The New Watchdogs
by Rob Bluey
Bill Osmulski stepped outside his office into a boisterous crowd of protesters in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year and spotted a group of doctors offering to write sick notes exempting from work “mentally anguished and distressed” teachers at a pro-union rally. His discovery led to a news-breaking video that put the MacIver Institute on the map for its reporting on the Wisconsin budget battle.
Osmulski is no Richard Dean Anderson (star of the 1980s TV series “MacGyver”) but he is just as resourceful. The former local TV reporter has a track record of breaking news. After years of working in traditional media, now he’s doing it for a free-market think tank.
Think tanks like MacIver are best known for developing policy ideas and producing research. They’re certainly not your conventional news outlet. But for Osmulski, MacIver offers the freedom to pursue stories that TV stations in Eau Claire or Madison didn’t want him to report. His investigative piece on the fake doctors’ notes made national news, arguably having a bigger impact in discrediting the protest than what would have been seen on local TV.
Thanks in part to the news generated by the union-led protests of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the MacIver Institute is fast becoming the model for think tank journalism. That’s largely the result of Osmulski’s work. He’s the only full-time reporter at MacIver, which also relies on a handful of stringers.
The video from the pro-union rally in February has nearly 200,000 views—big numbers for a little think tank. And this isn’t just the latest piece of gotcha journalism, which too often serves more as entertainment value than substantive reporting in today’s 24/7 news environment. Osmulski took 3 minutes to explain what was happening, interview a handful of people and even confront one of the doctors. He did this all himself, without a cameraman.
Time and again, Osmulski has used the same approach to break news. His follow-up videos have chronicled protesters across Wisconsin, from a Special Olympics ceremony disrupted by a group of “zombies” in Madison to a rally outside Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s office in Janesville earlier this month.
“The enterprising stories really make a big difference,” Osmulski told me. “I also don’t go in with any preconceived notions, especially during the protest rallies. One day I walked into the state Capitol and saw a sign with a bunch of rules posted. I started asking people about it and eventually figured out protesters had their own municipal government in the Capitol. I have the luxury of time to follow these stories and to look into the observations I make.”
Osmulski acknowledges the fight over Walker’s reform helped build a following for MacIver’s reporting both in Wisconsin and across the country. But it was actually more than a year earlier that he produced the most popular video on the organization’s YouTube channel. It was a video of former Vice President Al Gore at an event with environmental journalists. It exemplifies exactly how think tanks are contributing to journalism in a way traditional media outlets are not.
The video, which currently has more than 330,000 views, chronicles how conference organizers—themselves environmental journalists—shut down questions from documentary filmmaker Phelim McAleer that challenged factual errors in Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth.
It’s telling that free-market think tanks are holding public figures accountable rather than the anointed truth-seekers who troll America’s biggest newsrooms. And thanks to the work of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, it’s happening in more places than just Wisconsin.
The Franklin Center is working with reporters in more than 40 states. Some have investigative reporters embedded in think tanks that the Franklin Center works with like MacIver; others have their own news bureau, many of which are managed directly by the Franklin Center. Wisconsin happens to have both. Wisconsin Reporter is a Franklin Center news organization that has created its own share of headlines for consistently breaking news. And the subjects of its uncompromising reports have taken notice: Last month it was the subject of a threat from the Wisconsin Democratic Party over its media credentials.
As traditional news organizations, facing declining advertising sales and circulation, have scaled back investigative journalism and beat reporting by state capital bureaus, Franklin seeks to a fill the void. Reporters work for nonprofit organizations, many at free-market think tanks, and pursue stories that other media outlets ignore. Their work appears online on websites such as Texas Watchdog or Pennsylvania Independent In many cases, it’s also picked up by local news outlets seeking quality content.
Franklin-affiliated reporters have broken stories about government corruption, political kickbacks and other unethical schemes. Their work was recognized in a July report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellent in Journalism on the growth of nonprofit journalism. While that study raised questions about the ideological nature of Franklin’s work, it is undeniably having an impact on news that informs the citizenry of goings-on in government. And that’s the message you’ll frequently hear from Jason Stverak, the organization’s president. Whenever critics pounce, Stverak points to the quality work of Franklin-affiliated journalists. As Stverak wrote in the Washington Examiner in July following the release of Pew’s study, “[T]he Franklin Center and our network of reporters are dedicated to educating the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, waste and abuse of public trust by elected officials. . . . [O]ur reporters are accurate, independent and relentlessly in pursuit to expose the truth and to hold our government officials accountable to the people they represent.”
The Franklin Center’s growth comes at a time when more Americans, thanks to the Tea Party movement, are increasingly informed about government and eager to consume more information about wonky policy issues concerning taxes and spending or pensions and health care. “State by state and at the national level, these reporters are having an impact on the daily debate,” said Stverak told me earlier this year. “We needed investigative reporters 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and we’ll need them into the future. There needs to be an aggressive watchdog on government.” Stverak brings a background of political organizing to the organization. He’s the former chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party and a one-time field director for the Sam Adams Alliance. He recently hired Erik Telford as Franklin’s vice president for strategic initiatives and outreach. Telford joins the organization after making a name for himself in the conservative movement as the founder of RightOnline and new-media guru at Americans for Prosperity.
The Franklin Center, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, provides its affiliates with logistical support, training and legal advice. The goal is to ensure that reporters are devoting themselves to reporting or to producing news content in the field.
A Nationwide Network
Individual stories may differ from state to state, but there is always an emphasis on government accountability. Reporters share ideas within a network and follow the leads and tips of their colleagues. Such was the case with the “phantom” congressional districts that began showing up in states across the country as watchdogs tracked money spent from the 2009 economic stimulus.
Jim Scarantino, then working for the Rio Grande Foundation in New Mexico, was browsing the government’s official website for stimulus spending when he discovered something that would prove embarrassing for the Obama administration. Recovery.gov listed data on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s impact on each state. It reported that $8.96 million was spent in New Mexico’s 35th District.
At the time, only one state, California, had that many congressional districts. New Mexico had just three. Scarantino knew he had a story. “It was such a ludicrous error,” Scarantino recalled. “It’s the kind of thing investigative reporters love to get a hold of because it makes fools out of arrogant, pretentious government bureaucrats.” The story quickly spread beyond New Mexico when Scarantino shared the news with Franklin’s network of reporters working for other state-based outlets. They continued to discover errors, and soon, phantom congressional districts, just like fake doctors’ notes, became a national story. This one even found its way onto Stephen Colbert’s faux news show on Comedy Central.
More recently, Kevin Mooney uncovered information that gave the Pelican Post in Louisiana this same kind of national exposure. The news site is a product of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, the state’s free-market think tank. Mooney, who spent years covering national stories in Washington, D.C. before moving to Pelican, tracked down data on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico before President Obama instituted a ban on offshore drilling. What he found was alarming: 10 rigs had abandoned the area since May 2010. That represented one third of the fleet.
Pelican’s story reverberated through Washington. At a time when every politician is talking about jobs, this dealt a devastating blow to the Obama administration. Greater New Orleans Inc., a local firm that tracks drilling permits, estimates that each deepwater rig provides 700 jobs for Louisiana. Scarantino and Mooney used basic reporting techniques to break these stories. They weren’t working for the New York Times or CNN. They simply had the backing of their think tanks and a way to quickly and easily distribute the news online.
In the Capitol
Think-tank journalism is also catching on in Washington. It will be years, perhaps, before its conservative incarnation matches the size and resources of liberal-leaning outfits such as ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity and Think Progress (a division of the Center for American Progress), but The Heritage Foundation has embraced the concept and began building its own investigative reporting unit last year. The Center for Media and Public Policy, which I direct, is devoted to many of the same goals as the Franklin Center’s array of news operations. Our stories cover a variety of subjects, ranging from domestic to foreign policy, and intersect with many of the policy issues studied by Heritage’s experts.
Heritage’s journalism operation is a natural fit given the fact-based research already taking place at the think tank. It also helps to have Mike Gonzalez, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor as our vice president of communications. Shortly after he joined Heritage in 2009, I pitched him the idea of think-tank journalism. I was itching to return to reporting after previous stints at CNSNews.com and Human Events. Gonzalez gave me the green light, and together we refocused the Center for Media and Public Policy’s mission on investigative journalism in 2010. Reporter Lachlan Markay joined the team this June, replacing Tina Korbe, who took a job for the popular conservative blog Hot Air.
While we don’t have the relationships with the New York Times and Washington Post to secure front-page joint bylines as does ProPublica, our work on government corruption and malfeasance is getting noticed. The Daily Caller led with two recent stories about the White House. One exposed the odd obsession of President Obama’s online reponse director with a conservative provacteur on Twitter. The other revealed the intimate relationship between the White House and National Council of La Raza. The Washington Examiner carried Markay’s exclusive report on an Obama donor’s appointment to a federal board whose company stands to profit from the panel’s work. And Markay’s scoop about Sharia law in the new Libyan constitution was linked by the Drudge Report.
Many of these stories are done in collaboration with Heritage’s policy team. The best example came last October. Working with our nuclear energy policy expert, Heritage filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain. A former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was attempting to halt work on the project. Heritage was the first organization to obtain the documents, beating both lawmakers and journalists.
The Future of Journalism
Journalism today looks nothing like it did even five years ago. Technology has leveled the playing field for new organizations like Franklin to emerge and existing think tanks like Heritage to adapt. The growth of government, both in Washington and the states, presents a plethora of stories to pursue. Regardless of who controls the White House or a governor’s mansion, there is plenty of work to be done.
This is especially true at a time when traditional news organizations are cutting back on investigative reporting. As a result, they are relying more on nonprofit journalism outfits to supply the hard-hitting stories many journalists ignore and readers crave. The need for honest, thorough, responsible reporting has never been more critical.
This is most evident in Wisconsin. The state is a hotbed of political activity with liberals and conservatives clashing over the state budget and several recall elections. MacIver News Service and Wisconsin Reporter haven’t let the opportunity go to waste. Their work is carried on mainstream news sites and local papers, and promoted by popular talk-radio host Charlie Sykes.
But not everyone is a fan. Liberals are especially annoyed that right-leaning foundations fund the journalism. Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of the liberal Capital Times in Madison, attacked Wisconsin Reporter after he noticed its work in a local newspaper. “[T]his effort,” he wrote, “represents yet another dangerous blow to the traditions of objective news reporting and, I’m afraid, the future of America’s democratic discourse.” This, of course, comes from the self-identified “progressive voice” of Wisconsin.
Conservatives and liberartarians who embark on these efforts—in state capitals or in Washington, D.C.—can expect much of the same. But through hard work, accurate reporting and devotion to journalistic principles, there’s growing respect for these nonprofit ventures.
Take, for example, Jennifer Peebles. She’s the deputy editor of Texas Watchdog, an affiliate of the Franklin Center. Last week she was elected president of the Houston Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization. Peebles has also served as chairman of SPJ’s national committee on digital media. She has a list of accomplishments any journalist would envy, winning multiple awards since joining Texas Watchdog in 2008.
Role models like Peebles in Texas and Osmulski in Wisconsin give aspiring journalists hope at a time of uncertainty in the profession. Meanwhile, think tanks and nonprofits like the Franklin Center offer competition to traditional media outlets—a development that might threaten legacy media but certainly benefits the citizenry.
Bluey is the director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.