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Meet Former GOP Public Relations Flak Radley Balko, Now a Libertarian Crusader Against Police Militarization

Radley Balko’s “journalism” career began as a marketer and seminar coordinator for Karl Rove’s and James O’Keefe’s college Republican recruitment outfit.

This article first appeared on NSFWCORP. Published daily online and monthly in print, NSFWCORP is The Future of Journalism (With Jokes). For more features,   or to subscribe, click here. 

Editor's note: Scroll to the end of the article for a defense of Radley Balko by  Bob Evans, a lawyer who helped overturn  Cory Maye's  death penalty conviction. Evans says Balko's work was essential in saving Maye's life. 

Just after George Zimmerman was found “not guilty,” Huffington Post reporter and Cato Institute  Media Fellow Radley Balko  tweeted out a false claim in defense of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law:

"Media people: Stand Your Ground was not a factor in the Zimmerman verdict. Stop perpetuating this myth."

A lot of Balko’s followers, particularly progressives and journalists, were baffled: Why would one of the foremost muckrakers on criminal justice abuse write something so obviously wrong and misleading? As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:

"There has been a lot of complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury."

Coates quoted directly from the judge’s  instructions read to the jury:

"[Zimmerman] had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force..."

Balko was finally forced to retract after getting called out by ProPublica’s Justin Elliot and NSFWCORP cartoonist Matt Bors. But it left many of his progressive-minded followers baffled, and it was hardly the first time Balko had been called out for taking reactionary stances on the Trayvon Martin murder case. After going noticeably silent for almost a month after Trayvon’s murder, Balko twisted the framing around,  tweeting out in March 2012:

"Sad to see a case of racism and police corruption/ineptitude/indifference being shoehorned to fit anti-self-defense, anti-gun politics"

Many of Balko’s progressive followers, unaware of his long career inside the GOP think-tank network, have mistaken Balko’s criticisms of police abuse and the War On Drugs with a larger progressive politics; they’ve assumed he shares many of the same progressive assumptions they do. So every time Balko comes out with a pro-corporate, reactionary position — boosting for privatization and guns, defending Stand Your Ground, savaging Naomi Klein and teachers’ unions, or taking misleading and reactionary positions on the Trayvon Martin murder case — his progressive readers are left confused, but without a broader understanding of where Balko comes from.

In fact, Radley Balko’s current incarnation as a crusading journalist focused on criminal justice abuse is but a recent twist in Balko’s career as a GOP public relations flak.

After Balko graduated from Indiana University in 1997 with degrees in journalism and political science, he found work with Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute as its “Campus Journalism Coordinator.”

The Leadership Institute is a Republican Party recruitment organization that describes itself as “the premier training ground for tomorrow’s conservative leaders,” whose goal is “to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders” through its numerous “journalism seminars.” The Leadership Institute’s alumni include Karl Rove, Rove’s fake White House press pool “reporter”  Jeff Gannon, convicted criminal  James O’Keefe, and major GOP figures including Grover Norquist, Christian Right leader Ralph Reed, and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

A Los Angeles Times  article on a Leadership Institute-sponsored journalism seminar at a North Carolina college said it “bore little resemblance to a traditional journalism class” teaching students “how to start their own conservative newspapers and opinion journals. And how to pick fights with lefty bogeymen on the faculty and in student government.” The LI seminar grads’ ultimate goal: “to alter the basic makeup of the nation’s professional news outlets.”

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