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How A Koch-Affiliated Group Is Infiltrating State News Coverage in Mainstream Papers

Local papers can't afford to cover the state legislature, so a Koch-linked venture is happy to help.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Media Matters for America

 

When Idaho state legislators proposed a seemingly uncontroversial bill to ban access to commercial tanning beds by minors earlier this year,  IdahoReporter.com took up the issue with force.

The state news Web site, an affiliate of the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and overseen by the free market Idaho Freedom Foundation, posted  six stories on the proposal between Feb. 16 and March 22, when the bill was  voted down in a state Senate Committee.  

The Franklin Center is a multimillion-dollar organization whose Web sites and affiliates provide free statehouse reporting to local newspapers and other media across the country. Funded by major conservative donors, staffed by veterans of groups affiliated with the Koch brothers, and maintaining a regular presence hosting right-wing events, the organization boasts of its ability to fill the void created by state newsroom layoffs.

The group's editors claim that their "professional journalism" work is walled off from the organization's more nakedly political operations and say that their "pro-taxpayer, pro-liberty, free market perspective" doesn't compromise their accuracy or independence. But many journalism professionals -- even newspaper editors who reprint the work of Franklin Center affiliates in their own pages -- speak warily of the group's ideological bent.

All but one of the IdahoReporter.com stories quoted Franklin Center parent the Idaho Freedom Foundation and highlighted its opposition to the bill -- which would have barred those under 18 from commercial tanning beds -- a restriction that 38 other states have already instituted because of the dangers of skin cancer and other health concerns.

A March 6  story even based its angle on the Freedom Foundation's opposition to the bill and touted its reasons in the lead paragraph.

"They covered the tanning bill because it is one of those pieces of legislation that impacts the free market," said Wayne Hoffman, three-year executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. "The reporters write stories based on the news of the day of the legislature."

But the website's coverage of the tanning issue clearly figured into the Idaho Freedom Foundation's efforts to stop the measure and protect that industry's business owners, a pattern observers say many of the IdahoReporter.com articles appear to follow. 

"I think it's viewed as something other than a regular news organization," said Betsy Russell, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association of Idaho and a statehouse reporter for the  Spokesman-Review of neighboring Spokane, Wash."They report on their own organization's activities and they reveal it, they give more play to stuff their organization is pushing."

Such a conflict was enough for the Capitol Correspondents Association to deny membership to IdahoReporter.com on two occasions, in 2010 and 2011, denying them access rights to the legislature enjoyed by legitimate news outlets.

The Web site did not seek credentials for 2012.

Russell says of IdahoReporter.com: "It was basically a lobbying organization that linked to a news arm. They very plainly don't qualify and are not going to qualify" as a news organization.

IdahoReporter.com is one of 55 news sites covering state government in 39 states that have ties to the Franklin Center, which  claims to provide 10 percent of all state government news in the United States. Some of the Franklin Center state news sites are described as "affiliates," which means the Franklin Center provides training and grants, but no oversight. Others are operated and controlled by the non-profit organization.

The group has its origins in the Sam Adams Alliance, a non-profit organization that promotes free-market Tea Party-style citizen activism, which  "helped launch" the Franklin Center in 2009, reportedly providing the nascent organization with "seed money," according to the  National Journal.The umbrella group took in $2,378,931 in contributions and grants in its first year, and $3,776,997 in 2010, according to the most recent disclosure forms available.

 
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