Meet Former GOP Public Relations Flak Radley Balko, Now a Libertarian Crusader Against Police Militarization
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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.
"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 Coateswrote:
"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.”
At the Leadership Institute, Balko “marketed and recruited college journalists for LI’s two-day seminars,” according to his online resume.
This was how Radley Balko’s “journalism” career began: marketing and coordinating seminars for Karl Rove’s and James O’Keefe’s college Republican recruitment outfit.
Balko did something right: By 2001, he was working at the Cato Institute, the billionaire Koch brothers’ flagship libertarian think-tank in Washington DC. (Cato was originally founded in 1974 as the "Charles Koch Foundation.”) Balko’s job description at Cato: “Marketing manager for the Cato Institute” and “Managing editor of www.cato.org”. His duties included marketing “Cato’s studies, forums, conferences, scholars and publications,” as well as “forging corporate and association partnerships.”
Balko also landed a gig as a FoxNews.com columnist, riding with the incoming Bush Administration’s ideological tidal wave. At FoxNews.com Balko churned out crude rightwing pro-corporate propaganda, attacking government regulations, praising free-markets, boosting for Big Tobacco and the health insurance industry. A sample Radley Balko headline: “Greed Makes the World Go 'Round.”
Balko wrote his FoxNews.com column throughout the Bush years, and from 2001 through 2008, one of his favorite themes was promoting the privatization of Social Security. That also happened to be the favorite theme of his employer, the Cato Institute, which had poured more resources into privatizing Social Security over more years than any outfit in DC. As Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reported in June 2001,
"The Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, has spent about $3 million in the past six years to run a virtual war room to promote Social Security privatization....Two members of Bush's Social Security commission, Sam Beard and former representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), are on a Cato privatization panel, and Cato staff members have been assigned to the Bush commission."
Cato placed a former Pinochet minister responsible for crushing labor unions during the dictator’s bloody reign, Jose Piñera, in charge of Cato’s “Project On Social Security Choice” (originally named the “Project on Social Security Privatization”). In 1998, former UN official Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs suggested that Cato’s vice president, Piñera, was a human rights criminal:
“Pinera was the Pinochet dictatorship's labor minister at a time when the country's trade union movement was suffering one of its worst periods of repression....Pinera was a vital cog in the Pinochet dictatorship's ability to implement a draconian labor code. It is simply outrageous for the Cato Institute to have him as co-chair of its Social Security privatization effort. This is an example of crime without punishment and reflects the conservative organization's contempt for the suffering imposed on Chile's population during the Pinochet era.”
In a 2001 column for Fox, Balko pushed for Social Security privatization just as the Bush Administration, led by advisors from the Cato Institute, geared up for a major Social Security privatization campaign. Balko called Social Security “little more than a tax on laborers” and said that privatizing it would “benefit the poor” and “also benefit African-Americans.” In a 2003 blog post headlined “Fisking Tom Tomorrow,” Balko described Social Security as “a fraud and a lie, a ponzi scheme that would be illegal if ever attempted in the private sector.”
Balko was still selling the Social Security privatization snake oil in 2008, after the financial markets were free-falling, and millions of Americans saw their private retirement savings disappear. In an October 6, 2008 FoxNews.com piece headlined, “Social Security Still Needs To Be Privatized,” Balko wrote:
"You think the stock market is risky? The federal government currently has obligations it will never be able to keep."
That same year, he went after Naomi Klein in a series of blog posts for her book, "The Shock Doctrine":
“Klein is really just astonishingly stupid. It’s telling that she waited until after [Milton] Friedman was dead to publish her ignorant attack on his legacy.” —January 2008
“In a just world, Klein’s book would have been recalled, and she’d have slunk off the national stage in shame. She is not a serious person.” —October 2008
“Naomi Klein, giant ignoramus, or the giantest ignoramus?” —July 2008
In 2010, Balko responded to the New Yorker éxpose on the Koch brothers bytweeting,
“I’d like to thank the Koch brothers for six years of funding my right-wing, corporatist work on police abuse and criminal justice reform.”
Later in 2011, during Koch-backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public sector unions, Balko published a long defense of the Kochs, claiming they weren't interested in politics, and contributed mainly to civil society and the arts:
“But though I’ve never met either of the Koch brothers, I suspect that like most libertarians, they’d rather avoid the unseemly world of politics as often as possible, where winning generally means forcing other people to bend to your will… They seem more interested in contributing to voluntary, civil society, by promoting ideas (yes, through think tanks and magazines like Reason), the arts, research, and by fighting particularly pernicious laws like the PATRIOT Act through the courts instead of through contributions to generally spineless politicians.”
Balko’s right-wing views on economics issues were consistent with his views on key social issues, such as his opposition to affirmative action.
As the Iraq war heated up in 2003, Balko published inflammatory pieces attacking affirmative action in public universities, while supporting private universities’ rights to racial discrimination, citing Bob Jones University as an example. Even more disturbing, Balko in the same piece said he opposed the very existence of public universities (despite having graduated from Indiana U) — in other words, Balko supports a totally privatized university system, in which racially segregated universities would be allowed to operate unmolested:
"If Bob Jones University wants to prohibit blacks from stepping foot on campus, I don’t think such a policy should be illegal...
"There’s no need for public universities. But if you’re going to have them...I’m sorry, but you just can’t grant admission to one student and deny it to another for any reason other than merit."
Later in 2003, Balko blamed the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at the New York Times on affirmative action:
"Nearly everything about the Blair case came about because of affirmative action, or at least from the entitlement mindset that comes with support for affirmative action.”
Ignoring the numerous examples of white journalists in plagiarism scandals (Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley, Mike Barnicle, Stephen Ambrose, etc), Balko blamed his own racist thoughts regarding the Jayson Blair scandal not on himself or his right-wing libertarian ideology, but rather on affirmative action programs and liberals:
"What’s unfortunate — and what I’m loathe to admit — was my reaction when, a couple of days later, I saw [Jayson Blair’s] picture. 'He’s black,' I said as a foul thought emerged from the darker corners of my thinking: 'probably an affirmative action case.'
"As it turns out, my first, more shameful conclusion was correct. Race had everything to do with this story — and not because bigoted people chose to exploit Blair to further some hateful agenda. Rather, it’s because open-minded, well-intentioned people used Blair’s race to put him in a position he wasn’t professionally prepared for. And in so doing, those open-minded people lent a bit of ammunition and a small sense of validation not just to hate mongers, but to those pestering, nagging thoughts about things black and white like the one that occurred to me when I first saw Jayson Blair’s picture."
Balko’s disturbing views on race were not confined to his opposition to affirmative action. For instance, in a 2002 a blog post Balko accused Jesse Jackson of “stirring up racial animosity” and extorting money from major US corporations. As proof, Balko cited and even quoted from a white supremacist, anti-immigrant source, American Renaissance magazine, recommending his readers do the same:
“Read a detailed account of Jackson’s corporate shakedowns ... here, from a group called Common Sense Club."
At the time Balko linked to the Common Sense Club, its “About” pagedescribed itself as:
"The mission of the CommonSenseClub.com is to expand the readership of American Renaissance."
On the same “About” page, the Common Sense Club warned readers:
"Besides the extra tax burden on white Americans, and soaring insurance rates of all kinds, etc., there is the far greater cost of ever expanding legal discrimination against whites in the form of 'affirmative action.'"
"Affirmative action has now been expanded from its original clientele of American-born blacks to include virtually all non-whites… so that now non-whites fresh off the boat receive preferences over the children of whites who have been here for generations"
"Nearly one million Arabs— nearly all of whom have arrived since 1965— now live in America, and are lobbying for racial preferences."
The article that Balko linked to and quoted was taken from American Renaissance magazine’s “Extra!” section in its March 2001 issue, which begins with the attack on Jesse Jackson Balko cited as proof Jackson is a racial extortionist. On the same page Balko linked to, there were further claims that “young black men are particularly murderous” and “immigrants continue to bring tuberculosis,” along with praise for an “excellent and comprehensive” racial eugenics book by Arthur Jensen, and a piece arguing that the happiest Americans are whites who live in the purest-white regions of the country.
By the end of 2004, Balko was listed as a Cato Institute “policy analyst.” One of his jobs: lobbying for Big Tobacco interests. Cato’s major donors have included Philip Morris, British-American Tobacco, and RJ Reynolds; secret tobacco industry documents leaked in the late 1990s revealed the Cato Institute’s covert role as a “National Ally” of the tobacco lobby, and Cato executives including Ed Crane, Robert Levy and Tim Lynch shamelesslygroveling to tobacco executives for donations while selling Cato’s willingness to shill for their interests.
In 2004, Balko exploited America’s terrorism fears to argue that hiking taxes on cigarettes would help Hezbollah and other terrorists:
The tax hike might also mean … an invigorated black market for cigarettes, an increase in the crime and menace that come with black markets, and a growing presence of international terrorist organizations that fund themselves with bootlegged cigarettes.
The following year, without disclosing his employers’ ties to tobacco companies, Balko testified against a smoking ban in workplaces before the District of Columbia City Council, arguing that the smoking ban would be tantamount to fascism:
“This isn’t about worker’s rights. The idea that the Washington, D.C. city council is banning public smoking to benefit the city’s waiters, waitresses and bartenders is a canard. There are countless jobs and professions that are far more dangerous than serving food or drink in the presence of secondhand smoke….The health risks associated with secondhand smoke are debatable.”
Balko then went on a conspiratorial rant, alleging that smoking bans were a conspiracy by “healthists” determined to make everyone live like they do, “by force, if necessary.” Balko concluded by warning the lone DC council member who stuck around to listen to his horseshit (eight of the nine council members walked out):
“I’d urge the D.C. city council to resist this tide of tyrannical healthism.”
Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
The same year Balko lobbied against DC’s smoking ban, Balko ran “Morgan Spurlock Watch,” a website attacking Morgan Spurlock’s documentary “Super Size Me” — which Balko called a “scam” — defending the fast food industry and Big Agro. The website was an extension of the “policy analysis” work he was doing for the Cato Institute, which has been a longtime promoter of Big Agro and restaurant industry interests, running articles with headlines like “Food Apartheid” and “A Happy Meal Ban Is Nothing To Smile About.” Balko explained why he set up the anti-Spurlock website: “[Spurlock is] consumed by a loathing of business and capitalism – to the point of refusing to allow accuracy to get in the way of making his point. And I think someone needs to hold him accountable.”
Balko’s pro-fast food industry PR repeatedly cited and relied on propaganda published by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) — a front-group for the restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industries created by notorious PR man Rick Berman, whom “60 Minutes” called “Dr. Evil.” Balko quoted “evidence” from Berman’s CCF on numerous occasions, and encouraged his followers to read CCF propaganda.
A few months after setting up “Morgan Spurlock Watch,” Balko took on a cause that he has since become known for, overshadowing nearly all of his other right-wing propaganda: The Mississippi death-row murder case of Cory Maye, convicted of shooting a policeman to death during a drug raid. Maye had pled “not guilty” on “self-defense” — he claimed the police, who had come with a warrant, burst into his apartment without announcing themselves, and that he shot the officer in the dark, unaware he was a cop.
Balko and his employers have heavily promoted a narrative giving the Cato Institute employee enormous credit for “saving a man’s life” — a rather tawdry and shameless bit of self-promotion that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It is largely because of Balko’s alleged role in freeing Maye, an African-American, that some people were shocked and puzzled by his claims about the George Zimmerman murder case. In fact, Balko’s positions in both cases is consistent: Both times, Balko aligned with the side of “Stand Your Ground” and self-defense laws.
Cory Maye shot and killed Mississippi K9 officer Ron Jones in 2001, and was sentenced to die by lethal injection in January 2004 after the judge and jury rejected Maye’s self-defense argument. Balko took up Maye’s cause in December 2005, nearly two years after Maye was sentenced to death. Balko’s interest coincided with a new ALEC model “Stand Your Ground” bill inMississippi’s legislature, part of a major SYG push in several states in late 2005 and early 2006. The Cato Institute has been a vigorous defender of “Stand Your Ground” laws and an opponent of gun control. ALEC’s ties to the Koch brothers have been well-documented.
Balko took up Cory Maye’s cause for Cato at the same time that Eric Holder’s law firm Covington & Burling swooped in with half a dozen lawyers and took over Maye’s defense. On March 6, 2006, the AP reported on the significance of Maye’s case for the new ALEC-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” bill in the Mississippi legislature:
"Radley Balko, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington and a biweekly columnist for FoxNews.com, has taken up Maye’s cause.
"…'The state of Mississippi is about to add a perverse twist to that violation by executing Maye for daring to defend himself.'
"The case is all the more relevant now, as lawmakers consider measures that would broaden the right for citizens to kill intruders.
"Currently it is legal for Mississippians to defend themselves from intruders who they believe will do them 'some great personal injury.'
"Two bills before the state Senate and the House would expand that right to include a citizen’s place of employment, businesses and vehicles."
Covington & Burling’s lawyers succeeded in overturning Maye’s conviction on the grounds that the judge had not properly instructed the jury about Maye’s right to shoot in self-defense — thereby saving not only Maye’s life, but also the legal viability of Mississippi’s new “Stand Your Ground” law, which passed in 2006.
Today, Covington & Burling’s role — and that of the half-dozen lawyers assigned to Maye’s defense pro bono — is all but forgotten, while Balko’s role blogging about Maye has been turned into legend, on forums like his own Huffington Post bio page:
“His reporting on the Cory Maye case, in which Maye mistakenly killed a police officer in a mistaken drug raid, helped Maye get off death row and win a new trial. Maye was finally released in July 2011.”
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 16-year-old African American, was shot to death while walking home by an armed vigilante waffentwerp named George Zimmerman. The Trayvon murder quickly went national as word spread that his killer was not charged due to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — the law that became ALEC’s model “Stand Your Ground” law passed in scores of other states, including Mississippi. As the Trayvon murder dominated headlines, Balko’s readers were puzzled by his unusual silence, given his focus on criminal justice system abuse and the Cory Maye case, where he “saved a man’s life.”
Nearly a month after Trayvon’s murder, Balko finally broke his silence:
"I’ve received quite a few emails, Tweets, and comments asking why I haven’t yet written on the Trayvon Martin case. These have ranged from polite inquiries as to what I think about the case, to not-so-subtle implications about what my “conspicuous silence” says about me, to demands that I drop everything and investigate, to a weird rush of emails a couple days ago screaming (as much as an email can scream) that I haven’t covered the case because Martin is black and I only care about the civil liberties of white people. Given the narrow time window in which that last batch of emails arrived, I’m fairly sure they all came from the same blog post or discussion board, though I wasn’t able (and didn’t put up much of an effort) to track down the source."
Balko offered a series of excuses, including: “I’m working on a number of other projects that I can’t just drop in order to jump into another story,” “I’m writing a book,” “I also do occasionally enjoy doing things that aren’t work-related,” and “it doesn’t appear to involve any issues about which I have some specific expertise…”
And yet Balko did have a lot to say about the case: He accused Trayvon supporters of “shoehorning” the case “to fit anti-self-defense, anti-gun politics”; declared “I’m not yet convinced [Zimmerman] committed a crime”; and savaged the prosecutor who finally brought charges because she met with the Martin family and prayed with them:
"I find the idea of a prosecutor praying with a victim’s family off-putting in general. But it’s particularly troubling in this case...
"...By meeting with Martin’s family, praying with them, and implying in her press conference that she immediately saw them as the victim’s family, she gave the impression that she had made up her mind before she started investigating. And her weak indictment did little to vindicate her of that notion."
After Zimmerman was found “not guilty” by a jury instructed to rule based on the “Stand Your Ground” law’s narrow language, Balko waged a misleading defense of “Stand Your Ground” falsely claiming, “Stand Your Ground was not a factor in the Zimmerman verdict.”
His newer readers, many of them progressives unaware of Balko’s past, were confused; had they been following Balko’s career, they would have seen that his politics have been consistent since his first columns for FoxNews.com and the Cato Institute over a decade ago.
Even in the policy area where progressives have lined up with Balko, his solutions are extreme: Balko supports privatizing juries, privatizing criminal labs, and believes that the solution to America's high incarceration rate is, and we quote: "less democracy."
To read more about Radley Balko and other covert media shills, check out The Shame Project. And to read perhaps one of the most colossal corrections you'll see in a major newspaper, scroll to the bottom of a recent article by Balko in the Wall St. Journal.
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.