Fox News dishonestly claimed that MIT economist Jonathan Gruber's comment that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) "was written in a tortured way" to minimize criticism proves that the law was passed deceitfully. In fact, Congress routinely crafts bills to fit legislative rules and politically acceptable limits, and health care reform was transparently debated for years with input from Republicans.
HBO's John Oliver did what many others in the media have not by shining a spotlight on the shadowy influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). But ALEC's latest initiative, which has its sights set on molding county and municipal governments, has deeper aspirations than even Oliver's show explored -- and has been almost entirely ignored by the media.
ALEC is an organization funded mostly by corporations and conservative organizations, whose purpose, according to Fortune magazine, is to "bring business-friendly state lawmakers together with lobbyists for corporations." ALEC drafts model legislation designed to push conservative corporate agendas at the state level and does not shy away from boasting about its outsized influence on local lawmakers.
The rash of discriminatory voter ID laws popping up across the country in the past couple of election cycles was largely fueled by ALEC. This year, the group has seen success dismantling clean energy standards.
On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver described ALEC succinctly as "a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges":
OLIVER: It's basically a conservative bill mill which has helped develop model legislation from Arizona's notorious SB 1070 immigration bill to bills expanding private prisons, payday loan companies and for-profit colleges, all of which we've talked about on this very show. In fact, I'm going to list ALEC in the credits for our show as associate producer of creating horrifying things for us to talk about. Great work, ALEC! See you at the end-of-season wrap party, you pieces of shit.
The thing is, ALEC is everywhere. Roughly 1 in 4 state legislators are members, and it's not hard to see why. ALEC makes their jobs troublingly easy. Here's their model electricity freedom bill, which at one point says, "be it therefore enacted that the state of, insert state, repeals the renewable energy mandate." So, as long as you can remember and spell the name of your state, you can introduce legislation.
One reason the group has been able to remain relatively free from public scrutiny is that the media has traditionally failed to cover the connections between ALEC members serving in state legislatures and the ALEC model legislation influencing the bills they introduce -- an issue so blatant that, as Oliver points out, occasionally text is lifted word-for-word from ALEC model bills.
The good news is that over the past couple of years, ALEC's operation has been more frequently exposed to the light of day, and the group has seen sponsors scamper away as a result.
The bad news is that ALEC is expanding its influence to a hyper-local level, which even Last Week Tonight overlooked.
In August, ALEC launched an initiative to take its model legislation beyond statehouses and into city councils and county commissions. This new spinoff, the American City County Exchange, "will push policies such as contracting with companies to provide services such as garbage pick-up and eliminating collective bargaining, a municipal echo of the parent group's state strategies." The corporate influence of the initiative is poignantly illustrated by the group's membership fee disparity: Local council members and county commissioners are required to pay a nominal $100 for a two-year membership. Meanwhile, prospective private industry members must choose between a $10,000 and $25,000 membership fee.
According to a search of the Nexis database, only a tiny number of print news outlets have reported on the new initiative. And as local media outlets face extinction or the possibility of being gobbled up by billionaire media moguls, it falls to the larger outlets that remain to lead the way.
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, sister papers both published by the Miami Herald Media Company, barely mentioned the importance of Medicaid expansion to the Hispanic community in their coverage of the issue following the end of Florida's congressional session despite Medicaid expansion being a prominent campaign issue. Studies have shown that Medicaid expansion in Florida, an issue polling has found important to Hispanics, would have a significant beneficial impact on the Hispanic community.
Just days after suggesting that some southern states should secede from the U.S. to form a new country that is based on "traditional values" and less tolerant of the LGBT community, columnist Douglas MacKinnon has left his job at the Tampa Tribune, according to the paper's publisher.
MacKinnon, a former aide to Ronald Reagan, recently published The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country...Now. According to Right Wing Watch, during a recent interview with conservative radio host Janet Mefferd promoting the book, MacKinnon "specifically cited advances in gay rights as a reason for Southern states to leave the U.S. and create a new country." His proposal -- including floating "Reagan" as an "interim name" for the new country -- received widespread ridicule.
Citing unnamed sources, Tampa outlet Creative Loafing reported Monday that MacKinnon had been fired, speculating that it was "because of the embarrassment to the paper." Tampa Tribune publisher Brian Burns confirmed to Media Matters today that MacKinnon was indeed leaving the paper, but declined to give a reason. According to Burns, "at this point, no he is not employed."
Asked by Media Matters to clarify if MacKinnon had been fired or quit, Burns said, "I really can't comment on it, it's a personnel issue so we gotta keep that internal."
MacKinnon could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
MacKinnon's secession proposal follows an incident in August when the columnist sparked controversy for a piece that claimed the Walt Disney Company had a "pro-gay agenda" and was trying to "indoctrinate" children.
The Tribune later pulled that column from its website.
A Media Matters analysis of newspaper coverage of anonymously donated "dark money" in three battleground states shows that secret money's growing influence on elections has not necessarily translated to more awareness in the media. While some news outlets are reporting on the influence this new influx of money is having on politics, others are merely providing a platform for dark-money groups to further their causes.
The term "dark money" is used to describe organizations that do not disclose the identity of at least some of their donors and that use money from these anonymous donors to fund political ads, mailers, and staff to try to influence voters and policymakers. Even spending by these groups may be shielded from disclosure, depending on the type of ad they run. Dark-money groups focus heavily on specific policy outcomes and try to connect candidates to their desired outcome through advertising. These groups protect their donors by never officially endorsing a candidate and by limiting their political activity. This allows them to be classified as "social welfare" organizations under the tax code, which means they do not have to disclose their funding.
Spending by dark-money groups in this election cycle is nearing the $200 million mark and is expected to spiral even higher before Election Day. Much of the spending by these groups is focused on influencing Senate races in key states. Media Matters reviewed newspaper coverage in three states with competitive Senate races (North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Colorado) to see how they are covering this influx of anonymous outside funding. The results show large discrepancies in the quality of the coverage of dark-money groups, with some papers doing a significantly better job than others.
Of the three states analyzed, North Carolina's newspapers provided the best overall coverage of dark money influence. North Carolina's Senate race is expected to set a new record for outside spending, with $55.7 million spent so far, even without counting the non-disclosed money. The Raleigh News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, the two largest papers by circulation in the state, went beyond reporting the existence of the groups and attempted to report which outside groups were spending money on which ads -- something these groups often fail to do themselves. The North Carolina papers also reported on how dark-money groups such as the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are using their influence to lobby for specific policies, such as the group's successful campaign to block a special legislative session on economic development.
The Colorado newspapers' coverage of dark-money activity proved to be far less extensive than that of the North Carolina newspapers, producing just 13 stories since July 15. Colorado's Senate race is also poised to break records in outside spending. The Denver Post's coverage did not go into depth the same way North Carolina's newspaper coverage did, but it did highlight efforts by groups like Americans for Prosperity to influence voters with their door-to-door outreach.
Colorado's second biggest paper, The Gazette of Colorado Springs, produced few reports on dark money during the period analyzed. However, a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News produced a report that covered many of the complexities of dark money. The article discussed outside spending by both conservative and liberal groups and explained the difficulty of tracking dark-money donors and the impact of their donations:
"Nonprofit political groups do not have to disclose donors," Viveka Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics said. "So we could only identify organizations that filed 990s (nonprofit tax forms) and that wouldn't include individuals or corporations, so there are still a lot of donors or donations no one would know about."
[Sheldon] Adelson, the Koch Brothers and many other politically active billionaires and multimillionaires across the political spectrum are able to maintain privacy and give endless funds after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
"TV ads are number one, the overwhelming most important tool in winning one of these campaigns," Ciruli said.
In New Hampshire, dark-money groups have spent at least $4.3 million in the Senate race -- overwhelmingly in support of the Republican candidate, as of September 8. This subject has seen poor coverage from the state's largest newspaper, The Union Leader. While the paper mentioned dark-money groups in 11 articles, and another five articles mentioned the groups and specific policies, the paper's coverage mostly provided a platform for groups like AFP to spread their message and did not explain the groups' attempt to influence policy decisions or the Senate race. For example, in a September 30 article, the paper gave AFP state director Greg Moore a platform to attack the state's budget situation and blast the Affordable Care Act, something the group has also done in its advertising against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH):
Greg Moore, state director for Americans for Prosperity, blamed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for much of the shortfall in the two-year budget plan.
"The legislature gave the administration $57 million from the last, fiscally-responsible budget to spend, and expected that surplus to last for the entire, two-year budget, but Governor Hassan took her eyes off the ball and spent even more," Moore said. "Keeping within the budget takes strong executive action and discipline, but we aren't seeing that right now in Concord."
While the use of dark-money groups is not one sided, conservative groups are far more likely to use this route to shield wealthy donors and ensuing spending. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted, in this election cycle, "Overall, 80 percent of pro-Republican nonparty expenditures came from dark money groups, compared to 32 percent of outside spending favoring Democrats." This is not a new trend for conservative supporters, as spending by nondisclosing groups has clearly favored Republican candidates over the past four election cycles:
The problem with dark-money groups, as the Brennan Center's analysis noted, is that "the lack of transparency in the majority of outside spending in competitive races leaves voters unable to evaluate the political messages they see" and that these groups "threaten to make a mockery of contribution limits and their prophylactic effect on corruption and influence buying." This sentiment was echoed by University of Louisville political science professor Laurie A. Rhodebeck in the Los Angeles Times, saying that the flood of dark-money spending is "detrimental to voters because if they don't know who is behind the money, they can't judge whether to trust the ad or not."
The scale of the problem is considerable. The Boston Globe reported on October 22 (emphasis added):
The impact is visible online and on television. One of every 16 television ads in US Senate races from January 2013 through August were paid for by a single group, Americans for Prosperity, according to the nonpartisan investigative Center for Public Integrity and advertising tracking service Kantar Media. AFP serves as a nonprofit advocacy arm of the political network backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
The Brennan Center found that during the 2012 election, "three-quarters of outside expenditures were made after September 30, and one-half were made in just the last three weeks of the campaign." This suggests that newspapers in these key battleground states still have the opportunity to report on how dark money is influencing their elections.
Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts of the top newspapers (by circulation) in three highly contested states. The papers analyzed were North Carolina's News and Observer in Raleigh and The Charlotte Observer, New Hampshire's Union Leader, and Colorado's Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette. The Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's second largest newspaper, was excluded because it is not in the Nexis database. The search term "((outside or independent or nondisclos! or non-disclos! or undisclosed or dark or secretive) w/5 (money or expenditure or spending)) or (Americans for Prosperity) or (Crossroads GPS) or (U.S. Chamber of Commerce) or (Patriot Majority USA) or (Concerned Veterans for America) or (Freedom Partners)" was used to search for reports on dark-money spending from July 15, 2014, when the Federal Election Commission's quarterly report was released, through October 24. While dark-money groups do not have to disclose all spending to FEC, as other groups do, this date aligns closely with the increase in outside spending.
An op-ed in Michigan's Midland Daily News praising the billionaire Koch brothers and defending their relentless spending intended to influence elections failed to disclose the author's significant connections to the Koch brothers.
In his October 26 op-ed in the Midland Daily News, Timothy Nash, identified as "vice president and economics professor at Northwood University," praised the economic success of Koch Industries and of the philanthropy of the company's leaders, Charles and David Koch. Nash rejected those who criticize the Kochs for their political action, attributing their political spending, which reached over $400 million in 2012 and is setting records in 2014, to "a belief in, passion for, and support of the traditional values that have made America great."
However, the Midland Daily News failed to reveal Nash's own significant and beneficial relationship to the Koch brothers. In February 2011, Nash was announced as the director of the Koch Scholars program at Northwood University, which is funded by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. In addition, Nash is listed as an adjunct professor with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Koch-funded think tank. According to the Center for Media and Democracy's Source Watch database:
The Mackinac Center has received significant funding from the Koch family foundations as well as other funding organizations with ties to the Koch brothers. The Charles G. Koch Foundation donated $79,151 between 2005 and 2009, and the Claude R. Lambe Foundation gave Mackinac a donation of $5,000 in 2001. Between 2010 and 2012, the Mackinac Center received $1,494,000 from the Koch conduits DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund.
As "the largest conservative state-level policy think tank in the nation," the Mackinac Center is part of the State Policy Network (SPN). SPN members work to produce research to lend legitimacy for the right-wing agenda "that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers' rights, roll back environmental protections." An evaluation of the Mackinac Center's publications by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice found:
Mackinac Center research is often of low quality and because of this it should be treated with considerable skepticism by the public, policy makers and political leaders. Indeed, much of the work of the Mackinac Center may have caused more confusion than clarity in the public discussion of the issues that it has addressed by systematically ignoring evidence that does not agree with its proposed solutions.
The Mackinac Center is also affiliated with the Franklin Center, which attempts to infiltrate state news coverage and seeks to fill a void in statehouse news reporting while promoting conservative misinformation. The Koch brothers fund the Franklin Center indirectly through Donors Trust, a foundation that has been dubbed "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement" due to the lack of transparency of its donors and the numerous conservative organizations the foundation funds.
National women's organization NARAL: Pro-Choice America and MoveOn are calling out The Denver Post's recent endorsement of Republican Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner (CO), running a full-page ad in the paper's Sunday edition that highlights the Post's omission of Gardner's anti-choice policy positions that "deeply conflict with the paper's previous editorial stances."
An October 17 announcement from NARAL: Pro-Choice America and MoveOn.org Political Action declared that the two organizations are teaming up in an effort to "rebuke" The Denver Post's recent "misguided endorsement" of Cory Gardner. Criticizing the news outlet for glossing over Gardner's extreme stance on personhood legislation as well as his positions on climate change and immigration, the organizations will run a full-page ad in the Post's Sunday edition as well as an online ad on DenverPost.com:
A hard-hitting, full-page ad from MoveOn.org Political Action and NARAL Pro-Choice America running inthis Sunday's Denver Post blasts the state's largest newspaper for endorsing Cory Gardner, a far-right candidate who holds views that deeply conflict with the paper's previous editorial stances. MoveOn.org Political Action and NARAL Pro-Choice America are running the print ad as well as online ads on DenverPost.com.
The print ad highlights contrasts between previous positions from The Denver Post editorial board and Gardner's stance on issues including a woman's right to choose, global warming, and immigration reform.
Contrary to The Denver Post's refusal to hold Gardner accountable for his position on fetal personhood legislation, which would greatly infringe on women's access to health care and legal abortion, NARAL and MoveOn's recent ad follows the lead of other media figures unwilling to give Gardner's incomprehensible stance on personhood a pass.
A Colorado reporter called out Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner's efforts to conceal the fact that the federal personhood bill he co-sponsored would end abortion, a refreshing contrast to other media figures' refusal to hold Gardner accountable for his stance.
In the October 15 debate between Gardner and Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, Kyle Clark, a reporter for NBC-affiliate KUSA, pressed Gardner on his continued denial that the Life At Conception Act is a federal personhood bill that would effectively end abortion procedures, by granting human eggs at fertilization the rights of a living person. Clark emphasized the fact that Gardner is a co-sponsor of the bill, which independent fact checkers widely agree would end abortion, and asked what the candidate's denial says about his judgment and willingness to hide the truth:
CLARK: You continue to deny that the federal Life At Conception Act, which you sponsor, is a personhood bill to end abortion -- and we are not going to debate that here tonight because that's a fact. Your co-sponsors say so; your opponents say so; and independent fact-checkers say so. So let's instead talk about what this entire episode may say about your judgment more broadly. It would seem that a charitable interpretation would be that you have a difficult time admitting when you're wrong, and a less charitable interpretation is that you're not telling us the truth. Which is it?
Gardner's support for personhood legislation has previously been glossed over by many in the media. The Denver Post's editorial board endorsed the candidate by claiming he posed "no threat to abortion rights," a declaration that completely ignores Gardner's support of the federal personhood legislation that would severely handicap women's access to health care and legal abortion.
Syndicated Washington Post columnist George Will echoed the Denver Post's endorsement, claiming that the issue of reproductive rights had already been settled and would not be affected by Gardner's election.
Thankfully, as Clark made clear in his questioning of Gardner, not all media figures are willing to give Gardner a pass on his incomprehensible personhood stance.
The Denver Post's endorsement of Republican Senate candidate Rep. Cory Gardner (CO) claimed that he posed "no threat to abortion rights," a declaration that ignores Gardner's support of federal personhood legislation that would greatly infringe on women's access to health care and legal abortion.
The publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader penned an editorial attacking the Obama administration's response to the ongoing Ebola crisis and suggested the president apply a travel ban on the affected countries, advice that has been roundly rejected by major healthcare and infectious disease experts as detrimental to relief efforts.
In an October 7 editorial, Joseph W. McQuaid blasted the administration as "incompetent" for relying on screening to prevent the spread of Ebola and instead suggested that a general travel ban to the region be administered:
Sending American soldiers to West Africa to assist with the Ebola epidemic makes sense only if it helps contain the disease over there. That would include making as certain as possible that those troops are protected while there and properly quarantined when they return home.
As for allowing travelers from affected West African nations to enter the United States at this time, that is crazy. It is yet another example of the most incompetent President we have ever seen.
Screening for symptoms of a deadly infectious disease that may not show up for weeks is not the answer. A travel ban to and from West Africa is what is needed, now.
McQuaid and other right-wing pundits who have called for a travel ban are ignoring experts who say a ban would actually impede Ebola relief efforts. The heads of the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, and independent advisers to the World Health Organization (WHO), all argue that reactionary measures such as a travel ban are ineffectual and could actually destabilize affected countries, worsening the spread of the virus. The WHO, advocating against a travel ban in October 2014, explained that while exit screening is not 100 percent effective, "completion of a screening questionnaire and testing for the presence of fever represent the best available indicators of risk."
On September 30, California became the first state to ban the use of plastic bags in stores, leading to a barrage of misinformation from various media outlets claiming the ban would actually hurt the environment. However, these contrarian claims are undermined by research showing that previous bans and taxes have reduced energy use and litter, while doing no harm to the economy.
Georgia pundit and anti-immigration activist Phil Kent recently attacked Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn as a "female airhead," refusing to apologize after a co-panelist called on him to do so for the "offensive" remark.
Kent is the executive director of the virulently anti-immigrant hate group, Americans for Immigration Control (AIC), and previously worked for the Augusta Chronicle and as press secretary for former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). He's a sitting panelist on The Georgia Gang, a Sunday political talk show in Atlanta.
As first highlighted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent lobbed sexist attacks at the state's female Democratic Senate candidate on the October 5 edition of The Georgia Gang, calling Nunn a "female airhead" and "absolutely unqualified on foreign policy." Even after a co-panelist said Kent should apologize for his comments, Kent refused:
As pressure to act on a proposal to expand gun background checks in Pennsylvania builds in the state legislature, an error published by Harrisburg NBC affiliate WGAL is providing fodder to the bill's opponents.
Pennsylvania currently only requires buyers of handguns to undergo a criminal background check. Purchasers of long guns such as shotguns and rifles -- including military-style assault weapons -- can buy these weapons without a background check in "private sales." H.B. 1010 would extend the background check requirement to long guns.
Gun violence prevention group Ceasefire PA recently visited the legislature to lobby for the bill. In support of the bill, Ceasefire PA has argued that the proportion of murders with firearms other than handguns in Pennsylvania has more than doubled since 1998 and that long guns are disproportionality used to kill police officers.
In a September 16 article, WGAL sloppily attempted to share Ceasefire PA's argument for expanded background checks, but instead misstated the nature and year of the claim that Ceasefire PA has made:
Cease Fire says FBI figures show the number of murders committed with long guns has doubled since 1996.
In fact, Ceasefire had argued that the proportion of murders committed with guns other than handguns has increased. According to a September joint report from Ceasefire PA and Center for American Progress Action Fund, FBI data indicates that this figure has increased since 1998 from 8 percent to 21 percent:
The Washington Post reported this week that WJLA, ABC's Washington, D.C., affiliate, has taken a "subtle but noticeable turn to the right" since being taken over by the Sinclair Broadcasting Group. This conservative tilt was on full display this week when the channel ran a news package promoting a baseless conspiracy theory about Benghazi from reporter Sharyl Attkisson.
The Washington Post piece highlighted the concerns of some staff members of local ABC affiliate WJLA, that following the finalization of the sale to Sinclair in August 2014, "some of the stories ordered by Sinclair on a 'must-run' basis don't meet the station's long tradition of non-partisan reporting." One factor in this shift to conservative partisan reporting was announced in July prior to the sale, when Sinclair hired discredited journalist Sharyl Attkisson as an "independent freelance reporter" to "focus on stories that follow the money and waste watch type of investigations."
However, prior to the September 17 opening hearing of the House Benghazi Special Committee, Attkisson ran a dubious report for Sinclair that appeared on WJLA highlighting the unverifiable claims of former State Department employee Raymond Maxwell alleging that some documents were intentionally withheld from the Accountability Review Board investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi:
The same day Attkisson's report ran on WJLA, Attkisson appeared on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends where she reiterated the report's unsubstantiated accusations. Host Steve Doocy lamented that only a handful of outlets such as Fox and the Daily Signal -- the Heritage Foundation website to which Attkisson occasionally contributes -- were covering this latest so-called "Benghazi bombshell." Attkisson concluded the segment by mentioning that her report was also broadcast to "maybe 30 million local news viewers" through Sinclair's affiliate stations.
Although Sinclair's support of right-wing misinformation has been widely documented and criticized for many years, its increasing influence in local media bodes ill for objective journalism at stations like WJLA.
The textbooks that Texas adopts influence those that are chosen by districts across the U.S., which makes it all the more worrying that several textbooks under consideration by the state misrepresent what scientists know about climate change. The distortions in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in Texas media that has contributed to this dangerous ignorance.
A recent review by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) found that several textbooks under consideration by the Texas Board of Education, which includes numerous members who deny global warming, cast doubt on the basic fact that carbon pollution is driving climate change. National Journal explained that since "Texas is the second-largest market in the U.S. for textbooks after California," the textbooks chosen by the board could affect what publishers sell to states across the country.
Some of the misleading claims in these textbooks mirror the misinformation that has been pushed in the state's local media. For example, one textbook presents claims from the Heartland Institute, a climate "skeptic" organization that once compared those that "believe" in global warming to the Unabomber and in the 1990s denied the science demonstrating the dangers of secondhand smoke, as equally credible to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assembles hundreds of scientists to review thousands of peer-reviewed articles on climate change. Some Texas media have similarly treated the Heartland Institute as equally or even more credible than the world's top scientists. For example, a news reporter for the Houston talk radio station KTRH hyped a Heartland Institute report when it was released in April 2014 with the headline "New Report Debunks Climate Change," and in May 2014 turned to the group to rebut an actual scientific report on climate change that was reviewed by a National Academy of Sciences panel. An on-air host at KTRH has also called global warming a "scam."
Other news outlets in Texas have also misrepresented climate science. For example, an East Texas Fox affiliate, KFXK, aired a commentary on September 9 that falsely claimed Arctic sea ice has "expanded":