The Columbus Dispatch's Disclosure Double Standard

The Columbus Dispatch is criticizing journalists for not informing readers about a liberal group's vested interests and involvement in the state's political process, even though the paper has spent years obscuring the origins of the American Legislative Exchange Council and downplaying the group's influence in the state.

In a February 27 editorial The Columbus Dispatch wrote:

The ability of various interest groups to have a say in politics is a critical to our democracy. But just as voters should be aware of who is funding political ads, they should be informed of the vested interests of those groups that are cited as sources of commentary.

Policy Matters Ohio, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus, often is quoted in news stories as a “research firm” and as a liberal or “progressive” think tank in news stories concerning tax and budget issues. That description, though, doesn't give a full picture of an organization that has a direct interest in steering public money to labor groups, which in turn are big-money supporters of Democratic politicians.

The Dispatch's argument is disingenuous however, since the paper has failed to cover and conduct the same research for organizations heavily involved in state policy such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

From January to October 2011, the shadowy right-wing organization had its hand in 33 bills in the state, nine of which became law. ALEC's ties in Ohio run deeper than merely crafting bills. According to ALEC's internal talking points, Gov. John Kasich, who was actively involved in ALEC in multiple capacities before becoming governor, “helped mold ALEC in its formative years” and was photographed at an ALEC event in 2010.

In 2012, ALEC was responsible for several pieces of legislation in Ohio, including a bill that weakened protections for victims of asbestos exposure,  a bill which attempted to loosen firearms laws, and a bill seeking to prevent disclosure of certain ingredients in fracking fluids to the public.  

ALEC also has a role in pushing big business' influence with legislators in Ohio. According to the Center for Media and Democracy's ALEC Exposed project, 41 legislators in Ohio are ALEC members. The money ALEC receives from businesses and conservative organizations goes to bringing these legislators to ALEC conventions where they can “rub elbows with rich, out-of state potential donors ... and to build similar relationships with ALEC's state corporate members.”

Despite ALEC's influence and major ties to the state, The Columbus Dispatch only discussed ALEC in 7 news stories since January 1, 2011, according to a Media Matters search. When they did cover ALEC, the organization was either not identified or described as a "conservative" or "a conservative think tank that raises money from corporate and other interests to pay for legislators to meet with businesses" -- monikers that barely scratch the surface of what the organization really does.

While it's important for newspapers to disclose the ties behind organizations that have an influence on policy in the state, The Columbus Dispatch editorial board is picking and choosing which organizations should receive such scrutiny -- apparently aiming to disclose information only about the ones it disagrees with.