tides sends money. But for the moment, we’ll say this: Tides tax filings show the group took in some $28 million in government cash and has made contributions to several groups, including The Council on American-Islamic Relations. In 2007, the Justice Department included CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator in its case against groups that support Hamas; as a result of that case, Ghassan Elashi, founder of CAIR’s Texas chapter, is serving a 65-year sentence on terror finance charges. Still uncomfortable two years later, the FBI broke off all formal relations with the group, a policy still in place when President Obama’s FBI director Robert Mueller spoke to Congress. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California rescinded an award she gave a Sacramento CAIR official. The reason: FBI intelligence, she said, showed her “there are things there I don’t want to be associated with.” One can be sympathetic with the aims of CAIR’s rank and file, and still conclude the group’s leadership has a reputation for militancy.Thanks for contacting us.
Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.