As corporate sponsors fled from the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the media's scrutiny increased earlier this year, ALEC's allies at the right-wing Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity rushed to the organization's defense.
ALEC, which uses donations from major corporations to promote conservative model bills for use in state capitals across the country, came under fire in April from progressive groups. This followed the revelation of ALEC's involvement in voter ID legislation as well as legislation based on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law written by the National Rifle Association and linked to the death of Trayvon Martin. ALEC subsequently eliminated the task force that had approved those model bills, but corporations have continued to abandon the group, with five leaving this week.
Over a nine day period that month, the Franklin Center published vigorous defenses of ALEC from Franklin Center's president, vice president of journalism, and one of its board members, who acknowledged serving as public sector chair of an ALEC task force.
Yesterday Media Matters' Joe Strupp noted in a lengthy profile of the Franklin Center:
The Franklin Center is a multimillion-dollar organization whose websites and affiliates provide free statehouse reporting to local newspapers and other media across the country. Funded by major conservative donors, staffed by veterans of groups affiliated with the Koch brothers, and maintaining a regular presence hosting right-wing events, the organization boasts of its ability to fill the void created by state newsroom layoffs.
The group's editors claim that their "professional journalism" work is walled off from the organization's more nakedly political operations and say that their "pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty, free market perspective" doesn't compromise their accuracy or independence. But many journalism professionals - even newspaper editors who reprint the work of Franklin Center affiliates in their own pages - speak warily of the group's ideological bent.
According to the Center on Media and Democracy, a progressive group that monitors ALEC, "The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity was a 'Vice-Chairman' level sponsor of 2011 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Annual Conference, which in 2010, equated to $25,000. The Franklin Center was one of about 60 companies and institutions represented in the conference exhibition hall." In October 2011, CMD reported extensively on the Franklin Center's ALEC ties.
On April 18 -- the day after ALEC eliminated their Public Safety and Elections task force, which had approved voter ID and Stand Your Ground model bills -- Franklin Center published on its website a piece defending ALEC written by Rep. Blair Thoreson, a Franklin Center board member. As the piece indicated, Thoreson serves in the North Dakota House of Representatives and is a public sector member of ALEC and Public Sector Chair of its Communications and Technology task force.
Thoreson declared himself "appalled at the spurious attacks directed toward" ALEC, criticized "the old media for their lack of fact checking surrounding the accusations made against ALEC," and claimed that ALEC bills "have improved the lives of families all across our great country" and "helped create a vigorous exchange of ideas between the public and private sector."
The next day, Franklin Center published a piece by Vice President of Journalism Steven Greenhut, which similarly targeted "overheated criticisms" of ALEC in the media and "intimidation tactics" from "leftists" and compared the group favorably to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which he noted also takes corporate contributions. Curiously for a leader of an organization that claims to support transparency, Greenhut did not mention that unlike ALEC, NCSL publicly discloses its private sector sponsors.
Greenhut, who defends the Franklin Center's reporting by citing a supposed separation between its news and political organizing activities, is listed as a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a right-wing think tank which has received significant funding from the Koch brothers' foundations. His piece on ALEC was cross-posted at the conservative Human Events news site.
In an April 27 piece cross-posted at Breitbart.com, Franklin Center president Jason Stverak criticized a New York Times article on ALEC for citing Common Cause, which it calls a "partisan progressive organization that is heavily funded by billionaire George Soros." Later in the piece he described the Franklin Center as "a nonprofit journalism group that operates news sites across the country," somehow neglecting to mention its numerous employees tied to the Koch brothers, its funding from major right-wing foundations, and Stverak's own history working for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign and the North Dakota Republican Party.