ALEC and Misleading Journalism: A Case Study
According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built--context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate.” Such journalism standards are understood by every college student who passed Journalism 101. That’s why it’s very troubling when the prestigious New York Times publishes articles that fail a basic journalism litmus test.
On April 21, 2012 the "Gray Lady” published “Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist” by Mike McIntire. This article is the latest in media attacks against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit group of state legislators that promotes free-market legislation. What makes this article different than other recent agenda-driven articles attacking the group is that it came from what is supposed to be the “newspaper of record.”
Common Cause is a “501(c)(4) lobbying organization” that bills itself as “committed to honest, open and accountable government, as well as encouraging citizen participation in democracy.” National Public Radio recently referred to it as a “good government” group. But taking five minutes to research the organization on the Internet reveals it to be a partisan progressive organization that is heavily funded by billionaire George Soros.
It is not exactly an objective source for an article targeting an organization that supports limited government and free-market ideals.
But that is exactly who the New York Times sourced for an entire article about ALEC.
Reporter McIntire could still use Common Cause as a source. But he has an obligation to accurately inform the readers of the group’s agenda and relevant funding sources, especially when they are readily available. A quick glance at the Common Cause Web site shows the organization is obsessed with ALEC, which is not an objective goal.
Note to journalism students: Just because an organization claims to be “nonpartisan” and “serve the common good, rather than special interests,” doesn’t mean a journalist should believe that it is a fair-minded source.
In the age of New Media, reporters have access to information in seconds that used to take days or weeks receive. There is simply no excuse for any media organization to be misled by their sources.
While the sourcing of this article is undoubtedly problematic, so is the premise.
As president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism group that operates news sites across the country, I have worked directly with ALEC in the past. One of my board members is an elected official and proud dues-paying member of the limited-government group. I know from experience that both Common Cause and the New York Times have missed the boat when it comes to ALEC.
The article attempts to paint ALEC as a lobbying group, which would be a violation of its 501(c)(3) tax status. Most disturbing is the suggestion that state legislators, who pay yearly dues to receive information from ALEC, are pawns of the corporations who are large contributors to the organization.
The article takes the standard liberal perspective that corporations are inherently evil. Specifically mentioned are “scholarships” for annual conferences and retreats.
“At the conferences, internal records show, representatives of corporations sit with legislators on eight task forces dealing with issues like telecommunications, health care and product liability,” reports the Times. “Each task force is led by a legislator and someone from the private sector. Corporate members in recent years have included Bank of America, Walmart, Verizon, Microsoft and Connections Education, an online learning company.”
I understand that left-wing organizations don’t like corporate America. The same can be said about right-wing groups’ feelings toward labor unions. But these are both legitimate perspectives in the American body politic. The Times is portraying ALEC and its work with business and legislators as a conspiracy.
Lawmakers are human beings. They have limited knowledge of most subjects. Groups such as ALEC educate elected officials on a variety of issues from a perspective they believe in. This isn’t corrupt or even wrong for that matter. Advocacy groups who have a different point of the view also provide information to politicians. This is how a democracy works.
Ultimately it is up to each elected official to decide what policies are best for his or her constituents. If the people don’t agree or believe the officials are no longer being accountable to them, the citizenry has an obligation to vote them out of office.
For the New York Times or any media outlet to use their non-editorial pages to advocate for one position, while painting the opposing viewpoint as immoral or corrupt is not just bad journalism – it's activism.