Wikicountablity.org is not Karl Rove’s wiki, photos of Karl Rove accompanying the New York Times’s two Wikicountability stories (and my headline) notwithstanding. Wikicountability.org may not even be a wiki, if by that one means a collaborative web site to which anyone can contribute, since, at launch last month, the site welcomed only approved contributors. (But maybe, as the Times has it, the “wiki” prefix, rather than holding a specific meaning, “mainly these days conveys a certain coolness, like adding ‘3-D’ to an animated movie or ‘space age’ to a powdered orange drink.” Noted: the Times was sure to get this prefix into its headline.)
So, what is this web site with the name that rolls off the tongue? And, just as key, why is it?
On March 23, Crossroads GPS—the political advocacy group that was co-founded last year by Karl Rove, spent $17 million on behalf of Republicans during election 2010, plans to spend, with sister group American Crossroads, $120 million during election 2012, and keeps its donors secret—set up Wikicountability.org to push for greater transparency from the Obama administration by serving as a repository for the filing and tracking of Freedom of Information Act requests and the crowd-sourcing of information obtained thereof.
The launch was greeted with skepticism in some media parts, with the fact that a group co-founded by Rove (and that doesn’t disclose its donors) is pushing for greater transparency from the federal government attracting more attention than the fact that there is now another group pushing for greater transparency from the federal government (which, you know, could be useful.)
“So pure Karl Rove,” blogged MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “Take the weakest thing about yourself, and brag about it as if it’s a strength…[N]ow Crossroads PAC — which doesn’t reveal its donors — is a crusader for political transparency.”
Gawker’s headline: “Karl Rove Loves the Freedom of Information Act Now.” And the biting lede:
Fat asshole Karl Rove, who helped design and maintain the most contemptuous and opaque presidential administration since Richard Nixon’s, loves transparency now that a black Democrat is charge. So he’s launched a clearinghouse for documents obtained through the FOIA.
CBS News, in the last sentence of its report, notes:
It’s worth noting that Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with Bush administration official Karl Rove, is not exactly a hallmark of transparency: The group refuses to disclose its donors, who have been reported to largely be “Wall Street hedge fund moguls and other wealthy donors.”
Mother Jones’s David Corn, whose name came up in one of Wikicountability’s first “scoops,” criticized the site (and discredited that “scoop”) in a post headlined “Karl Rove’s Audacious Transparency Hypocrisy.” At Slate, Dave Weigel brushed off the “hypocrisy” objections, sounding “three cheers” for a group “assembling public documents in one place” (and pointing to “hypocrisy” on the part of some of the folks pointing out “hypocrisy.”) Politico hewed close to Wikicountability’s press release, summarizing the site’s mission and initial revelations.
The New York Times, meanwhile, seemed swept away by the “wiki” of it all, writing:
This seems to be an early effort to use the idea behind WikiLeaks, a repository of secretive or difficult-to-obtain documents, for a specific political end.
In much the same way news outlets have tried to harness social networking tools to improve their reports and then popularize them, Crossroads GPS is experimenting with a system of distributed accountability (or distributed opposition research, if you prefer).
But the Times fails to make clear a key detail. Crossroads GPS does not disclose its donors. In order to keep on keeping its donors secret Crossroads must maintain its 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group status with the IRS. In order to maintain that status (technically, although it shouldn’t live in fear) its primary purpose can not be election-related. It must, as a “social welfare” organization, also do “issues”-related work. Work like…setting up a “wiki site” to, in its words, “make federal departments and agencies more accountable to the public.”
The Times does not spell this out, noting in passing that “because of its tax designation [Crossroads GPS] is supposed to focus primarily on issues rather than candidates,” but not finishing that thought (and if doesn’t, it could lose its tax designation, i.e., that which allows it to keep its donors secret.) The only account I found that makes this point explicitly is at Salon, from Alex Pareene, who put it this way:
I am always in favor of more document dumps and FOIA requests and damning information about our government, but the obvious purpose of Wikicountability is to foment misleading talking points.
Well, actually, the point of Wikicountability is to allow Rove’s nonprofit “educational” 501(c)(4) to maintain its nonprofit status by pretending to be doing something nonpolitical with 50 percent of the money they’ve raised from secret donors.
If not “the point” of Wikicountability, this—that Crossroads GPS must do “social welfare” work in addition to funding attack ads during elections in order to keep on keeping its donors secret—is certainly a point, and one that should be mentioned in any report on the group’s non-election-related activities. This is the second time I’ve noticed the Times failing to do so.Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR. Tags: Alex Pareene, Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove, New York Times, Wikicountability