united states project

‘Serious, point-of-view journalism’?

A look at the most ambitious conservative news organization you’ve never heard of
September 13, 2012

At 4:45 on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, Kevin Palmer stands in the lobby of the Charlotte Convention Center, holding a whiteboard reading, “Tell me about the 1%.” Palmer, a recent Harvard graduate, is a reporter for the Franklin Center, a nonprofit, conservative-leaning online media organization that publishes news and commentary on state and national politics. The whiteboard is an innovative attempt to attract interviewees. Everyone wants my picture,” Palmer says. “It’s campy, but it works.”

Palmer and his colleagues have been in Charlotte all week, filing five to eight dispatches a day: a long, reported piece about what, exactly, political conventions are good for; an article by Dustin Hurst about the trash cans in the DNC convention hall; a story about how non-swing states are not drawing much national attention during this election season. It’s typical convention coverage—with a distinctly conservative twist.

The Franklin Center is perhaps the most ambitious conservative news organization you’ve never heard of. Founded in 2009 by Jason Stverak, a former Republican campaign operative, and initially funded by over $2 million in seed money from the conservative Sam Adams Alliance, the Franklin Center funds small online news operations in 18 states. (CJR’s Guide to Online News Startups has profiled several Franklin Center sites.) Eschewing the usual online mix of punditry and aggregation, the sites produce an impressive amount of investigative state and local political reporting, often focusing on government waste and public employee unions, both of which the Franklin Center dislikes. According to its own website, the Franklin Center “already provides 10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide.”

When it first began, the Franklin Center served as sort of a news incubator, giving money and training to independent news organizations across the country, many staffed by veteran reporters with longstanding ties to the states they were covering. (The sites varied in quality.) Now—according to the Franklin Center’s vice president of journalism, Steven Greenhut—the Center is consolidating those independent sites into one main site, Watchdog.org, that contains all of the Center’s statehouse reporting. The Center also runs a citizen journalism platform called Watchdog Wire, and publishes some content on its own site, FranklinCenterHQ.org.

The sites report from an obviously conservative standpoint, about which the editors do not apologize. (Though the Franklin Center’s website claims that its sites are nonpartisan, this seems only nominally true.) “We try to set the agenda. That’s what a good newspaper does and what a good website does,” said the Center’s Greenhut, a former O.C. Register columnist, during a panel discussion in Tampa the week of the Republican National Convention. “We have a point of view. Big deal.”

Some say the Franklin Center sites have more than just a point of view. In a July piece titled “How A Right-Wing Group Is Infiltrating State News Coverage,” Media Matters’ Joe Strupp suggests that the sites are thinly disguised lobbying organizations that conceal their activism by calling it journalism. Noting that the Franklin Center does not disclose its funders, and interviewing several other journalists who “speak warily of the group’s ideological bent,” Strupp describes an intricate web of symbiotic relationships between the Franklin Center sites and various conservative advocacy organizations, and raises serious questions about the sites’ impartiality.

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Indeed, Palmer’s editors sent him up to the convention center lobby in Charlotte for a specific purpose: to goad inarticulate Democrats into appearing illogical on camera. When people stop, he asks them a series of questions—whether the 1 percent can relate to working people; whether Mitt Romney can relate to working people; whether John Kerry and other wealthy Democrats can relate to working people—designed to elicit responses indicating that it’s alright for Democrats to be rich. “You’re a Mitt Romney supporter, aren’t you?” one woman asks after the interview concludes. A sheepish Palmer admits it. “How did I come across as a Romney supporter there?” he asks after she leaves. It isn’t very hard to tell.

But does their ideology delegitimize their reporting? The Franklin Center stories that I read appear factually accurate, if occasionally odd in emphasis. For instance, it doesn’t seem particularly interesting to me that during the DNC there were people stationed at the trash cans at the Time Warner Cable Arena forcing people to recycle (“call it a miniature nanny state,” wrote Franklin Center’s Dustin Hurst). But there are lots of stories coming out of the convention that don’t interest me. The trash can thing happened, and I guess someone might consider it news.

“There’s a lack of transparency over the whole issue of bias,” said Greenhut during the Franklin Center’s panel in Tampa, scoffing at the way journalists convince themselves that they are completely fair arbiters of the truth. “If you don’t think you have a point of view, then I think you’re more likely to be biased.” The question lurking beneath his argument: is having a conservative bias so much different from having a soft liberal bias, or an establishment bias, or any other bias of the sort that colors so much political coverage?

The worry with sites like these is that a casual online reader, or a reader of one of the local and regional newspapers that run Franklin Center statehouse reporting, might not be aware of the Franklin Center and its agenda or “point of view,” as Greenhut put it. Think Progress, funded by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, is a site that’s somewhat analogous to the Franklin Center. Its “About” section notes that the blog exists to “provide a forum that advances progressive ideas and policies.” The Watchdog.org site, however, makes no mention of the site’s conservative leanings, instead characterizing itself as “a collection of independent journalists covering state-specific and local government activity.”

There’s not necessarily anything nefarious about this. But it’s confusing in a way that Think Progress is not. And while this sort of explanatory language is technically accurate, it also comes across as somewhat evasive. The sites aren’t particularly open about their funding sources, either. Whereas other nonprofit news sites—like CJR, for example—list their major donors, the Franklin Center does not disclose its funders. They say they do this so that editors and reporters won’t feel unduly influenced, or unduly pressured, and will feel free to write the stories they want to write, but this is unconvincing. The point of disclosing donors is to reassure readers, not to free writers from vague editorial pressures which can be exerted a thousand different ways, anyway.

Odds are, the money behind the Franklin Center sites comes from conservative donors wanting their priorities and positions represented in news. But the money behind the news has always been politicized; publishers have always purchased newspapers in order to push their own agendas. This isn’t to excuse or justify this sort of activity, just to say that the Franklin Center certainly didn’t invent it. Yes, it’s important to trace the provenance of the money that funds reporting, especially in an era when it’s so easy to set up benign-sounding groups and nonprofits that serve only to mask the true motives of the people providing the money. And it’s important that readers know where, agenda-wise, the Franklin Center comes from—just as it’s important to know where any news organization comes from these days.

But, beyond that, we should judge them on their reporting. More and more often, ideologically motivated groups like the Franklin Center are going to be filling the reporting vacuum. “The opportunities caused by a crisis in journalism are going to continue,” said Franklin Center founder Jason Stverak during the Tampa panel. “You’ve seen more and more newspapers go to three days a week, and say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll have just as many stories, we’ll just put it up online.’ [If you believe that,] there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.”

Whatever you might think of their motives, the Franklin Center staffers claim they want to do good work. “I do believe there’s a strain of political journalism out there on the right and on the left that’s ‘gotcha’ journalism,” said Greenhut. “We do serious, point-of-view journalism. But we don’t deal with straw-men arguments. We deal with the best arguments the other side has. We’re trying to do pieces that matter.”

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.