Tag Archives: transparency

Try again, Mr. Mitchell

One of the great ironies of the Fourth Estate is how they are constantly trumpeting The Public’s Right To Know regarding other precincts, but they just can’t stand it when the spotlight is turned on themselves. For example, the studied reticence of the Burlington Free Press whenever it takes a chainsaw to its already-diminished staff.

Another example: In my four-plus years of blogging, I’ve said plenty of harsh things about almost everyone in political circles. When I meet these folks, they tend to be perfectly genial, or at the very least polite.

Not journalists or editors. When I criticize the failings or shortcomings of Vermont’s media, they often react with a pained squeal. There’s only one person who’s blocked me from their Twitter feed, and it’s a staffer at a certain Vermont newspaper. Once, the chief of a major media outlet took time out of his (or her, I ain’t telling) busy day to hector me for being critical of a certain reporter’s work. I was honored by the attention in a perverse way; at least I know they care.

This is a roundabout way to get at the latest Big Story in Vermont media: the DUI arrest of Catherine Nelson two days before her installation as publisher of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

She bounced her vehicle off multiple inanimate objects in downtown Rutland, and blew a BAC twice the legal limit after being pulled over by the cops.

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The hidden world of nonprofit advocacy

Okay, so today I Tweeted this:

It’s something I’ve been thinking for a long time. There are more and more “nonprofit organizations” whose official mission is “educational” or some such, but whose actual purpose is political advocacy, including activity that ought to be classified as lobbying but it’s not.

This is one reason I’m less exercised than some about the proposed cap on itemized deductions: a lot of “charitable contributions” are being spent politically. Many wealthy people set up their own nonprofit foundations for the purpose of spreading their political beliefs. The Koch Empire is the prime example of this, but there are lots of others. In Vermont, their number includes the Vermont Workers’ Center, VPIRG, Campaign for Vermont, Energize Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, the Ethan Allen Institute, and the late unlamented Vermonters First.

That’s a heavy-hitting list of groups trying to influence our politics, and they range from far left to far right. Nobody’s got a patent on this. Although I will say that the quantity of money on the right is much greater than on the lieft. Although although I will say that Vermont is an exception to this rule; our nonprofits lean leftward.

Some of these groups do report direct lobbying activities, but because they are nonprofits, they are not legally obligated to report the source of their revenue. Some voluntarily report to some extent, but as far as I know, none of them provide full donor disclosure. Which would include name, town and state of residence, and amount of donation. (If any group does so, please let me know and I will amend this post.)

I say “Ive been thinking about this for a long time,” so what made me write about it today? Actually, the inspiration was a mistake I made on Twitter, in replying to a Tweet from the corporate-funded folks at “Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax.”

Which brought a quick response from, well, a ready chorus of right-wingers, but let’s stick with the Ethan Allen Institute, Tweeting as @EAIVT:

They’re right. At least they’re partly right. “SPN” is the State Policy Network, which is part of the Koch nonprofit empire. I didn’t lie, though; I mistakenly believed that EAI is Koch-funded. I picked this up from the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Sourcewatch,” which describes SPN thusly:

The State Policy Network (SPN) has franchised, funded, and fostered a growing number of “mini Heritage Foundations” at the state level since the early 1990s.[1] SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state “think tank” members.

Sourcewatch lists the Ethan Allen Institute as the SPN’s Vermont affiliate. There’s where I made my leap of faith. I’ll take EAI’s word for it that they don’t get money from SPN or the Kochs; too bad for them, since a lot of their fellow SPNers are ridin’ that gravy train.

Still, for EAI to pay for the privilege of SPN affilliation… it’s not correct to call them “Koch-funded,” but they’re definitely “Koch-friendly.”

I will freely admit that I sometimes shoot from the hip, as I did in this case. I try to own up when I’m wrong; this isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I could have avoided my mistake if we had better disclosure laws; I could have gone to the source instead of poking around for indirect scraps of information.

But the real point isn’t a matter of my convenience. It’s openness and transparency in our politics.

Organized political parties (and the Democrats, haha) will tell you that campaign finance laws are stacked against them. It’s better in a number of ways for donors to go through their own organizations than through parties: there are effectlvely no limits and few disclosure requirements, and they retain control over how their money is spent. That’s why the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and all those people don’t give much money to the Republican Party; they funnel their wealth through their own organizations. And when those groups are nonprofits, We, the Taxpayers, are underwriting their political activities. Nice work if you can get it.

The point is, in this modern world of political nonprofits, we need better disclosure rules. We need to know who’s spending money for what political purpose, whether they’re going through the Ethan Allen Institute or the Vermont Workers’ Center.

Unwarranted outrage from your Freeploid

 

(See also addendum below: the Free Press didn’t have a reporter at one of the biggest news events in recent history!) 

Regular readers of the Burlington Free Press (all six of us) know that transparency is one of its signature causes.

(Except when it comes to the Burlington Free Press itself; there, secrecy rules the day.)

Well, this preoccupation caused Vermont’s Saddest Newspaper to leap to an unwarranted conclusion yesterday.

In the morning, the media got notice of a gubernatorial press conference to be held at 2:15 p.m. There was no mention of the subject matter.

And this caused the Freeploid to throw a nutty. It posted a short piece entitled “Secrecy surrounds Shumlin’s news conference.”

Shumlin has led the fight for government transparency, but his new press secretary, Scott Coriell, has failed to respond to questions about the topic of the governor’s meeting with the media.

Well, son of a bitch. Of course he didn’t respond.

Most gubernatorial pressers include a bit of political business — a bill signing, a new initiative, a ribbon-cutting. In those cases, the media alert will tell us what’s coming up.

But when there’s an actual policy announcement of significant magnitude? Hell no. Shumlin’s people aren’t going to upstage the announcement by providing advance information. The Freeploid is basically demanding that the administration leak its own stuff.

Particularly in this case, when the announcement was made simultaneously to the media and to those who’d been involved in the single payer work.  If Coriell had disclosed the subject matter, do you think the Free Press wouldn’t have found a way to publish the “scoop”?

The Freeploid went on to complain about changes in the time and venue for the presser. Which, c’mon, grow up. It’s not that big a deal.

I suspect the Freeploid’s real problem is that it no longer has a Statehouse bureau, and the editors had to decide whether to send a staffer down from Burlington. That’s a big deal for a paper as understaffed as the Freeploid. But that’s not the governor’s problem. And Scott Coriell shouldn’t be raked over the coals for simply doing his f’n job.

The article was slightly updated after the presser, and can be viewed by anyone who hasn’t canceled their subscription yet. The updated version mostly changes the verb tenses; the misperceptions, self-entitlement, and aspersions on Coriell remain intact. One more signpost on the Burlington Free Press’ descent into irrelevance.

 Addendum. A loyal reader pointed out that the Free Press’ main article on Shumlin’s presser was not written by a Freeploid staffer, but by the Associated Press’ Dave Gram. That’s pretty awful for a “media company” that insists it hasn’t retreated from Statehouse coverage, and whose leader has publicly slammed “rumors and speculation that we are abandoning coverage in Montpelier.” Well, sir, your absence at yesterday’s announcement is not rumor or speculation, but fact.

Presumably what happened was: the Free Press tried to find out the subject of the presser and failed. The editors then made a calculated gamble not to send a reporter — although they did send their photographer Glenn Russell. Their gamble exploded in their faces. Dave Gram’s a fine reporter, but Vermont’s largest newspaper should not be depending on the AP for coverage of a huge news story.