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Have 'Independent News Service' Groups Crossed the Line?

Apr. 18, 2012
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How accurate is the news you're getting from a nonprofit "independent news service" such as Wisconsin Reporter, Media Trackers, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute or the MacIver Institute?

Not very. But accuracy isn't part of their mission.

The self-proclaimed nonpartisan news services present what could be described as, at best, very slanted stories aimed at supporting Gov. Scott Walker and his policies, or alternatively, trying to discredit those that might make him look bad, like the unions and Democrats, both as groups and as individual members. They have gone so far as to try to sully the reputation of the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office, Government Accountability Board and any judge who has ruled against one of Walker's policies.

They have even published false reports. They've accused recall petition circulators of offering cigarettes to minors for their signatures; claimed that members of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which filed an ethics complaint against state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, had signed recall petitions; and stated that a felon living in a shelter operated by the mother of Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) had illegally voted. These claims were picked up by mainstream news outlets and conservative talk radio and amplified.

It may not undo the damage to those who were smeared, but further investigation revealed that all of these claims were false.

Bradley Foundation and Koch Support

Besides their one-sided reporting, these groups have other things in common. Unlike traditional media outlets, they are set up as nonprofit, tax-exempt entities, 501(c)(3)s that are in the business of educating the public about specific topics, such as the "free market" or "analyzing the news and the news media." They are staffed with former Republican operatives and staffers and a former director of a task force for the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The president of the MacIver Institute was Scott Jensen's chief of staff. Apparently the only one with any professional journalism experience is Bill Osmulski of MacIver News Service.

Another commonality among these groups is that each has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, directly and indirectly, from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers.

And therein lies the rub.

Last year, in his infamous phone conversation with a prankster, Walker directly asked the man posing as "David Koch" for help with getting his message out to the public.

Earlier this year, Koch told the Palm Beach Post, "We're helping him [Walker], as we should. We've gotten pretty good at this over the years. We've spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We're going to spend more."

The Koch brothers support a host of nonprofit, supposedly nonpartisan "free market" groups, including media outlets. According to PRWatch.org, Charles Koch and his family sit on the board of the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, which funds the State Policy Network. That network is one of the funders of the Sam Adams Alliance, which, officially, doesn't disclose its donors, including the source of its $3.7 million donation in 2007. The Sam Adams Alliance funds the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which operates Wisconsin Reporter. MacIver Institute has close ties to the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the Franklin Center. Media Trackers is funded by the Sam Adams Alliance-sponsored American Majority.

The Bradley Foundation's donations might also raise questions. The CEO and president of the Bradley Foundation, Michael Grebe, is also the chair of Scott Walker's campaign, both when he ran for governor in 2010 and during the current recall election. According to Sourcewatch.org, the Bradley Foundation has given the MacIver Institute $310,000 over the past two years, and in 2010 it gave $328,720 to American Majority, the sponsor of Media Trackers. The Bradley Foundation's website lists a $50,000 grant to the Sam Adams Alliance in 2010. It's also poured millions into the Wisconsin Policy and Research Institute (WPRI), which employs 620 WTMJ's Charlie Sykes as a commentator.

How Close Is Too Close?

These connections raise questions about potential coordination between Walker's campaign and these third party groups, which is illegal. Even the controversial Citizens United ruling does not provide coverage for this sort of activity, according to the Alliance for Justice:

"The decision does not change the electoral activities permitted by 501(c)(3)s. Regardless of the changes Citizens United made to election law, federal tax law still absolutely prohibits 501(c)(3)s from supporting or opposing candidates for public office. 501(c)(3)s cannot endorse candidates or make independent expenditures suggesting who is the 'better' candidate without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status."

In March, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) announced that it had filed a complaint with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service against the MacIver Institute, the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), another group that has received funding from the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation. In its complaint, WDC accuses AFP and MacIver of violating their 501(c)(3) status by creating their "It's Working Wisconsin" project, which spent $1.2 million on advertising alone, urging people not to sign the recall petitions. In addition, WDC accused these groups of holding public meetings and other activities to try to influence the outcome of the recalls. WDC also alleged that the Chicago-based Heartland Institute's planned "Operation Angry Badger"—a public relations effort to support Walker in the recall—would violate the group's tax-exempt status.

No one from Wisconsin Reporter, Media Trackers or the MacIver Institute has responded to requests to comment for this article.

Enforce Good Government

So are groups like the MacIver Institute and Media Trackers doing anything illegal?

That would be hard to prove.

Marquette University Law School associate professor Edward Fallone said that the "coordination between a campaign and a third party group is very difficult to prove unless someone from one of the organizations comes forward with hard evidence of such coordination."

Fallone said that Koch and Grebe could simply claim that they gave this money to these groups because they share a common political philosophy, which would not rise to the level of coordination.

Attorney Michael Maistelman, one of Wisconsin's leading authorities on election laws, agreed. He stated that it would only reach the level of illegal coordination if it could be proven that Grebe or someone from Walker's campaign had communications with the media sources. He added that such communication could include general, informal conversations at an event such as a political rally or a dinner.

Maistelman also said that if there is "any sort of communication between the campaign and a third party group, then anything of value received from the third party group would have to be reported as an in-kind contribution and would be subject to campaign finance limits."

The activities of the news media groups might violate the spirit of the campaign laws, but it would be very difficult to enforce in a court of law.

So what can be done?

While it is very difficult to try to force adherence to the law, which can be worked around and avoided with relative ease, there is a solution, per Fallone: "You have to have a culture that enforces good government."

Chris Liebenthal runs the political blog Cognitive Dissidence at cognidissidence.blogspot.com.

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