With Republicans in control of the state legislature and governor's office, Tennessee has become an easy target for out-of-state dark money groups looking to push corporate interests through state legislatures. The Koch brothers, through their political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), have been at the forefront of the Tennessee takeover, pushing tax cuts, measures to block public transportation, and anti-Medicaid legislation among others. While some of Tennessee's newspapers have been quick to connect the questionable legislation with AFP, local television coverage rarely mentions the outside influence.
AFP is considered an example of a "dark money" organization -- a politically-focused group whose donors are not disclosed and whose actions reflect partisan positions. David Koch is co-founder of AFP and the Koch Family Foundation is known to have contributed generously to AFP based on records published by the foundation. In Tennessee, the state AFP chapter creates advertising campaigns and holds events that provide a platform for AFP staff to drum up support for their legislation.
Tracking the Koch brothers' outsized influence has recently been a popular endeavor among national news sources, so the billionaires' leap into Tennessee sounded the alarm across national media outlets. Local and state media have been slower to point out AFP's influence in state politics. While Koch pressure in Tennessee is nothing new, the state chapter of AFP opened last year, making this year the first legislative session with active local AFP participation. As the editorial board at the Tennessean explained, AFP's push to influence state politics has profound implications:
The billionaire Kochs do not live in Tennessee and never have. That is not important, as they, through their group Americans For Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), also not Tennessee-based, are increasingly deciding what laws the General Assembly should impose on the people of our state.
The force of the Kochs came down last week when the Tennessee Senate voted to stop Nashville's Amp project. StopAmp.org Inc. publicly thanked AFP for its help. Regardless of what you think of the pricey and controversial bus rapid-transit project, such out-of-state interference is troubling, because it supersedes local knowledge and authority on either side of the issue.
But an analysis of 22 local television news affiliates from January 1 to April 21 of this year -- the span of the state's most recent legislative session so far -- shows only four mentions of AFP's connection to pending legislation in the state. Despite the lack of coverage, AFP was busy pushing multiple pieces of legislation in recent months, including a reduction of state income tax, bills to slow the possibility of Medicaid expansion, and opposing Common Core education standards. While the top four newspapers covered the relevant issues and legislation being influenced by AFP in the same time frame, the disclosure of AFP's involvement varied. The Tennessean and the Knoxville News-Sentinel included AFP's involvement in their reports, mentioning the group's connections 14 and nine times respectively. The Chattanooga Times Free Press, with three mentions, and Memphis' Commercial Appeal with two mentions, made little effort to note AFP's activity. While disclosing legislative influences is crucial across all forms of media, it is especially vital for local television to disclose outside influence like AFP's as local television remains the country's top source for news.
Local Media Missed AFP's Attempt To Block Nashville's Public Transportation Project
The recent fight over a new public bus service in Nashville, for example, highlights the Kochs' influence in Tennessee politics and the need for local outlets to provide context in their coverage. The proposed Amp bus service aims to create a streamlined public transportation option across a seven-mile route of Nashville. Opposing the new bus service is a group called StopAmp.org, which has received help in its efforts from AFP. StopAmp.org publicly thanked AFP for "their tireless support" in a March 27 press release. According to Think Progress:
Holly McCall, Nashville's Metropolitan Transit Authority's spokesperson for the Amp project, told ThinkProgress AFP has kept a low profile throughout the campaign for and against the Amp. She said she'd suspected AFP was involved in the Amp's opposition, but didn't know for sure until StopAmp.org thanked the group in their press release.
"It's pretty tough to fight that kind of money -- AFP gets funds from the Koch brothers, and they're billionaires," she said. "We continue to work our local campaign, and we're probably going to make some tweaks to the design -- we're interested in compromise, because if we don't, our entire future transit plan is going to be dictated by people who live out of state."
Despite strong public support for Amp, the project was threatened by an AFP-backed amendment that would have made the project illegal. AFP's amendment narrowly failed, allowing Amp to proceed upon approval by the General Assembly, ultimately allowing AFP more time to pressure legislators to block the project. Local Nashville television covered the Senate amendment and the previous attempts to compromise with groups that oppose the Amp project; however most outlets did not report that the opposition was receiving help from AFP. WKRN-ABC, WSMV-NBC, and WZTV-FOX made no mention of the AFP involvement in the StopAmp.org movement. Only WTVF-CBS made mention of the Koch connection during its April 4 political news special about the Amp project. In contrast, Nashville's Tennessean covered AFP's influence on Amp legislation four times since StopAMP.org publicly thanked them on March 26.
Furthermore, these local disputes can have national repercussions. As the editorial board at the Tennessean explained:
Apparently, there is more to come. AFP's state director, Andrew Ogles, says that "Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states." Such words give no assurance these organizations care whether the laws that are passed help or hurt Tennesseans. They just need an easy "win" so that they can boost their influence against elected officials elsewhere.
A chief casualty of their success is likely to be local autonomy -- a principle that used to be celebrated by Tennessee Republicans, until they found the supermajorities allowed them to forgo principles.
How these leaders can trample local government while complaining of being overrun by federal authority themselves requires a high level of myopia.
Perhaps legislating with blinders on is part of the Kochs' diabolical experiment.
Media Matters used television monitoring program TVEyes to search coverage for the term "Americans for Prosperity," "Koch," and "Koch Brothers" independently. The search encompassed all available local Tennessee stations from January 1 to April 21, 2014. The statewide newspaper analysis searched articles from The Tennessean, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, and The Commercial Appeal on Nexis from January 1 to April 21, 2014 for the same terms. This time frame was chosen to cover reporting of the legislative session when AFP is most active.
A second analysis, of the Amp coverage, used TVEyes to search WKRN-ABC, WTVF-CBS, WSMV-NBC, and WZTV-FOX between March 27 and April 21, 2014. These dates reflect StopAMP.org's first public acknowledgement of AFP involvement through the present. The terms "AMP," "Koch," "Koch Brothers," and "Americans for Prosperity" were searched independently. Nexis was used to search for the same terms in The Tennessean, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, and The Commercial Appeal between March 27 and April 21, 2014