Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger
A recent report published by the Center for Media and Democracy has alleged that there is a network of think tanks across this country that has been “quietly pushing the agenda of right-wing groups with funding from Koch brothers-affiliated organizations.” The umbrella organization that these sixty-four think tanks are collaborating with is called the State Policy Network (SPN)—“a nonprofit that nurtures conservative think tanks in all fifty states.”
From SPN’s website:
Founded in 1992 by Tom Roe at the urging of Ronald Reagan, State Policy Network is the only group in the country dedicated solely to improving the practical effectiveness of independent, non-profit, market-oriented, state-focused think tanks. SPN’s programs enable these organizations to better educate local citizens, policy makers and opinion leaders about market-oriented alternatives to state and local policy challenges.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s report, SPN and its “member think tanks” promote an “extreme right-wing agenda” that is much the same as that of “David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, Charles Koch’s Cato Institute, and Koch’s Citizens for a Sound Economy spin-off FreedomWorks–all of which happen to be associate members of ALEC.”
Lisa Graves, the director of the Center for Media and Democracy, claimed that the individual think tanks that are members of the SPN network “present themselves as ‘neutral, non-partisan groups, but are in fact part of a national network to project the voices and interests of some of the most powerful corporations and families in the country.’” During a conference call with reporters, Graves said that “these groups are extraordinarily influential.”
Media Matters reported that SPN is an active member of ALEC—and added that thirty-four of its members “are directly linked back to ALEC.” It was also reported that all of the think tanks in SPN’s network “push parts of ALEC’s agenda in their respective states.” SPN has also been a sponsor of ALEC’s annual meeting for the last three years.
From Media Matters:
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, SPN groups have drafted model legislation attacking worker and environmental protections in several states, including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington. The Center notes that the Arizona-based SPN affiliate, The Goldwater Institute, has three model bills on its website attempting to attack the Affordable Care Act at the state level, while another would treat any gun control legislation at the federal level as the “equivalent of a federal crime.” John Loredo, former Minority Leader of the Arizona House of Representatives, described the Goldwater Institute as “corporate mercenaries who push their agenda at every level of government.”
The Guardian recently reported that Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon, had done research on SPN and its affiliated groups. He found that they “were actively targeting the rights of often non-unionised employees.” Lafer said that his research “had uncovered attempts to expand the use of child labour, cut the minimum wage, reduce unemployment benefit, make it harder to sue employers for sex or race discrimination, or even to police wage theft where companies refused to pay workers over-time or any wages at all.”
At a gathering of GOP donors in San Francisco just days after President Obama had been re-elected, Grover Norquist told those in attendance that with the help of SPN Republican governors might be able to “turn their states into Texas or Hong Kong.” He added, “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
In his article for The Nation titled The Right Leans In: Media-savvy conservative think tanks take aim and fire at progressive power bases in the states, Lee Fang wrote the following:.
These media-savvy organizations—which frequently employ former journalists to churn out position papers, news articles, investigations and social media content with a hard-right slant—bolster the pro-corporate lobbying efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Like ALEC, State Policy Network groups provide an ideological veil for big businesses seeking to advance radical deregulatory policy goals.
Lisa Graves was quoted by Politico as saying, “These aren’t just little think tanks that are doing nonpartisan research based on what’s happening in the state and really reflective of the culture of those states. These are a lot of groups that put together pretty cooked books on the issues they are peddling and have been criticized in state after state for how shoddy their research has been.”
Major Funders of SPN
The SPN network is said to have an annual “war chest” of more than $80 million, which comes from some well-known donors—including the Koch brothers, Philip Morris, Kraft Foods, GlaxoSmithKline, Facebook, Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. Other major donors: Roe Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, Scaife Foundations, Walton Family Foundation, Art Pope, and Searle Freedom Trust.
The Center for Media and Democracy notes that “the largest known funder behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds — DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.” Mother Jones published an article about Donors Trust last February. Andy Kroll, the author of the article, called Donors Trust “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”
Founded in 1999, Donors Trust (and an affiliated group, Donors Capital Fund) has raised north of $500 million and doled out $400 million to more than 1,000 conservative and libertarian groups, according to Whitney Ball, the group’s CEO. Donors Trust allows wealthy contributors who want to donate millions to the most important causes on the right to do so anonymously, essentially scrubbing the identity of those underwriting conservative and libertarian organizations. Wisconsin’s 2011 assault on collective bargaining rights? Donors Trust helped fund that. ALEC, the conservative bill mill? Donors Trust supports it. The climate deniers at the Heartland Institute? They get Donors Trust money, too.
Donors Trust is not the source of the money it hands out. Some 200 right-of-center funders who’ve given at least $10,000 fill the group’s coffers. Charities bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the DeVoses, and the Bradleys, among other conservative benefactors, have given to Donors Trust. And other recipients of Donors Trust money include the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the NRA’s Freedom Action Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, chaired (PDF) by none other than David Koch.
Media Mouthpiece for the Right-Wing Agenda
In February the Center for Public Integrity published an article by Paul Abowd titled Donors use charity to push free-market policies in states: Nonprofit group lets donors fly ‘totally under the radar’. Abowd reported that, in 2009, “a network of online media outlets began popping up in state capitals across the nation, each covering the news from a clearly conservative point of view. What wasn’t so clear was how they were funded.”
Michael Moroney, a spokesman for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity—the think tank that created the outlets, said, “The source is 100 percent anonymous.” According to IRS records, 95% of the Franklin Center’s 2011 revenue came from Donors Trust.
In 2011, Sara Jerving (PR Watch) wrote about the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity’s “rushing to fill the gap” in 2009 as newsrooms across the country were cutting staff “due in part to slipping ad revenue and corporate media conglomeration.” At the time her article was published, the aforementioned network had “43 state news websites, with writers in over 40 states.” Jerving said the network’s reporters had “been given state house press credentials” and that its news articles were “starting to appear in mainstream print newspapers in each state.” Jerving added, “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.”
According to Jerving, the screening process for writers of these media outlets is not like that of other “journalistic outlets.” For example, she said the Wisconsin Reporter asked applicants “ideological questions.” She added that the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school and resource for journalists, had reported that Wisconsin Reporter applicants were asked to answer questions such as the following: “How do free markets help the poor?” and “Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?”
Jerving wrote that the journalistic integrity of Franklin Center’s media sites had been called into question by media watchdog groups. She reported that “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.” Jerving said that McGann pointed out several instances where the center’s “Watchdog websites wrote stories that turned out to be misleading or untrue.” McGann also said, “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.”
Despite the kinds of misleading stories published by the Wisconsin Reporter, it has “gained traction in the state.” Jerving said that its 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.”
Excerpt from the Center for Media and Democracy’s report:
SPN works in parallel with the American Legislative Exchange Council, Alec, a forum that brings together largely Republican legislators and corporations to devise model bills that are used to attack workers’ rights in various US states.
Some of SPN members’ destructive agenda items include:
- Education: Defund and privatize public schools through voucher programs, charter school expansion, and giving tax credits to corporations that fund private schools
- Healthcare: Block access to affordable healthcare by working against the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion
- Workers’ Rights: Restrict workers’ collective bargaining rights by pushing anti-worker measures such as so-called “Right to Work” and paycheck deception, and undermine public workers’ negotiated retirement security by switching to risky defined-contribution pension plans
- Energy & the Environment: Oppose renewable, clean energy sources, while promoting fossil fuels and advocating for the repeal of pollution restrictions and environmental protections
- Taxes: Create a tax system that benefits those at the very top and lowers taxes on corporations, while pushing measures such as flat or supposedly “fair” tax programs that cost workers more in marginal dollars, or replacing the income tax with a higher sales tax, all of which disproportionately raise the relative tax rate on middle and working class families
- Government Spending: Cut government spending on essential services and public programs
- Wages & Income Equality: Oppose raising the minimum wage, and in some cases urge the repeal of minimum wage, living wage, and prevailing wage laws
NOTE: Thanks go to Gene Howington for introducing me to the State Policy Network via The Guardian article–and for suggesting that I might be interested in writing a post on the subject.
Facebook and Microsoft help fund rightwing lobby network, report finds: State Policy Network rejects climate change, opposes workers’ rights – and is backed by some top US tech and telecoms firms (The Guardian)
Meet The Little-Known Network Pushing Ideas For Kochs, ALEC (Huffington Post)
Something Stinks at the State Policy Network (Center for Media and Democracy)
State Policy Network (Right Wing Watch)
Corporate Money in Network of Right-Wing State Policy Think Tanks (Nonprofit Quarterly)
Report: Think tanks tied to Kochs (Politico)
Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement: You haven’t heard of Donors Trust, but it’s bankrolled the right’s fights against unions, public schools, climate scientists, and more. (Mother Jones)
Donors use charity to push free-market policies in states: Nonprofit group lets donors fly ‘totally under the radar’ (Center for Public Integrity)
The Koch brothers’ media investment [UPDATED] (Columbia Journalism Review)