By Scott Walter, President, Campion Consulting
Remember when Pew and some of its friends got caught with their hands in the cookie jar a few years ago on the issue of campaign finance reform? Now “net neutrality,” another dubious “reform,” is in the news, and once again Pew is under fire.
In the earlier controversy, Sean Treglia, a former Pew staffer, explained to some journalists in 2004 at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism how Pew and 7 other left-of-center foundations created a snowball of research, “grassroots” groups, and more, all in order to fool Congress and the courts into imagining that Americans believed they had too much freedom in political campaigns and a government crack-down was needed.
To refresh your memory, you can read Bill Schambra’s account for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Treglia, of course, was quite abashed when his speech became news and tried hard to backpedal. (The full video is here.)
Appropriately for today’s net neutrality chapter of this old, old story, Treglia sneered at bloggers as he tried to cover his posterior: They are “not news journalists. To the contrary, they are nothing more than partisans engaged in an effort to discredit the campaign-finance movement.”
Got that? “News journalists” wouldn’t say such awful things (that’s true; none of the fine journalists who heard Treglia’s speech reported it), and the only “partisans” in existence are the persons who criticize the movement into which Treglia, the nonpartisan non pareil, poured tens of millions of Pew’s money, with the eventual result that two houses of Congress, a Republican President, and the U.S. Supreme Court allowed broad new legal restraints on political speech — restraints that conveniently bypass news journalists like Pew’s friends at the thoroughly nonpartisan New York Times and NPR, whose freedoms are left untouched.
Now John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has put the spotlight on Pew & Co. again in “The Net Neutrality Coup.” Fund observes that many of the same left-of-center donors are trying to do to Internet speech what they did earlier to political speech. Pew president Rebecca Rimel quickly tried to brush off the charge, but the dispute won’t go away. It deserves attention precisely because of the larger issues it raises about a big and powerful part of the philanthropic sector.
I’ll discuss those issues in Part 2, but first let’s review Fund’s case and Pew’s response:
1. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last month passed net neutrality rules on a partisan basis: 3 Democrat commissioners for, 2 Republican commissioners against.
2. There’s little evidence the public wants these rules, and the public’s representatives in Congress certainly don’t. Not only did a Democrat-controlled Congress not pass a net neutrality law last year, but opposition to it was bipartisan and will increase sharply in both parties in the newly elected Congress.
3. The President, however, has long supported net neutrality and has appointed a law school pal to head the FCC. The two men have met at least 11 times at the White House (as a former White House staffer, I assure you many agency heads never get 1 such meeting).
4. Net neutrality is the brainchild of Robert McChesney, a professor who co-founded the liberal lobby Free Press. He’s a self-described socialist who’s “hesitant to say I’m not a Marxist,” and he told SocialistProject that he has an incremental agenda whose “ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists.”
5. The Free Press’s press flack is now the FCC’s press flack, and another top FCC staffer co-authored a Free Press report that calls for stringent new regulations that will change the “imbalance” in talk radio. (And, the report adds, if those regs don’t make the media capitalist pigs toe the line, the swine must be slapped with a fee that will go straight to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “to cover controversial and political issues in a fair and balanced manner”!)
6. Free Press has been funded by “a network of liberal foundations that helped the lobby invent the purported problem that net neutrality is supposed to solve,” in a manner similar to the previous campaign-finance fairy tale on which Sean Treglia spilled the beans: “The idea,” as Treglia told his uninterested journalist audience, “was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot,” because “if Congress thought this was a Pew effort it’d be worthless.”
7. A Political Money Line study of campaign-finance reform found that eight liberal foundations were the source of $123 million of the $140 million spent from 1994-2004 to directly promote campaign-finance reform. Pew was the biggest donor, giving nearly 1 in every 3 dollars of the $123 million.
8. After the campaign-finance bill passed in 2002, several of the same foundations shifted to “media reform.” In 2003, Free Press was founded; it now has 40 staffers and a $4 million annual budget.
9. “Of the eight major foundations that provided the vast bulk of money for campaign-finance reform, six became major funders of the media-reform movement. (They are the Pew Charitable Trusts, Bill Moyers’s Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Joyce Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)”
10. A Free Press poll found little public desire for federal Internet regs, so its pollsters manfully concocted an amusing guide to spinning the public on the issue.
11. In 2009 the FCC asked a Harvard research center to provide it with an “independent review of existing information” so the FCC could “lay the foundation for enlightened, data-driven decision making.” The report is here, and John Fund was too polite to quote this embarrassing gush over the work’s incestuous parents:
I am proud and grateful of the support we received from the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Both foundations were remarkably open and flexible in their willingness to receive and process our requests for funding in lightening speed, so as to allow us to respond to this highly time-sensitive request to support the FCC’s efforts, while maintaining complete independence from the agency.
the “media reform” movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for. Now they have their policy. That’s quite a coup.
To Fund’s indictment, Pew’s Rimel had only a terse letter to the editor in reply. The Journal, my friends there assure me, printed it in full:
Regarding John Fund’s Dec. 22 op-ed, “The Net Neutrality Coup,” the Pew Charitable Trusts has not been a funder of an advocacy organization called Free Press. Pew has also never taken a position on so-called net neutrality, and has no intention of doing so.
Of course, that’s a straw man: Fund never said Pew had funded Free Press but that it had invested heavily in the broader “media reform” movement. (After Treglia’s speech gained notoriety, Pew pulled the same straw-man stunt by insisting it had not violated the laws on formal lobbying or on disclosing grantees. All true, but nobody claimed it had broken them.)
Fund’s argument is untouched by Rimel, and though he did not go into further detail in his article, Fund could easily have shown how Pew’s tentacles are entwined in the “media reform” movement.
For example, during the last decade, Pew gave millions of dollars to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and the like. Many of those millions were passed through the Tides Center, which is intriguing because Pew didn’t need a middle-man to fund its own projects and centers. (You’ll find more of these grants to Tides if you use FoundationSearch.com than if you search Pew’s own database.)
No doubt Tides, which doesn’t pretend not to be left-wing, captured a healthy percentage of Pew’s millions as they passed through. And year after year the Tides Foundation also gave grants of varying size to, yes, Free Press (as high as $87,000 in 2007).
Tides also has as one of its “projects” the Center for Social Inclusion, which has done such useful things as publish “Broadband Equity Today,” a document that “applaud[s] the FCC’s efforts to develop a national plan to expand broadband access.”
Pew’s Internet Project has added its two cents with such things as a recent study on Internet use that industry observers at PaidContent.org headlined, “New Pew Stats To Fuel Net Neutrality Fans.” Pew research certainly is popular with Free Press. Search their website for “Pew” and you’ll get hundreds of hits.
A glance at the website of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media finds that last year’s “Funder Conversation,” hosted by the not-quite-nonpartisan Open Society Institute, included a talk by Helen Brunner, director of the Media Democracy Fund, who “has also advised Ford, Pew, Andy Warhol, Quixote, Women Donors Network, Leeway, and other foundations in the areas of communications policy, independent media, freedom of expression, and the arts.”
The best evidence of Pew’s discreet relationships with net neutrality advocates comes from “Funding Media for Social Change,” a report from the MediaWorks Initiative designed “to document and quantify the need for increased strategic funding of progressive media.” It describes the Communication Policy Funders Network:
a newly-created list-serve organized to facilitate conversations among grant makers who have a shared interest in communications and media policy. The goal is to encourage more funding for media policy projects. Discussions focus on a broad range of policy, regulation and legislative issues, plus related telecommunications topics like spectrum management, internet privacy, and digital intellectual property rights. Organized by the Ford Foundation, this list has about 50 participants from diverse foundations including ARCA Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts….
In short, net neutrality has the loving support of one big happy nonpartisan family. Isn’t it nice that “news journalists” don’t bore the American public with all these purely coincidental connections?
Scott Walter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Campion Consulting, a philanthropic consulting firm for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged.