For example, Watchdog.org’s March 12 investigation of the liberal Tides Foundation, 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 suggest 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.

If the Koch brothers did procure Tribune Company, or even one of its big guns, like the Los Angeles Times, what is the connection between ownership and point of view? That’s a hard one. Bob Davis, the president of the Association of Opinion Journalists, said that it is traditionally frowned upon for newspaper owners to influence their paper’s news coverage. But he said there are a wide variety of arrangements by which owners can legitimately influence the editorial page. A blog post in the LA Weekly, filed after the writer spoke to a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, suggested that the Kochs might team up in bidding for the paper with Doug Manchester, owner of the former San Diego Union-Tribune, known now as U-T San Diego. LA Weekly wrote that Manchester changed the editorial page of that paper to match his conservative beliefs.

Davis said he does not know the particulars of the Kochs’ interest in the Tribune newspapers, but that “at first blush, it would be a safe assumption” that the editorial pages would be likely to change if they purchased it.

As the process of the sale of Tribune Company newspapers unfolds, reporters both within the company and outside it might want to keep a close eye on who the new owners will be, and on what their track record tells us about their vision for American media. Readers too.

 

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.