CNN has continued to bolster the national profile of Tea Party Express in the lead up to the presidential election despite widespread reporting that the supposed grassroots organization exists largely to funnel money into the coffers of the group's founders.
During the 2010 election cycle, Our Country Deserves Better, the political action committee that launched the Tea Party Express, was repeatedly criticized for its spending practices. According to Talking Points Memo, from July through November of 2009, almost two-thirds of the group's expenditures went to the GOP consulting firm whose lead partner co-founded the PAC.
Since the midterm elections, CNN has hosted Tea Party Express spokespeople numerous times and even co-hosted a Republican presidential primary debate with the group.
While receiving this heavy promotion from CNN, Our Country Deserves Better PAC has continued to engage in dubious spending practices.
A recent Politico piece labeled Our Country Deserves Better as "perhaps the best example" of "scam PACs," groups that spend only a fraction of their revenue for their stated purpose of helping political candidates. According to Politico, Our Country Deserves Better has spent more than 91 percent of its revenue on "fundraising expenses, travel, and other overhead costs":
In the presidential race, too, a handful of outside groups have popped up to raise millions of dollars and spend them with jaw-dropping inefficiency. Perhaps the best example is a group dubbed Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a rebooted version of the Tea Party Express, which spent heavily in Senate races in the 2010 cycle. In the 2012 election, Our Country Deserves Better has collected $7.8 million, so far, with more than three-quarters of that money coming in through small increments that the FEC does not itemize.
Despite its robust fundraising, Our Country Deserves Better PAC has reported just $488,907 in independent expenditures. A full 91.6 percent of its revenue went to "other federal operating expenditures" -- fundraising expenses, travel and other overhead costs. [Politico, October 17]
But despite its controversial spending habits, which have prompted questions about whether the group is too closely aligned with GOP operatives and less in line with the tea party's grassroots movement, CNN continues to regularly promote Tea Party Express. Amy Kremer, the chair of the Tea Party Express, has appeared on CNN at least 19 times since last October to discuss the group's political activities and offer her perspective on a number of policy issues, such as entitlement spending and health care reform. Kremer has also appeared on NPR and MSNBC, and made five appearances on Fox News.
And even though the PAC came under scrutiny a few years ago for reportedly serving as little more than a slush fund for the Republican consulting firm that started it, its spending strategy appears not to have changed much. According to a Media Matters review of Federal Election Commission filings, the PAC has disbursed about $2.4 million to Russo, Marsh and Associates, that same consulting firm, since January 2011, out of a total $7.2 million spending. The firm's founder, Sal Russo, was also a co-founder of Tea Party Express and is listed as a chief strategist for the Our Country Deserves Better PAC. Joe Wierzbicki, a principal at the consulting firm, is also the PAC coordinator for Our Country Deserves Better.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow covered the story in January 2011, calling the Tea Party Express a "scam" for receiving "donations from people who thought they were donating to the Tea Party movement, [but] what they really giving their money to, mostly, was old Sal Russo." (Russo has also received the mainstream media treatment, appearing once on NPR and twice on Fox this year).
Despite all of this, CNN partnered with the Tea Party Express for what it called a "first-of-its kind" debate last September during the Republican primary. The Tea Party Express touted the event on its website as an indication that "the tea party, which began as a small grassroots movement, has grown tremendously in size and influence to become a powerful force in American politics."
What both CNN and the Tea Party Express fail to acknowledge, though, is that some factions of the Tea Party movement have distanced themselves from the Express and its PAC. According to 2009 article in the Washington Independent, Tea Party Patriots, a grassroots organization that Kremer co-founded, "see the Tea Party Express as a sham organization." A 2010 Politico piece also noted the rift between the PAC and local grassroots activists, as "the Tea Party Express's high profile has angered tea party leaders who are suspicious of its big payments to Russo Marsh, [and] view the bus tours as distractions from meaningful grassroots organizing."
CNN appears to not have covered the controversy surrounding the Tea Party Express. It did, however, cite Sal Russo in an August 2012 story on the Tea Party's relationship with the GOP, who claims that the Republican Party is "coming around" to the tea party movement.
The Tea Party Express has also been a favorite of Fox News, which has helped promote the group and advertise its bus tours in the lead up to the 2010 midterm elections. Kremer appeared on Fox & Friends in March 2010 to dismiss claims that the group is orchestrated by the Republican Party, calling it instead "a true, genuine, grassroots movement."