Koch-Funded News Outlet Defends Dark-Money Organizations

Conservative news outlet Watchdog.org released a six-part series defending dark-money organizations -- politically focused groups that conceal the identities of their donors -- but failed to disclose its own funding from the Koch brothers and other conservative dark-money players.

The Watchdog.org series, titled "A License to Speak: The Dark Money Deception," defends the use of dark money in support of political initiatives. In the series, Watchdog.org claimed that regulation of dark money ensnares private citizens in government bureaucracy and dampens free speech, and it compared dark-money organizations to civil rights groups that protected members' identities out of concern about violent reprisals.

The Franklin Center, publisher of Watchdog.org, is funded largely in part by one of the biggest conservative dark money spenders, Donors Trust, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group that pools large donations for support of conservative causes while protecting the identity of the donors. As Mother Jones reported, Donors Trust is the “dark-money ATM” for conservative causes across the country and is heavily supported by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch:

Founded in 1999, Donors Trust (and an affiliated group, Donors Capital Fund) has raised north of $500 million and doled out $400 million to more than 1,000 conservative and libertarian groups, according to Whitney Ball, the group's CEO. Donors Trust allows wealthy contributors who want to donate millions to the most important causes on the right to do so anonymously, essentially scrubbing the identity of those underwriting conservative and libertarian organizations.Wisconsin's 2011 assault on collective bargaining rights? Donors Trust helped fund that. ALEC, the conservative bill mill? Donors Trust supports it. The climate deniers at the Heartland Institute? They get Donors Trust money, too.

Donors Trust is not the source of the money it hands out. Some 200 right-of-center funders who've given at least $10,000 fill the group's coffers. Charities bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the DeVoses, and the Bradleys, among other conservative benefactors, have given to Donors Trust. And other recipients of Donors Trust money include the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the NRA's Freedom Action Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, chaired by none other than David Koch.

The Franklin Center is among the major benefactors of Donors Trust, receiving 95 percent of its funding from the group in 2011. A Harvard University discussion paper on news coverage and state government quoted Franklin Center president Jason Stverak as saying, “I ran a Republican Party. We disclose that fully on [the Franklin Center] website. But at the end of the day it's the same standard that you would hold Fox News, CNN, the New York Times, New York Post, Fargo Forum from my home state of North Dakota to -- you will judge any news organization based upon the content that they produce.”

In addition, Donors Trust's chief executive Whitney Ball told The Guardian that donations from the trust, like those made to the Franklin Center, are not given to progressive causes. “It won't be going to liberals,” Ball said. This agenda is clearly expressed in the journalism produced by Watchdog.org. For example, after the Franklin Center launched a Watchdog affiliate in Maine, the Portland Press Herald noted the questionable work of the Watchdog sites:

According to a story written last spring by Laura McGann in Washington Monthly, Franklin Center Watchdog websites across the country have engaged in a similar pattern of investigative muckraking.

“As often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions,” wrote McGann. She detailed several instances in which Watchdog websites broke stories, which after additional phone calls turned out to be misleading or untrue.

“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,” wrote McGann, who is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a former editor of the Washington Independent, a liberal D.C. news source.