Cross-posted at Blue Virginia
If you want to know the source of the conspiracy theories floating around Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe's former company, GreenTech Auto, look no further than a little website named Watchdog.org and its so-called "Virginia bureau." It sounds like some sort of muckraking investigative site -- until a closer look reveals that this is in fact a watchdog trained to only bark at Democrats and wag its tail at Republicans.
However, it's not just another volunteer-based, opinionated blog like, say, Blue Virginia. Watchdog is funded by big corporate, conservative interests -- including the Koch brothers -- to essentially manage the opposition research for campaigns like Ken Cuccinelli's so that the campaigns can focus their time and money on other things.
They're certainly not legitimate journalists, but they've established their "bureaus" in state capitals across the country, and some state capital correspondents' associations grant them press credentials. Unfortunately that includes our very own Virginia Capital Correspondents Association, of which Watchdog's Kenric Ward -- unlike any other blogger or lobbyist -- is allowed to be a member.
Thanks to some investigative journalism done about them, here's what we do know about the shadowy Watchdog.org:
It gets big bucks from right wing donors: Watchdog is run by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which itself was launched by the conservative Sam Adams Alliance. These groups are so tied in to all the other major Tea Party power brokers and organizations that it's hard to go through all those links without pulling out a progressive version of Glenn Beck's chalkboard.
According to Source Watch, 95% of the Franklin Center's funding in 2011 came from Donors Trust, a group that Mother Jones has called "the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement" for its record of steering half a billion dollars anonymously from wealthy conservative donors to the poster children of the Tea Party, including Americans for Prosperity, the execrable ALEC, and climate denial groups like Heartland Institute.
The Franklin Center's parent, Sam Adams Alliance, in turn gets money from another parent organization, the State Policy Network, which (in turn!) gets cash from such right wing notables as the Claude R. Lambe Foundation and, of course, the Koch brothers. (Do money-laundering operations have so many layers of middlemen?)
Its bias is unquestionable: The Franklin Center's leanings are obvious, as it has for example (per a story in Media Matters) funded "a conservative blogger conference...that featured discredited right-wing voices Dana Loesch and James O'Keefe" and was "a co-sponsor of the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference. According to the CPAC site, that means Franklin Center contributed at least $5,000 to the right-wing event."
And per TruthOut, "At the 2011 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) annual conference in New Orleans, The Franklin Center was listed as a 'Vice-Chairman' level sponsor of the ALEC conference. In 2010, this equated to a gift of at least $25,000."
Yet Franklin Center officials profess that their Watchdog practices objective journalism. Watchdog claims to be
"a collection of independent journalists covering state-specific and local government activity...doing what legacy journalism outlets prove unable to do: share information, dive deep into investigations, and provide the fourth estate that has begun to fade in recent decades."
Sadly, the only estates this group is protecting are the ones with the high fences and guard dogs owned by the richest 1%.
On Watchdog's Virginia website, you can search on the names of our gubernatorial candidates, and quickly find that there is no balance in their coverage -- it's universally negative against McAuliffe (in 54 articles so far, and counting) while keeping hands off of Cuccinelli. (There is some criticism of Governor McDonnell -- for not being conservative enough.)
In fact, Watchdog is the original source of most of the stories you've seen about GreenTech -- and the investigations into the company. And they brag about it: "Watchdog.org series leads to EB-5 investigation."
Here's a great window into how today's conservative establishment manipulates the media and public opinion -- funnel lots of money into alleged "news" organizations, have them stir up lots of smoke over alleged "scandals", followed by powerful politicians calling for investigations (in this case, Sen. Chuck Grassley), milk those investigations for all they're worth as your Tea Party organizations -- funded by the same donors -- whip up hatred against your opponents, all the while diverting attention from the real issues and the failings of your own candidates. Stir and repeat.
This is a pattern Watchdog has manifested in state capitals nationwide. While there are numerous examples from Iowa to West Virginia, perhaps the most noteworthy is the work of Watchdog affiliate Wisconsin Reporter, which has worked diligently to support the right-wing agenda of Gov. Scott Walker in that state. As one who applied to work for that organization reported, the application process uses a questionnaire inquiring into the applicant's beliefs on a range of political issues like "How do free markets help the poor?" and "Do higher taxes lead to balanced budgets?"
Journalism? Um, no.
It slants its coverage to fit its donors: Just as interesting is how the organization gears its coverage to meet the specific lobbying needs of its corporate donors. Hence you see the organization bragging to its donors in a fundraising email, "When you give to the Franklin Center, you have an immediate impact on the power of our reporting."
Media Matters recounts how Watchdog affiliate IdahoReporter.com posted numerous stories against a seemingly uncontroversial bill to ban minors from commercial tanning beds, ultimately leading to the bill's defeat.
Wonder which industry paid them for that story? It was enough to lead the Capitol Correspondents Association of Idaho to revoke Watchdog's credentials and for the association's president to call the group "basically a lobbying organization linked to a news arm."
Questions worth asking:
While states like Idaho and Ohio have revoked their Watchdog.org affiliate's credentials, in Virginia, you can see for yourself that they are granted the same status as legitimate press. Yet the Virginia Capital Correspondents Association website states that its credentialed members:
"must (i) work independently of any government, industry, or institution and (ii) not engage, directly or indirectly, in any lobbying, political activity or other activity intended to influence elections or any matter before the General Assembly or before any independent agency, or any department or other instrumentality of the Executive Branch."
So Watchdog's crusade against McAuliffe's campaign doesn't count? And their work for the obviously right wing Franklin Center counts as "working independently"?
If you think their credentials as state correspondents should be revoked, you can contact VCCA at firstname.lastname@example.org, or even better, contact the members of the VCCA, whose names Virginians will recognize as the most active (real) journalists covering Virginia politics. You may want to ask them why they're imperiling their own reputations by allowing a phony "news organization" to be granted the same status as theirs.
Also check your local press outlets to see if they're using material from Watchdog and passing it off as "news". The Media Matters story quotes Cort Kirkwood, managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia as admitting that he does, with the excuse that he can't afford his own capital correspondents.
And I would strongly encourage reporters and pundits who have jumped on the GreenTech story to do their own reporting and stories on what Watchdog is all about. One question bugging me is whether Watchdog is just a sneaky way for donors to funnel their money indirectly to support a campaign like Cuccinelli's without anyone knowing. With all the focus right now in Virginia on gifts from corporate buddies, this may be a convenient time for such subterfuge.
It's more important than ever for media consumers to be aware of the sources of what they're reading, as right wing groups like Watchdog shamelessly manipulate the system to let corporate donors and their wholly-owned politicians work their will. We need more real watchdogs -- and fewer corporate lapdogs.