Politics

How Political Donors Are Changing Statehouse News Reporting

A growing share of statehouse reporting in state capitols across the country comes from conservative groups, blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy.
by | November 2014
Watchdog Radio’s Benjamin Yount broadcasts from a former hair salon 35 miles from the Illinois Capitol. Kristen Schmid

The talk radio segment started with the opening guitar riffs of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City.” Then, over the first drumbeats of the 1987 rock anthem, came the deep, resonant voice of a male announcer, “Holding government accountable for how they spend our money, it’s Illinois Watchdog Radio: Watching the statehouse and cities across the state.”

Finally, host Benjamin Yount took the microphone. He playfully mimicked the driving sounds of the Guns N’ Roses guitar for a few seconds before launching in with his name, a Twitter handle and a number to text. Then, with a cadence common on conservative talk shows -- rapid succession of escalating questions, dramatic pauses and a tone of incredulity -- he got down to business.

The business for this particular mid-September segment, which was broadcast by several downstate Illinois stations, was a discussion of who deserved to be treated as legitimate media. The conversation celebrated a legal victory for a conservative Illinois blog, but Yount quickly turned to questioning long-held assumptions about journalism itself.

Yount, who has been an Illinois statehouse reporter for eight years, mentioned the many press passes hanging on his studio wall, 35 miles from the state Capitol in Springfield. He wondered why citizen journalists, including those who are advocates of one cause or another, should be treated differently than traditional journalists who see themselves as objective. “What is it going to take to legally erase that line? Should there be a line?” he asked, his indignation rising. “Should legally we recognize the difference between someone who is media and someone who is just an angry mom, an angry grandparent, the average taxpayer?”

For seasoned reporters, the idea that anyone off the street can do what they do is tough to take. But Yount is far from alone in pushing the idea that we need to re-examine who is qualified to cover state government. In fact, blurring the lines around what is considered legitimate media is a major emphasis of his employer and institutions like it.

The group he works for, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is deploying reporters to cover state and local governments around the country. Its ultimate ambition is to have bureaus in every state. But they aren’t news bureaus in the way many traditional journalists understand them. They are being paid to cover government from an unabashedly ideological perspective.

The Franklin Center has been one of the top recipients of money from groups tied to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. It grew from zero outlets to 30 in its first year in 2009. By its second year, it claimed outposts in 41 states.

The initial sites varied widely in their approach. Some covered events in a relatively straightforward fashion; others made little effort to conceal their ideological bent. After some shake-ups and streamlining, most of the sites that didn’t become financially self-sufficient now appear under the Watchdog banner.

Other groups, many tied to Koch-funded conservative think tanks, are trying their hand at mixing advocacy and journalism at the state level as well. Like Franklin’s Watchdog, they offer a steady diet of articles and reports on conservatives’ go-to issues, including excessive government spending, union abuses, the virtues of school choice and the folly of overregulation.

On one Watchdog Radio segment, Yount interviewed an expert from the Mercatus Center, an anti-regulatory think tank, to discuss whether federal unemployment data is needed at all. His co-host talked with a scholar from the Manhattan Institute, another conservative group, about the dangers of unfunded pension liability in the states. Both of these institutions are funded by Koch-related groups, a fact that wasn’t mentioned in the segment.

Watchdog’s Illinois site draws stories from Yount and from the Illinois News Network, which is based at yet another conservative think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute. Its stories are almost always critical of the way the state operates. In September, they included a profile of an Illinois lawmaker who moved away to Texas; an explanation of why declining unemployment numbers in Illinois weren’t as good as they seemed; and an exploration of how much rent the state pays for Springfield residences for statewide officeholders ($72,420 a year).

In a state run by Democrats, the downbeat assessments reinforce Republican messages that Illinois is not just broke but broken. Even in states run by Republicans, though, Franklin’s Watchdog sites rarely paint government in a positive light.

Of course, there’s a marked difference in the way Democrats and Republicans view the news media. A September Gallup poll found 71 percent of Republicans thought the media was too liberal. Democrats, on the other hand, were only slightly more likely to say the media was too conservative than too liberal. Half of Dems thought the media was “just about right.”

These attitudes give conservative organizations an opening to try to win new readers and listeners and reshape state-level press coverage. In a study of statehouse reporters released this summer, the Pew Research Center found 33 ideological outlets with state capitol reporters across the country. All but one of those outlets were conservative.

Franklin Center President Jason Stverak says the center focused on state government because of the “vacuum of content” brought on by the dwindling mainstream press corps. “We saw rapid expansion of government at both the state and federal level over the past six years,” he says. “Who’s going to watch how that money is being spent?”

Stverak says Watchdog sites write critically of both Republican and Democratic officeholders. New Jersey Watchdog has written several stories about the refusal of Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to release the governor’s travel records and about its involvement in helping public officials collect bigger pensions. Watchdog complains that Christie’s office “blacklisted” it by not sending it press advisories.

In Texas, where every elected statewide official is a Republican, the Watchdog site took sides in an internecine power struggle at the University of Texas. It reported that state legislators helped their friends get into the university’s law school despite low test scores, and went after the university president for being too cozy with state legislators. The site also defended the president’s chief critic on the Board of Regents.

But Watchdog relishes the chance to go after Democrats. In last year’s contest for governor of Virginia, that state’s Watchdog site raised ethical and legal questions about an electric car company founded by Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. The site’s coverage provoked an $85 million libel lawsuit by the car company, claiming Watchdog’s stories scared off investors. The suit was dismissed, and McAuliffe won the election.

What is clear is that, when Watchdog sinks its teeth into a story, it doesn’t let go. The series on the University of Texas is up to 30 installments. An investigation called “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” which challenges prosecutors’ handling of a secret probe into Republican Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups allied with him, has posted more than 120 stories. An exploration of ways to privatize education has reached 129 parts.

Critics on the left are quick to question the claims of Franklin and the Watchdog network that they produce reliable journalism. “This assembly line of politics, policy and news is unprecedented in American history,” says Fred Clarkson, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Political Research Associates. “They are a corrupt enterprise using the façade of journalism to carry out a political agenda.” Clarkson questions whether the new outlets ought to be considered journalism at all, because they are closely aligned with or sometimes are part of advocacy organizations.

Clarkson’s group spends much of its time documenting and criticizing the activities of these organizations. The group focuses on the links among the Franklin Center; the organization of conservative think tanks known as the State Policy Network; and other conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Much of the funding for each, as of 2012, can be traced back to Donors Trust and Donors Capital, two secretive nonprofit organizations with ties to Charles and David Koch. The Franklin Center alone received nearly $9.5 million from the two groups in 2012, or more than 80 percent of its annual budget.

In addition to that, groups linked to the Koch brothers spread around another $2.7 million to conservative think tanks in 31 states to fund “journalism operations.” The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan received the largest sum. It has hired four reporters to produce Michigan Capitol Confidential, which it calls “the news source for Michigan residents who want an alternative to ‘bigger government’ remedies in policy debates.”

Grow Missouri, a conservative group backed by retired financial executive Rex Sinquefield, tried unsuccessfully to hire Alex Stuckey, a statehouse reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to write “bylined, or no byline if preferred, articles” for its blog. The email solicitation, which Stuckey shared on Twitter, said the group did not want to create “politically charged content.”

What difference has all this money and effort made? It is hard to tell. The ideological press operations have only a few reporters, at most, in each state. They certainly haven’t supplanted traditional media. Sometimes it is hard to tell how much of a following they have even among conservative legislators. Linda Upmeyer, the Republican majority leader in the Iowa House, chairs the ALEC board of directors. When it comes to digital news outlets, she says that “if the information out there is generally reflective of our constituents, then we are very interested.” But then she adds that “oftentimes, we find there’s something different at the heart of it, that there’s a reason the information is there, and perhaps it is more lobbying than information.”

Stverak, the president of the Franklin Center, says the group’s success ultimately depends on the quality of its stories. “You can have all the money in the world and you can have all the backing in the world,” he says, “but at the end of the day, if what you produce is not credible journalism, over time you are not going to be followed, you are not going to be accepted as news, you are not going to be accepted as journalists.”

The growth of the ideological press corps has forced established journalists, political leaders and the public to confront the questions Yount raises about who, exactly, ought to be treated and trusted as members of the media. What’s the proper way to treat new media reporters who have a clear political ideology? What if they are also employees of lobbying organizations funded by some of the biggest political donors in the country?

The questions take on an even greater urgency as the traditional outlets that once supplied statehouse news offer less and less of it.

After decades of erosion in newspaper coverage of state capitols, the bottom fell out between 2003 and 2009. Print publications were already reeling from huge, Internet-triggered losses in subscribers and advertising dollars when the Great Recession delivered another crushing blow to their business models. Reporters assigned to distant posts, whether in foreign countries or in state capitols, were among the first to be dumped. By 2009, nearly one in four full-time newspaper reporter positions in the country’s statehouses had been eliminated. Since then, the numbers have declined another 12 percent.

The Pew Research Center, which released the latest count of statehouse reporters in July, found 17 reporters who work full-time from state capitols for “ideological” outlets, such as the Franklin Center’s sites. Another 36 reporters with similar connections pitch in part-time or when the legislature is in session. That amounts to only 2 percent of full-time statehouse reporters. But it means the ideological outlets now have a presence in nearly every state capitol.

To get a sense of how the once-bright lines between advocacy and journalism are fading, it’s helpful to look at the variety of new players covering state government in Illinois, the state that has lost the largest number of statehouse newspaper reporters since 2009.

Yount, the reporter for the Franklin Center’s Illinois Watchdog site, has a press pass and a cramped desk in one of the capitol’s basement press areas. But because he is not focused on the day-to-day action, he often works from a bigger office in Lincoln, a half-hour drive away. He is included in Pew’s tally as a member of the statehouse press corps.

Amanda Vinicky is the Capitol bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio. She and the rest of the statehouse press corps were recently moved to the basement.

Scott Reeder and Brady Cremeens are not. They both work for Illinois News Network. Their stories and columns appear on Watchdog.org and in various newspapers around the state, most of them too small to be able to afford a subscription to The Associated Press.

Reeder once worked in the statehouse pressroom, reporting for a chain of small newspapers. In fact, he says, the main difference between his work then and his work now is that he has more readers now. Both the Illinois House and Senate, though, denied him access to the chambers’ press boxes, because of his connection to the Illinois Policy Institute, an organization that lobbies at the Capitol. They don’t want to give lobbyists front-row seats at the General Assembly.

Reeder and the think tank sued the legislative leaders for access, but lost in federal court in April. The judge raised questions about the motives for the denial of credentials, but ruled that officers of the legislature were protected by legislative immunity. The case is now on appeal.

The Better Government Association also was denied credentials because of its lobbying activities. The group, formed to expose corruption in Prohibition-era Chicago, recently stepped up its coverage of state government in Springfield. The organization was blocked from the press box because it lobbies legislators to strengthen transparency laws, eliminate obscure local government bodies and improve the criminal justice system.

Robert Reed, the Better Government Association’s director of investigations and programming, says the denial won’t stop the group from covering Springfield. “We don’t need credentials to do what we do,” he says, noting that there are plenty of ways to talk to legislators outside their chambers. “It’s not an issue for us. It does not delegitimize us in any way, shape or form.”

Meanwhile, another ambitious project, called Reboot Illinois, has surfaced with the goal of combining journalism and advocacy on state issues. Headed by Madeleine Doubek, former executive editor of the Daily Herald, a major suburban newspaper, the project is described by Doubek as “a digital journalism site with an editorial page and an act-up button.”

Doubek says she wants to reach angry, disenchanted Illinoisans who have tuned out all of the bad news about state government. Reboot uses online tools to help visitors contact their legislators, plus social media tie-ins and regional events to encourage active citizenship. The site promotes its own opinions and prepopulates messages to legislators, but readers are free to substitute the text with their own.

Reboot Illinois, now funded by wealthy backers, has another major goal, which is to turn a profit. It operates out of the Chicago area and has not sought press credentials at the state capitol.

Nationally, the idea of viewpoint journalism funded by advocacy groups is nothing new. Mother Jones, the leftist magazine that unearthed the video of Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment in 2012, has been run by the Foundation for National Progress since 1976.

The libertarian Reason magazine, which was founded in 1968, is produced by the Reason Foundation, which received more than $557,000 in 2012 from the same secretive donors that bankroll the Franklin Center.

The recent emergence of more outlets that “foreground their bias or disposition,” says Nick Gillespie, a longtime editor at the Reason Foundation, is a reminder of an earlier era of journalism, when newspapers were so partisan their names often carried party labels such as the Arkansas Democrat, Waterbury Republican or the Quincy Herald-Whig.

“Every great reporter that I know has a clear point of view,” Gillespie says. “The difference is, some of them show it and some of them don’t.”

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