The Franklin Center’s Vice President of Journalism, Steven Greenhut, told CJR that its donors play no role in shaping its coverage. When we sent Greenhut a list of questions for this piece, Greenhut responded in depth—and promptly published his answers in a strongly worded piece disputing any notion that conservative donors taint Watchdog’s coverage. Greenhut urged CJR to examine the Center’s reporting rather than its funders. (He and other Watchdog reporters noted that CJR insists it is unbiased while also relying on donor funding. He could have pointed out that CJR’s donors include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.)
Just to be clear, it is indeed Watchdog’s journalism that we would like to take a glance at in this article. Greenhut’s understandable defense of the Franklin Center’s independence (which we don’t question) does not change the lessons that its approach may offer about the Koch brothers’ journalistic priorities. In light of their potential bid to purchase several of the country’s flagship newspapers, it’s worth taking a look at what the Center tells us about the Koch brothers vision of straight, issues-oriented journalism.
Two aspects of the Franklin Center’s approach stand out as particularly relevant.
One is its hardnosed focus on ferreting out government waste. Franklin Center investigations have examined subsidies to sporting goods chains that run into the billions, high salaries for employees of federal renewable energy programs, and phony disability pensions paid out to New Jersey police officers. While mainstream newspapers also dig into misuse of public funds—Tribune Company’s biggest paper, the Los Angeles Times, for example, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for exposing self-dealing public officials in the California city of Bell—the Franklin Center’s tough everyday scrutiny of government spending offers a clear vision.
A second tendency of the Franklin Center is to occasionally blur reporting and opinion and to go beyond the facts of its findings.
For example, Watchdog.org’s March 12 investigation of the liberal Tides Foundation, for example, headlined Lefty clearinghouse funnels federal cash to militants, alleged in its first sentence that Tides bankrolls “Islamic militant organizations.” Despite the severity of its allegation, the article does not name the militant organizations in question nor offer any evidence that federal funds were provided to such an organization. In fact, the story never returns to the charge.
In response to CJR’s questions, Greenhut said the article was referring to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties advocacy group. He wrote that CAIR was included as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a 2007 Justice Department case against Hamas supporters, and that the founder of its Texas chapter is in jail on terror finance charges. He said that “all money is fungible” and therefore federal money was effectively supporting the group.
A Washington Post fact-check of allegations that CAIR was a terrorist group made by Republican members of Congress found that CAIR was one of 250 groups listed as “unindicted co-conspirators” by the Justice Department in an effort to compel them to produce evidence at a trial. The Post called references to the “unindicted co-conspirator” charge “one of those true facts that ultimately gives a false impression” when it is used to suggested that CAIR is a militant or terrorist organization.
“The allegation that they are sympathizing with terrorists, or use terrorist means, I haven’t seen substantiated in any way,” said Jeffrey Martini, an expert on Islamic movements at the RAND Corporation. “From what I’ve seen of their activities they’re actually on the other side. They’re trying to disavow the use of violence.” Martini said that characterizing the group as militant based on the conviction of a single member would be akin to calling the Democratic or Republican parties criminal organizations on the basis of convictions against individual lawmakers.
Watchdog.org also mixes its reporting with high-decibel commentary—such as Greenhut’s recent column denouncing warnings about sequestration cuts as the government’s “latest strategy scam for more dollars.” The site does not distinguish between straight news and opinion in terms of presentation on the home page, although it does archive them in different categories.