Jeff Gannon's alma mater: The Leadership Institute

The only journalism-related credential listed on former Talon News Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent Jeff Gannon's Talon News bio -- which was removed from Talon's website after Media Matters for America drew attention to Gannon and Talon News -- was The Leadership Institute Broadcast School of Journalism. While Talon News appears to be more of a Republican political advocacy group than a media outlet, The Leadership Institute Broadcast School of Journalism appears to be more of a training ground for Republican advocacy in the media than a school of journalism.

The Leadership Institute's president and founder, Morton C. Blackwell, told The Washington Post in 1992 that the Institute is “conservative, but not partisan.” A review of the Institute's leadership and programming indicates otherwise.

The Institute

The Leadership Institute is classified a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-partisan educational foundation (view its 2003 form 990 here). It works “to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders” by offering a number of seminars on journalism and public policy nationwide and at its F.M. Kirby National Training Center in Arlington, Virginia. The Institute claims to have graduated more than 40,000 students.

According to its website, The Leadership Institute Broadcast School of Journalism is "[a]n intense two-day seminar ... designed to give aspiring journalists the skills necessary to bring balance to the media and succeed in this highly competitive field." It costs $50, for which attendees receive “two days of instruction, meals on Saturday and Sunday and all course materials,” as well as free housing “on a first-come, first-served basis.”

The Leadership Institute's annual budget of $8 million has been financed by contributions from wealthy conservatives -- including major conservative financier Joseph Coors, a June 2001 New York Times article reported. Numerous conservative foundations, such as the Coors-funded Castle Rock Foundation, the F.M. Kirby Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, have also provided funding to the Institute.

The founder

Morton Blackwell is a former Reagan White House staffer, a lifelong Republican activist and a member of the executive committee of the Republican National Committee. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, Blackwell passed out adhesive bandages marked with Purple Hearts to mock Senator John Kerry. The discredited anti-Kerry group Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formerly Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) questioned Kerry's receipt of medals for his service in Vietnam, including Kerry's three Purple Hearts. The Navy's chief investigator concluded that all of Kerry's medals were “properly approved.” Republican leaders “publicly repudiated” Blackwell's actions, as did the Military Order of The Purple Heart, a wounded veterans organization, according to a September 1, 2004, New York Times article.

According to his Institute bio, Blackwell was “Barry Goldwater's youngest elected delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. He was a national convention Alternate Delegate for Ronald Reagan in 1968 and 1976, and a Ronald Reagan Delegate at the 1980 national convention.” Blackwell was also involved in the leadership of the College Republicans and the Young Republicans. “Off and on” between 1965 and 1970, Blackwell worked as executive director of the College Republican National Committee. He also served on the Louisiana Republican state central committee for eight years. In 1980, Blackwell “organized and oversaw the national youth effort” for Ronald Reagan. He then served as special assistant to the president on Reagan's White House staff from 1981 to 1984. (According to a May 25, 2003, New York Times article, when recruiting on college campuses, the Institute “prominently displays at its sign-up table a huge poster that includes a photograph of Reagan.”) In 1988, Blackwell was elected Virginia's Republican National Committeeman, a post he still holds. In 2004 he was elected to the RNC's executive committee.

Included among Blackwell's selected speeches and writings that appear on the Leadership Institute website is a 1994 speech titled “Why Jesse Helm's [sic] is the country's favorite conservative Senator.” Blackwell asks, “Why do we love him [Helms]?” and gives ten reasons, including: “In every word and deed, Sen. Helms embodies solid conservative principles. No one else in the Senate, no one at all, comes even close to his reputation for selfless, steadfast adherence to every tenet of our conservative philosophy.”

Blackwell was involved in an effort to use University of Oklahoma students to discredit Anita Hill in 1991, according to Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, as the Daily Oklahoman noted on November 12, 1994. According to the Oklahoman, “Strange Justice” states that Blackwell “advised an an OU student on how to make Hill's life 'a living hell.' ... Blackwell's contact with the student came during the 1991 hearings in which Hill, an OU law professor, accused Thomas of repeatedly making lewd comments when she worked for him at two federal agencies in Washington.” The Daily Oklahoman went on to note:

Blackwell told the student, Chris Wilson, to round up other conservative students to fax letters of complaint about Hill to key senators, the book says. Wilson, described as a “star pupil” at the Leadership Institute, told the book authors, “Morton's really incredible! We faxed hundreds -- well maybe thirty -- letters” to Republican Sens. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Hank Brown of Colorado.

Congressional advisers and board of directors

The Institute's "Bi-Partisan Congressional Advisory Board" has 109 members, 108 of whom are Republicans (including former Democrat but now Republican Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX)). The only Democrat listed on the advisory board is deceased -- Representative Larry McDonald (D-GA), who was killed when the jetliner he was aboard, Korean Airlines Flight 007 (KAL 007), was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1983. McDonald was the chairman of the ultraconservative John Birch Society.

The Leadership Institute's board of directors is made up of a variety of Republican donors and activists, including:

  • Fred Sacher, who contributed nearly $200,000 to GOPAC, former Representative Newt Gingrich's (R-GA) political committee, according to a November 16, 1995 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Sacher was also one of the nation's biggest contributors to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, donating $400,000, which prompted a personal letter of thanks from Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, according to a July 19, 1987, Los Angeles Times article. In the 1990s, Sacher financed a large-scale publicity effort that promoted Congressional Republicans' “Contract with America” by sending out faxes on a regular basis to between 600 and 700 journalists in the beginning of the 104th Congress, according to an October 17, 1996, Roll Call article.
  • John P. Maxwell, former executive director of Campaign for Prosperity, the political action committee of then-Representative and presidential hopeful Jack Kemp (R-NY), as noted in a February 3, 1986, Associated Press report.
  • Craig L. Murphy, who served as spokesman for Representative Joe L. Barton (R-TX), GOPAC's Texas chairman responsible for fund-raising in that area. Murphy issued a statement on Barton's behalf, according to the December 17, 1995, Los Angeles Times, in which he denied helping cement-producing company Southdown with a trade dispute in exchange for $25,000 in political contributions.
  • Baker Armstrong Smith, former director of labor relations at the Housing and Urban Development Department under Reagan. Smith “resigned in 1983 after allegations that he sharply curbed HUD's enforcement program, improperly dismissed employees because of their union backgrounds, and had his former secretary type his master's thesis and mail his Christmas gifts,” according to an April 27, 1986 article in The Washington Post.
  • Ken Thornhill, former head of the Bush-Cheney 2000 Committee in Franklin Parish, Louisiana, which paid for newspaper ads that tried to paint former Vice President Al Gore “as a president who would confiscate guns,” according to the November 2, 2000, edition of the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate.
  • Eugene H. Methvin, appointed by Reagan in 1983 to the President's Commission on Organized Crime. He is an author and journalist whose writings have appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The American Spectator.

Leadership Institute programs and alumni

The seminars offered by the Institute cover a wide range of topics, including the two-day broadcast journalism workshop of which Gannon is a graduate and a five-day Candidate Development School, in which students preparing to run for public office are instructed in areas such as “Right to Life -- How to Win This Battle,” and “Right to Keep & Bear Arms -- How to Win This Battle” (according to the school's "sample agenda"). The Leadership Institute lists on its website a number of prominent public figures who have graduated from its programs; including Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-KY), president of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist, and Republican strategist, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and Southeast regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign Ralph Reed.

Patrick B. McGuigan, former editorial page editor for the Daily Oklahoman, was “perhaps the most influential graduate of the institute working in newspapers,” according to the June 2001 New York Times article. According to a 1999 Columbia Journalism Review article, McGuigan “had no newspaper background when he was hired [by the Daily Oklahoman] in 1990. He was a well-known conservative activist in Washington who fought against the Supreme Court nomination of David Souter (too moderate) and for his friends Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork.” According to an August 3, 2002, Associated Press article, McGuigan resigned after sending a letter on Daily Oklahoman letterhead praising a Republican candidate for Oklahoma labor commissioner.

Aside from offering the various seminars, the Leadership Institute has worked extensively to establish and fund conservative newspapers on college campuses. A May 7, 2003, Los Angeles Times article reported on a North Carolina conference funded by the Leadership Council: “In an eight-hour session that bore little resemblance to a traditional journalism class, the students were taught how to start their own conservative newspapers and opinion journals. And how to pick fights with lefty bogeymen on the faculty and in student government.”

Among the “resources” offered to Leadership Institute patrons is a documentary produced by the Leadership Institute titled: “Roots of the Ultra-Left: What They Really Think.” A trailer for the documentary and the full script are available here. The documentary features a number of sound bites from editor and co-founder David Horowitz, who said: “Modern liberals are socialists, they're not liberals. What are they liberal about besides hard drugs and sex? Everything else they want to control in your life. That's true of the Democratic Party. It's true of the British Labor Party. They're socialists. That's their religion.” The documentary also features commentary from right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, conservative columnist and radio host Armstrong Williams, and Moral Majority founder Reverend Jerry Falwell.