As newsrooms across the country shave off staff due in part to slipping ad revenue and corporate media conglomeration, The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is rushing to fill the gap. The group has 43 state news websites, with writers in over 40 states. Its reporters have been given state house press credentials and its news articles are starting to appear in mainstream print newspapers in each state. Who funds Franklin and what is its agenda?
The Funding Trail Leads to Bradley, Koch, and Other Right-Wing Groups
The websites started sprouting up in 2009. Some of these new sites go by the moniker "Reporter" as with the Franklin Center's Wisconsin Reporter that was launched in January as a website and wire-like service. Others have taken the shared name of "Watchdog.org," or "Statehouse News." The websites all offer their content free to local press -- many of the news bureaus send out their articles to state editors every day. The sites also offer free national stories that media can receive daily by subscribing.
The websites are coordinated and funded by a new non-profit group that calls itself the "Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity." The Franklin Center told the Center for Media and Democracy that it does not disclose its funders, but some of its funding can been uncovered from foundation reports. Franklin acts as a hub that distributes funding that it receives from right-wing institutions such as the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance. The North Dakota and DC-based center works with reporters embedded in conservative think tanks and others who have their own news bureaus.
According to Media Transparency, a media watchdog group that was acquired by Media Matters Action Network in 2008, the Bradley Foundation's clear political agenda and network has allowed it to have extensive influence on public policy. The media group notes that while the Foundation's "targets range from affirmative action to social security, it has seen its greatest successes in the area of welfare 'reform' and attempts to privatize public education through the promotion of school vouchers." The Bradley Foundation gave the Franklin Center $190,500 last year.
The Franklin Center was launched with the help of Sam Adams Alliance, which calls itself "SAM." The CEO of SAM, Eric O'Keefe, has been featured at events funded by David Koch's right-wing group called "Americans for Prosperity" (AFP). As the Center for Media and Democracy/PRWatch.org has previously noted, O'Keefe frequently and positively profiles the Tea Party and attacks health care reform and other progressive ideas. He also helped launch the "American Majority" group which trains conservatives to run for office. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Club for Growth Wisconsin, which ran divisive ads in support of Scott Walker's radical overhaul of collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin workers. He previously worked for David Koch's AFP predecessor group named "Citizens for a Sound Economy," among other roles.
O'Keefe's latest enterprise, SAM, gets part of its funding from the State Policy Network (SPN), which is partially funded by The Claude R. Lambe Foundation. Charles Koch, one of the billionaire brothers who co-own Koch Industries, and his wife and children, along with long-time Koch employee Richard Fink, comprise the board of this foundation. SAM is named after Founding Father Sam Adams, one of the leaders in the Boston Tea Party tax protests.
In its first year, the Franklin Center had a budget of $2.9 million, much of it from O'Keefe's SAM.
"Franklin Center" Staffed by Right-Wing Activists
Many Franklin staffers have ties to conservative activist groups and the GOP. The Franklin Center’s president, Jason Stverak, is the former Regional Field Director for SAM, and former Executive Director of the North Dakota Republican Party.
In late July, Erik Telford, the Director of Membership Online Strategy for Koch's AFP, announced that he would take on the position of Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Outreach for the Franklin Center. He had worked at AFP for four and a half years. In his farewell letter, he minced no words in explaining the activist role he will play in his new position, "As I move on to a new challenge, I look forward to staying involved with AFP, but now in an even more important capacity: that of a member and grassroots activist."
The Franklin Center's Director of Donor Relations, Matt Hauck, is a former Associate at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The center's Chief of Staff, Gwen Beattie, is the former Director of Development and Operations at America's Future Foundation, an organization committed to "identify and develop the next generation of conservative and libertarian leaders." The Franklin Center's 2009 IRS 990 form lists Rudie Martinson as director and secretary. He formerly worked as the assistant state director for North Dakota's chapter of Koch's Americans for Prosperity.
The Franklin Center was one of the sponsors of the Western Republican presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas this month, along with Americans for Prosperity and other right-wing groups.
Interestingly, unlike traditional journalistic outlets, the screening process for writing for websites like the Wisconsin Reporter asks applicants ideological questions. As the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school and resource for journalists, has reported, Wisconsin Reporter applicants must answer questions like: “How do free markets help the poor?” and “Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?” Such queries likely have optimal answers to a group like the Wisconsin Reporter, just as some of its stories have been criticized for being results-oriented in ways that are consistent with its funders' world view.
The address listed on the Franklin Center's 2011 nonprofit disclosure form is a UPS Store Post Office box, as reported by a North Dakota political blog. The North Dakota phone line on the Franklin Center contact page is re-routed to the DC office.
"The Franklin Center" Supports the American Legislative Exchange Council
At the 2011 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual conference in New Orleans, The Franklin Center was listed as a "Vice-Chairman" level sponsor of the ALEC conference. In 2010, this equated to a gift of at least $25,000. It was also one of about 60 companies and institutions represented in the conference exhibition hall. ALEC brings corporations, such as Koch Industries, and state legislators together in task forces to vote on so-called “model legislation” that benefits the corporate bottom line or ALEC's ideological agenda. These bills are then introduced by legislators in state houses across the country, without any mention that corporations previously approved such legislation behind closed doors, as the Center for Media and Democracy has reported.
Sloppy Reporting, or Manufacturing News?
In August 2010, the West Virginia Watchdog blog reported that an unnamed source said that the former Democratic Governor Joe Manchin's office had been subpoenaed as part of a federal grand jury investigation. The story said that the subpoenas asked for contracts and records for businesses that have done work at the governor’s mansion. "The target may be Manchin himself, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous," the original story said.
The governor’s office responded saying that “Neither subpoena was directed to Governor Manchin or the Governor’s Office. No individual in the Governor’s Office was served with a subpoena…. The State has not been informed that Governor Manchin or any other state employee is under investigation.” The West Virginia Watchdog updated its site with these statements then reported that their "source was ultimately wrong about the purpose of the subpoenas." But the damage had been done. The article was picked up by the Associated Press, Charleston CBS affiliate, Charleston Daily Mail, and other news sites. The story also was reported in outlets like Politico and CNN. The reporter who broke the story is stationed at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia. While this group does not disclose its funders, some outlets have alleged it to be linked to the Koch brothers.
The timing was convenient. Manchin had announced in July of that year he would run to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, who passed away in 2010. Despite the controversy, Manchin did end up taking Byrd's seat.
In February, the Franklin Center's Wisconsin Reporter sponsored a questionable poll asserting that 71% of state residents thought Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's budget proposal to cut the collective bargaining rights of most of the state's public sector workers was "fair." Several local and national news outlets cited the poll without investigation, including MSNBC. The result seemed completely out of whack with other polling leading some to question the source. The same month, We Ask America, largely owned by the Illinois Manufacturing Association, a leading business organization in the region, conducted a similar poll surveying 2,400 Wisconsin residents and found that 52 percent opposed Walker's plan. The Franklin Center's poll was conducted by Pulse Opinion Research.
In 2009, the New Mexico Watchdog reported that based on data from Recovery.gov, millions of dollars were spent in non-existent congressional districts in the state. The story picked up steam among reporters, even turned into a Colbert Report segment called "Know your Made-up District." The Franklin Center released a national report that said $6.4 billion in stimulus money had been spent in hundreds of “phantom” congressional districts. There was truth to the New Mexico Watchdog report, but it turned out, as reported by the Associated Press, that the culprit was an error-ridden government database. The funds were actually distributed to the right recipients, but errors, such as zip codes entered incorrectly, accounted for the "phantom districts." The money had not, as the report suggested, been unaccounted for or misused.
Even with this new information on the shortfalls of the Recovery.gov site, the Franklin Center failed to set the record straight. In its 2010 Annual report, the Center boasted it broke the story that federal stimulus money was allocated to 440 non-existing congressional districts. It did not mention the errors in the database, but let the record stand as a story of government waste.
Franklin Center Comes Under Fire From Journalism Watchdogs
The journalistic integrity of these sites has been called into question by media watchdog groups. Laura McGann, assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, wrote in a 2010 piece in the Washington Monthly, that the Franklin Center sites are engaging in distorted reporting across the country.
"As often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions," wrote McGann, who pointed to several instances where the Watchdog websites wrote stories that turned out to be misleading or untrue.
"This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy," she wrote.
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, using a sliding scale of highly ideological, somewhat ideological and non-ideological, ranked the “Watchdog.org” franchise "highly ideological." Not surprisingly, Glenn Beck, a controversial conservative FOX talk show host, has touted the Franklin Center's network as a nonpartisan trusted source of news and information.
Writers affiliated with Franklin Center groups are asking for accreditation in various legislatures.
Responding to criticisms from the Neiman Foundation, Jason Stverak said: "Obviously, there is skepticism coming from some in the traditional legacy media…. We write for the people, and the content that we produce is at such a high-quality level that it is continually being embraced by consumers in each community."
New Breed of Reporting
Graeme Zielinski, Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesperson, accused the Wisconsin Reporter of using off-the-record comments, butchering quotes, and not correcting the record when errors were called to its attention.
Zielinski told the Center for Media and Democracy that he's never worked with a news outlet that operates like the Wisconsin Reporter. He acknowledges that other outlets across the state are biased, but the difference, he said, is that the Wisconsin Reporter's content is ideologically-motivated and passed off in newspapers across the state as "straight-shooting reporting." He calls their methods of journalism "ambush reporting." He said he has received calls late in the evening and early in the morning on weekends from their reporters, given a short deadline to comment on slanted and inflammatory statements.
Yet, this newsource is gaining traction in the state. Wisconsin Reporter's stories have been picked up by a host of local media outlets in the state, such as La Crosse Tribune, Eau Claire’s Leader Telegram, Wausau Daily Herald, Steven's Point Journal, Chippewa Herald, and Beloit Daily News.
Dave Zweifel, co-founder and long-serving president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, and editor of the Madison-based Capital Times, told the Center for Media and Democracy that the Wisconsin Reporter is a new breed of news reporting. "Of course, many news organizations are owned by corporations or supported by politically active donors, but most keep a hands off approach when it comes to covering the news," he said. "This outfit masks itself as an investigative journalism service that provides free content to newspapers, many of which are cash-strapped these days, and eager for such a product.... You have to give these guys credit for capturing the moment when the press is particularly vulnerable."
This manner of producing and distributing 'news' is such a clever idea that its inspired other right-wing think tanks to devote resource to news production. The Heritage Foundation launched the "Scribe," a blog that features reports complimentary to the Foundation's stance on policy issues. It cites the Franklin Center's successes in expanding think tank journalism as a reason for its launch.