In 2011, fully 95 percent of the Franklin Center’s revenues came from a charity called Donors Trust, whose top contributors were the Koch brothers. (CJR first profiled the Franklin Center last September.)
The Franklin Center, in turn, created a website of state-based reporting, called Watchdog.org—fed by “a network of journalists reporting on state and local governments.” The Watchdog.org site serves as a hub for stories from Watchdog outlets in 23 states. (Editor’s note: See comment from author below detailing the nature of the financial relationship between the Kochs and the Watchdog sites.)
What kind of stories?
Here are the headlines featured on Watchdog’s national page on a random Thursday (March 28): What really makes Roger Ailes run? (A rumination inspired by Zev Chafet’s new book. Roger Ailes, Off Camera); The East is red ink: Obama’s China solar model fails; Your taxes help promote the world’s most hated dictators; National GOP boss: Message isn’t broken, but delivery needs some work. Each of the 23 states, meanwhile, gets its own page, with multiple pieces about government. Here are headlines from a random pick, Florida’s top three entries on March 28: Florida Tea Party welcomes gun manufacturers; Pension reform gets too real for Florida Senate Republicans; Florida teachers unions block efforts to reform failing schools.
Like other outlets, Watchdog mixes substantive accountability stories, which mostly focus on misuse of public monies, with analysis, such as Roger Ailes: More Complex than His Critics Would Like to Believe.
“All publications have a mission and a voice,” states the Center’s website. “We are unabashed in ours: to spotlight waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars by state and local governments. We conform to the Society of Professional Journalists standards, follow AP style and are not partisan or political.”
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.