Playing dress-up: Video of the sting operation targeting the community organization ACORN. Photo couresy of YouTube.
n early 2008, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a Las Vegas–based libertarian think tank, decided to take a hard look at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a public/private organization with an annual budget of about $200 million, which NPRI suspected was wasting taxpayer money. In the past, the institute had produced white papers on state spending abuses, but these efforts had barely registered on the public’s radar. So it decided to try a different approach: hiring a respected investigative journalist and New York Times contributor named John Dougherty to dig up dirt on the agency.
Dougherty dove into the project, spending eight months filing open-records requests, slogging through reams of documents and doing the sort of grueling legwork that most newspapers can no longer afford. And the institute paid him handsomely to do it—his contract would’ve worked out to $80,000 a year—even if it wouldn’t disclose who exactly was signing the checks. In the end, Dougherty produced a damning report, which concluded the authority was engaged in "a pattern of extravagant spending, lax accounting, shoddy oversight and a disturbingly cozy relationship with major contractors." The findings caused a stir in the local media, and eventually prompted the convention authority to keep a tighter rein on the spending practices of its contractors. By all accounts, the project was a success.
A few months later, Dougherty’s bosses asked him to start joining in on conference calls with reporters from other similar free-market policy groups across the country. The calls were organized by a new nonprofit called the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which was training right-of-center think tanks to do investigative journalism, as well as funding nonprofits to run news sites and hire reporters—including Dougherty, who says his contract was now being paid for with Franklin Center money. The calls rubbed Dougherty the wrong way. "What bothered me," he recalls, "was they were taking delight in causing specific angst for political gain. It wasn’t, to me, ‘This is public interest journalism.’ This is hatchet journalism to attack an opposing candidate." After Dougherty wrote a memo to his bosses explaining his discomfort, they allowed him to skip the teleconferences, and he went on to write more than a dozen stories questioning the legality of the state’s property tax structure. Once again, Dougherty’s reporting hit a nerve; at least two of the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidates have made overhauling the property tax system part of their campaign platforms.
Then, this past March, NPRI and Dougherty started talking about yet another project: forming a nonprofit investigative reporting center in Nevada. Dougherty was intrigued, but only wanted to be involved if the center’s board was independent and included a mix of political perspectives. NPRI refused to agree to these terms. Weary of the secrecy and ax grinding surrounding the whole endeavor, Dougherty finally cut ties with the group. "There has always been, to some degree, a sort of tension between my point of view about reporting and his," Steven Miller, the institute’s vice president for policy and Dougherty’s former supervisor, said when I asked him about the incident. "It’s amazing we found as much common ground as we did."
Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Dougherty had stumbled onto the frontlines of a burgeoning movement. Historically, muckraking journalism has been the domain of the mainstream press and left-leaning magazines like the Nation and Mother Jones. Conservative media, on the other hand, have stuck mostly to the model crafted by National Review founder William F. Buckley and poured their energy into punditry—long on fiery rhetoric, short on scoops. When Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told an audience at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that conservative publications should aspire to create right-leaning equivalents of the New York Times and "put accuracy first," he was booed by the crowd.
But with Democrats back in power and the fourth estate in shambles, conservatives are starting to discover the virtues of shoe-leather reporting, and are throwing their organizational savvy and financial clout behind sustained investigative ventures. The Franklin Center, which is run by a Republican political consultant with no journalism background, supports ten state-level investigative news sites under the moniker Watchdog.org. Meanwhile, free-market state-based think tanks have begun hiring reporters to work in-house, focusing on local and state spending—in the last six months alone, they have brought at least eighteen reporters on board.
More established conservative brands have also jumped into the fray. Last year, the Washington Times launched America’s Morning News, a syndicated radio show that features reports on government waste and malfeasance from nearly a dozen investigative reporters (the Web site touts the operation as "the largest group of investigative journalists ever assembled for a nationally syndicated radio program"). Carlson’s new online media venture, the Daily Caller, debuted in January with twenty-one reporters and editors and won over even many liberal skeptics two months later when it broke a major story about the Republican National Committee’s profligate spending habits, including a nearly $2,000 tab at a Los Angeles bondage-themed strip club.
For people who care about holding politicians to account, these are promising developments. At a time when most media outlets are slashing budgets and gutting their investigative units, an army of spending-obsessed conservative sleuths could be just what we need to help keep government honest—especially on the state level, where some of the most appalling government waste and malfeasance happens and where, thanks to the demise of newspapers, deep reporting is most endangered.
The question is whether these new investigative ventures will be able to steer clear of the ideological stumbling blocks that have tripped up conservative muckrakers in the past. The handful of conservatives who have ventured into investigative journalism have tended to mix reporting with partisan activism, and their high-profile scores have sometimes been spoiled by their zealous pursuit of political victories. In the 1990s, for instance, the conservative American Spectator magazine, after publishing David Brock’s "Troopergate" expose on Bill Clinton’s alleged extramarital affairs, went on to spend nearly $2 million of philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife’s money trying to dig up more dirt on Clinton. But the so-called "Arkansas Project" produced only crackpot accusations—not to mention enough embarrassing revelations about how the funds were spent to nearly sink the publication. Last year, two young conservative activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, working with online right-wing media mogul Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government Web site, made headlines with a sting operation on the conservative bête noire ACORN, posing as a pimp and a prostitute asking for tax evasion advice. But much of the damning material they got on video proved to be the work of creative editing, and in January O’Keefe was arrested for allegedly trying to bug phones in Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s office as part of a similar journalistic stunt.
Like these efforts, the new breed of conservative investigative journalism is driven by an activist impulse. For most, the primary aim is to package their agenda in a way that makes the public and the media more likely to latch on. "Our ultimate goal is to get stuff out and limit the growth of taxes," says Steve Lonegan, the state director for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which was advertising an opening for an investigative reporter in February. "However we do that is fine. We’re not a newspaper."
Strategically, this makes perfect sense. A think tank can turn out heaps of research reports, and most of them will be ignored by the press. But something that looks like reporting, and contains actual news, will get picked up in a hurry, and the ideological leanings of its source will often go unexamined. Of course, just because a reporter’s work is driven by ideology does not necessarily mean his findings are any less valid. The dirt Dougherty dug up on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was clearly a valuable public service, regardless of who commissioned it. But when the drive to score partisan points swamps normal journalistic considerations, like accuracy and ethics, it can lead to cherry picking, distortion, or worse.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the promise and peril of the new breed of conservative muckraking is the Franklin Center and its Watchdog network. Run by small staffs (some have only one reporter) that include both veteran newspaper journalists and political activists, the sites publish short items on a more or less daily basis, with a mostly monolithic set of interests; the Kansas Watchdog is typical in proclaiming its intentions to root out "government waste and inefficiency, political corruption and anything that goes against free-market principles." From time to time, these outlets run hard-hitting stories on worthy topics that are overlooked by the mainstream press. In January, for instance, Texas Watchdog deputy editor Jennifer Peebles, working with the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, produced a piece detailing how serial rapists on college campuses often go unpunished. More recently, the national Watchdog site (in collaboration with Delaware’s like-minded Caesar Rodney Institute) ran a story by Lee Williams, a former investigative reporter for the News Journal in Wilmington, who spent nine months probing the Delaware Department of Insurance’s Captive Insurance Bureau and found it was rife with cronyism and waste. Among other things, Williams discovered that the agency paid the bureau’s director nearly $200,000 a year, even though he lived in another state, held another full-time job, and rarely set foot inside the agency’s office.
In at least one case, the Watchdogs have also broken a major national news story. Last November, the New Mexico site reported that millions of stimulus dollars allocated to the state were disappearing into nonexistent congressional districts, a fact editor Jim Scarantino unearthed by poring over data on Recovery.gov, the federal government’s stimulus-tracking Web site. The national Watchdog site followed Scarantino’s lead, reporting that nationwide more than $6.4 billion was going to such "phantom congressional districts." The story spread from conservative blogs to regional newspapers, and eventually TV news; ABC claimed the scoop was a network "exclusive." By the first week in December, the story had gotten so big that it inspired a satirical segment on the Colbert Report. At a moment when local newspapers across the country were cutting newsroom budgets or folding altogether, the story offered a flicker of hope: perhaps even a small, online-only news operation could hold the federal government accountable.
The only problem: the story was, at best, misleading. In a "fact check" feature on Watchdog’s scoop, the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo took the step that the Watchdog reporters had not: he checked to see what was happening to the money. As it turns out, the funds were going exactly where they were supposed to go, not vanishing into black holes as the Watchdog sites had implied. The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database. In other words, all the fuss had been over a few stray typos. "[T]he ‘phantom congressional districts’ are being used as a phantom issue to suggest that stimulus money has been misspent," Apuzzo concluded.
The zip codes scoop was not atypical for the Watchdog sites; as often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions. The Nebraska Watchdog, for instance, recently ran a post claiming that a $2.5 million stimulus project to replace the roof of an Omaha courthouse would create only one job, which sounds on its face like an outrageous abuse of funds. But had the reporter dug a little deeper, the story would have lost most of its punch. Calls to the Government Services Agency, which oversees the distribution of stimulus funds, and Johnson Roofing, the company that did the work, reveal that while only one position was added specifically for the project, the number it employed was considerably larger. In fact, between eight and fifteen people worked on the project full-time for the five-month duration, and a dozen individual subcontractors were brought in on an ad hoc basis, according to Johnson’s management. This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy.
Then there’s the secretive nature of the organization. Franklin hosts strategy calls, and an e-mail listserv for conservative reporting organizations, and hosts investigative journalism training sessions for reporters at free-market think tanks and Web sites—at least fifty of them have been invited to attend a training session in June, according to an internal e-mail—but instructs participants not to discuss the event with outsiders. For a little over a year, the group has also been giving grants to state-based conservative think tanks with a free-market bent to hire in-house reporters. But don’t bother asking who’s getting the money. Jason Stverak, the former political operative who runs Franklin, won’t disclose anything about the independent projects his organization is bankrolling (though he’ll have to on his 2009 tax returns). Nor will the directors of the state-based groups that have brought journalists on board say where they got the money to do so.
The Franklin Center and the Sam Adams Alliance, the free-market group that gave Franklin its initial start-up money, are also mum about where their funding comes from—which is more than a little ironic given Franklin’s obsession with transparency in government. When I asked Stverak to explain the reasons for the secrecy, he argued that how the money flowed was irrelevant since Franklin’s credibility hangs on the quality of the journalism it produces, not its funding sources. "We are trusted sources of real information," he maintained. "Fox News, ABC, CBS, CNN—these guys wouldn’t wager their reputation on content they didn’t find credible."
But in reality, Stverak appears to be banking on exactly the opposite being true—that in the age of a twenty-four-hour news cycle, cash-strapped news outlets will eagerly latch on to the scoops his team delivers and won’t spend too much time questioning the underlying reporting or the bona fides of his organization, which looks more like a political attack machine than a traditional news operation. That kind of ideologically motivated, willfully misleading muckraking may be a well-worn strategy among partisan operatives. But it isn’t journalism.
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Laura McGann is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and former editor of the nonprofit news site the Washington Independent.