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Training the watchdogs of tomorrow

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Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Journalism internship program

The Franklin Center is committed not just to providing the hard-hitting investigative journalism of today, but investing in the watchdogs of tomorrow. This year we’ve taken a huge step toward fulfilling that mission by hosting our inaugural Journalism Internship Program, a full-time, paid internship program for college students and young professionals pursuing a career in investigative journalism.

We inherited the program from the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). During a re-organization of their programs, IHS decided that their longstanding Journalism Internship Program no longer fully fit into their mission. They considered several different organizations as potential homes for the journalism internship program, but ultimately reached an agreement with the Franklin Center given our investigative, rather than partisan or political structure. It was thus a natural transition because both Franklin and IHS believe that the future of journalism depends on a new generation of media professionals who are focused on more than merely holding one side of the debate accountable. Also, some of our strongest young reporters, including Ryan Ekvall and Eric Boehm, are previous graduates of the IHS program. Our goal is to help raise up a generation of journalists who are committed to holding government accountable on every side, at every level.

“Too often internship programs focus on prestige of the institution, rather than the actual intern experience,” said Rachel Swaffer, Outreach Manager at the Franklin Center. “We want to turn that idea on its head – placing our interns in media organizations where we can ensure that they will have an intense, hands-on experience, and be intimately involved in the research, writing, and editing process.”

Will swaim profile picParticipants split their time between an online journalism course taught by veteran journalists and Watchdog.org editors Will Swaim (pictured) and Mark Lisheron. Swaim and Lisheron co-designed the programs curriculum and co-host weekly “class” calls to help interns maximize their opportunities to learn and gain experience. You can see a list of all the participants and read their work here.

“If they are doing typical ‘intern’ tasks like making copies or going on coffee runs, we’re failing,” said Swaffer. “By structuring our program to focus on the journalism process as opposed to institutional prestige, we hope to train a new generation of investigative journalists focused not on making the front page of the Times, but on the relentless pursuit of truth.”

Though unassuming on the surface, program interns have had opportunities to make a difference in the communities where they’ve worked. For instance, Raleigh News and Observer intern Clare Myers took the watchdog philosophy to heart by launching an independent search of government documents. The result was this fine piece of reporting that exposed how a state government agency failed to recover nearly $300,000 in wasted tax dollars.

“Our inaugural class of interns, though small, has exceeded our expectations,” said Swaffer. “Both the quantity and quality of the work they have produced at their various media organizations has impressed both their direct supervisors as well as the Franklin Center staff. It is clear that they have taken the spirit of investigative journalism to heart – they aren’t just reporting the news, they’re making it!”

Explore the program:

About the Internship

How it Works

Application

Curriculum

Staff and Speakers

Participants

Owning the Narrative of Detroit – a 2014 Coalition Event

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Photography by Joel Sorrell

Earlier this month, a coalition of bloggers, policy professionals, and center-right non-profit leaders met in Michigan for a three-day dive into the complicated city of Detroit.  A select number of gleefully undercover Franklin Center bloggers attended the Netroots Nation annual conference, while the rest of the group participated in a combination of policy panels, community events, and “field trips” to downtown start-ups, community revitalization projects, and local philanthropies. We even made time for a “free the beers” happy hour at the local Atwater Brewery, sponsored by Generation Opportunity.

The companies and organizations that we visited were:

Detroit Venture Partners - a “hands on” venture capital firm that is funding a tech revolution in the city

Tech Town – a start-up incubator and co-working space

Rebel Nell - a jewelry company that employs impoverished local women

Grand Circus - a Tech Training company filling the gap between skills and jobs in the Detroit labor market

Neighbors Building Brightmoor – a community organization restoring civilization in one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods

Detroit Threat Management Center – a private security force that empowers locals to protect their communities in the absence of an active police force

Heidelberg Project – one man’s attempt to effect change through modern art.

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative - a private non-profit taking advantage of Detroit’s “urban garden” to experiment with agriculture.

Photography by Joel SorrellCoalition groups represented at the loosely termed “conference” included: Franklin Center, the State Policy Network, State Budget Solutions, the Mackinac Center, the Manhattan Institute, Texas Public Policy Foundation, R-street, the Commonwealth Foundation, Show-me Institute, Illinois Policy Institute, California Policy Center, the Buckeye Institute, and Generation Opportunity.

Franklin Center scholarshipped fourteen bloggers to the event, all of whom will be publishing material on Detroit over the next few months.  You can follow their work on social media by searching #fcdet, #detroitrising, or #saveourcities.  We will also be aggregating their published works on the Franklin Center website for your convenience.

Posts

Aaron Gardner, Lauren Bouton and Thomas LaDuke talk about the issues in Detroit on Redstate’s Weekly Briefing: 7/20/2014

Amelia Hamilton wrote about security and the police force in Detroit and how citizens have taken matters into their own hands. 7/23/2014

Alice Salles of United Liberty discusses economic policies of Detroit and how Detroit can prosper; if their city officials embrace economic freedom. 7/21/2014

Salles also wrote about how Detroit venture capitalists are the future of Detroit and what people can learn from them. 7/24/14

Ben Howe has a video series out from the Detroit water rally – The Detroit Project:

Photography by Joel SorrellCaleb Howe covered the water rally in Detroit. The water rally was led by locals with the combined efforts of the Netroot conference Their point was that Detroit shouldn’t be shutting off water for those who cannot afford it. 7/19/2014

Chris Blakeley has a great piece about how the diversity and free market atmosphere of Detroit’s Eastern Market should be applied to the city at large. 7/24/14

Blakeley also wrote about how the private sector is the answer for Detroit’s debt and bankruptcy problems and how government is not the solution to this mess. 7/24/14

Dan Spencer attended the water rally in Detroit, which was organized by local protesters and Netroot attendees alike. Their argument is that water cannot be shut off and privatized and it is a human right that can’t be taken away.

Dan Spencer writes about a panel that he attended at Netroots where Senator Chris Murphy stated that Obamacare is being implemented well. Just further showing how out of touch some politicians can be.

Jay Caruso gives his take on Detroit. He says the city is surprisingly  fun and has great potential.

Jon Gabriel attended a progressive panel about how they should use comedy to defeat the right. Apparently it was anything but comedic.

Gabriel also attended a panel on “State Stink Tanks” which discussed how conservative think tanks are telling lies and must be exposed for what they are. It also mentions that the Franklin Center trains press and views us as a threat.

Matt Vespa also attended the water rally and found that people wanted to tax Wall Street and get free water services.

Rachel Mullen’s final take away is that Detroit has potential, but if it is to be reborn, the people have to make better choices about who their elected officials are.

Thomas La Duke and Lauren Bouton were on The Snark Factor to discuss the Franklin Center’s findings in Detroit.

Watchdog stokes debate over border crisis in Nebraska

By
Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

immigrants NE watchdog story

The great relocation

It’s no secret things are a mess at America’s southern border right now. More than 50,000 undocumented children have been caught entering the country since last October – many of whom have turned themselves in – and that number could end up pushing 100,000 in the next few months. In response, the US Department of Homeland Security has moved to place some of these children in states across the country – one of which is Nebraska. Watchdog.org’s Nebraska bureau first broke the news on July 10, reporting that about 200 of undocumented children had been placed with families and sponsors several months ago.

Even though the placements took place months ago, news of them came as a surprise to almost everyone in the state.

“Prior to our story,” said Nebraska Watchdog reporter Deena Winter, who covered the story, “there was not talk of any of the border kids being here, even though we’ve since learned they come every year, but the numbers started swelling last year.”

Even Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman had been in the dark about Homeland Security’s doings. The day after Nebraska Watchdog broke the story, he said he was furious to discover that federal officials did not give him details about the undocumented children placed in his state. He even made a point to mention it to Vice President Biden at an National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.

Everyone’s talking about it

Deena Winters NE watchdog

Reporter Deena Winter

“Once the story was out it had a major effect,” said Winter. “The state’s whole congressional delegation has weighed in on this, sending a letter to federal officials demanding more transparency and answers. The Wall Street Journal did a story the following weekend about other governors who were also mad, including ours. It has become a huge controversy in our state.”

Winter further reported that Nebraska’s congressional delegation has also introduced legislation to force the Obama administration to be more transparent about the children that have been placed in their state as part of the border crisis.

Nebraska Watchdog has continued to lead the way in subsequent coverage, with several stories exploring various angles and reactions to the news. Bureau chief Joe Jordan reported, for instance, that the Omaha police department’s largely hands-off policy dealing with undocumented citizens would be getting a second look because of concerns that current police guidelines don’t go far enough for this day and age.

Joe Jordan NE watchdog

Bureau chief Joe Jordan

Jordan also covered the backlash against Gov. Heineman, reporting on a South Omaha activist who said Gov. Heineman’s “history of anti-immigrant feelings” makes the governor the wrong go-to-guy in this fight.

Dear taxpayers…

It all goes to show how the border crisis has nationwide reverberations that shake even local communities. Regardless of the politics involved, everyone should be concerned.

“It’s relevant because some officials are concerned that tax dollars will be needed to support these children in one way or another,” said Winter.

She also pointed to the stress the immigration issue has put on the relationship between federal and state government.

“Many of our congressional representatives have said the fact that federal officials won’t tell us what’s going on is damaging their relationship with states.”

“The story is one of federal failures – in DC, in Central America and at the border – and a costly social welfare network wide open to waste and abuse,” said Will Swaim, Editor of Watchdog.org. “What costs are being picked up by your state and local governments?”

That sums up the mission of Nebraska Watchdog to a tee, and those are the questions all Watchdog.org bureaus are striving to answer.

Do Legacy Media Publications Still Carry the Same Weight They Used to?

By
Sunday, July 20th, 2014

“The New York Times is surprised to find itself a stepping-stone.”

With these dozen words, a writer at The Guardian newspaper nailed the latest crisis to hit traditional media: the growing disinterest of its best and brightest at working there.

But is it really surprising that the smartest people in a declining industry—and legacy media, given its plummeting advertising and audience numbers, can’t be defined as anything but—are looking for opportunities elsewhere?

Not really. Any sensible person would do the same. What makes the trend notable is its size and depth: What started as a trickle is now a flood. A lot of prized talent in recent years, and especially in the watershed year 2013, abandoned plum names in print and broadcast journalism to forge new paths in online-only news organizations and start-ups.

A Who’s Who of the Legacy Migration to Online-Only

A lot of unsung talent probably bailed, too, but the merely good go nameless. Many likely were too young to have fully made a mark.

Here, then, is a look at about a dozen of the notables who recently left journalism’s standard-bearers, and where in the brave new world of news-that-happens-only-online you now might find them:

  • Bill Keller, a Times columnist and former executive editor, is at The Marshall Project, a start-up
  • Rick Berke, a Times senior editor and political correspondent, is at Politico
  • Jim Roberts, a Times assistant managing editor, is at Mashable
  • Megan Liberman, a Times deputy news editor, is at Yahoo
  • Matt Bai, a Times political correspondent, is at Yahoo
  • David Pogue, a Times technology columnist, is at a Yahoo start-up
  • Ezra Klein, a Washington Post blogger (Wonkblog), is at Vox Media
  • Melissa Bell, a Post digital editor and columnist/blogger, is at Vox Media
  • Matthew Yglesias, Slate magazine’s Moneybox columnist, is at Vox Media
  • Dan Lyons, a former Forbes senior editor and Newsweek columnist, is at Hubspot
  • Andy Carvin, a senior strategist at NPR, is at First Look Media
  • Anthony De Rosa, a Reuters social media editor, is at Circa, a start-up news app
  • Mark Schoofs, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and ProPublica editor, is at Buzzfeed (ProPublica, in turn, was founded in 2008 by former Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and is the first online news venture to win the Pulitzer Prize—twice.)
  • Jessica Lessin, a Wall Street Journal technology reporter, is now at The Information, a business news start-up

Exactly what is happening?

A Big Name isn’t the Biggest Factor Any More

news on tabletJob security, or more accurately, job insecurity, is undoubtedly a factor. Major newspapers and broadcast stations began slashing staffs in the mid-2000s, and were hemorrhaging employees by the start of the 2010s. For newspapers, the cuts are a matter of survival: advertising revenues at the largest US papers have fallen by more than 50 percent since 2005, and readership by more than 48 percent between 1991 (56 percent) and 2012 (29 percent).

But job security is far from the full picture—especially for the people listed above, whose jobs were probably as secure as anything could be nowadays.

No, job satisfaction trumps as the single most important reason why mainstream media is failing to keep the talent it nurtured. The grind of feeling like you’re writing just to chase advertising dollars; the dismay of always being two steps behind in applying the newest and best technologies; the frustration of watching owners erect barriers (i.e., paywalls) to readership, while online competitors are courting and engaging readers with every means at their disposal.

“My theory,” Dan Lyons wrote in a Hubspot blog, “is that in the age of the internet, it’s what you write, not where you write it, that matters. If I can have a platform to write interesting things, if I can work for a company that’s growing and having fun … then I’m in a better place.”

Job satisfaction is what first drew talent to journalism, a profession never exactly prized for its lucrative pay or ideal working conditions.

As job satisfaction—the sense of doing something important, intriguing, and in the public interest—continues to shift to online media, so will journalists. Especially the good ones.

 

Uber, Lyft, and the regulations in between

By
Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Lyft_Pink_Mustache

Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are all the rage these days among the young and tech-savvy. By utilizing smartphone apps to connect riders and drivers, they tap into the American entrepreneurial spirit and, by the accounts of many, make getting around town much easier and a lot more fun.

Not all institutions share the collective enthusiasm, however. Over the past several months, Watchdog.org reporters have covered multiple instances where Uber and Lyft have encountered regulatory headwinds or been outright banned by state and local governments. New Mexico Watchdog reporter Rob Nikolewski and Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau’s Kathryn Watson have gone particularly in-depth on this issue in their states.

In New Mexico, Nikolewski has covered the current standoff between ride-sharers and the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC). In June the PRC voted 3-2 to deny a request from Uber for a certificate to provide “specialized passenger service” and allow them to operate. But the ride sharing companies continued to give rides in defiance of regulators and despite the PRC filing a cease and desist order on Lyft in May.

Two weeks later, the PRC directed its staff to craft a proposal that would allow companies like Lyft and Uber to operate in the state. Nikolewski thinks there’s a good chance the commission will approve new regulations allowing ride-sharing, but we won’t know, of course, until the final vote.

In Virginia, the state’s DMV has ordered ride-share companies to stop operating in the state. Yet just as in New Mexico, they have continued to do so.

“Taxicab companies have the institutional monopoly on their side,” Watson wrote, “but Uber and Lyft have social media and consumer support on theirs.”

shutterstock_129038348She followed up that story with a report revealing that the taxicab industry has a substantial history of lobbying and campaign donations in Virginia. Since 1996, the Virginia Taxicab Association has donated nearly half a million dollars to Virginia politicians and has retained four registered lobbyists as of May 2014.

Despite condemnation from the DMV, Watson says the future looks somewhat hopeful for ride-sharing companies in Virginia. The state likes business, but it also likes to regulate business. So while it’s hard to imagine companies like Uber and Lyft operating regulation-free, they have both applied for a sort of temporary authority to operate in Virgnia.

“State and federal politicians have benefited from the lobbying dollars of taxi companies,” said Watson. “Taxi cab companies are the establishment; ride-share companies are the new guys on the scene. Inherently, government officials aren’t fans of things they can’t control.”

Meanwhile, around the rest of the country Watchdog has covered a range of responses to the ride-sharing revolution. In Florida, Watchdog.org reporter William Patrick reported that ride-sharing companies in the state could soon find themselves with a major leg up on competition thanks to proposed legislation in the statehouse that would strip local governments of their ability to regulate vehicles hired in advance.

The city of Madison, Wisconsin at first tried to get rid of Uber and Lyft by claiming they were operating illegally, but now instead of squashing the businesses, which city attorneys say can’t be licensed under the current regulations, the city is trying to accommodate them.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, officials have essentially looked to go to war with ride-sharing services on the grounds of protecting the public from the dangers of riding in cars with strangers. The city is considering rules to keep users from requesting a ride-on-demand service from anyone other than a taxi company, set the minimum price for a non-taxi ride at an absurdly high $50, and prohibit “any technological device from being part of fare calculation during a ride.”

“I think it’s an important story because it raises questions about whether regulations have become so burdensome that it chokes off competition and innovation,” said Nikolewski.

He finds the story compelling in a political sense because it gets the attention of young people who are attracted to using a service that employs 21st century technology.

“They may not consider themselves free-market advocates, and may not have even given it much thought,” he said, “but when they see regulators potentially squelching these companies, it may make them take another look at what role governments should undertake.”

The story of the ride sharing movement — and backlash — is fascinating because it really illustrates principles of the free market economy,” said Watson. “Taxicab companies haven’t needed to listen as much to the consumer. But now that competition is entering the market, they can’t seem to meet consumer demand. And thus they feel their monopoly slipping.”

“In a truly free market, companies thrive — and fail — based on their own merit as decided by consumers, not anyone else,” she added. “Each state just has to decide how free they want their market to be.”

 

Snapshot: Franklin Center Blogger Fellowship

By
Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

SnapShot_BloggerFellowship

This April, the Franklin Center launched its inaugural Blogger Fellowship initiative with fellows Ben Howe and Amelia Hamilton. They are now halfway through a six-month program of writing about government inefficiency, education reform, and other pressing issues of the day. With assistance from the Franklin Center, Howe and Hamilton have been working to promote their work through new media tools like YouTube, Twitter, and Google Hangouts, as well as through more traditional channels like podcasts, radio, and TV interviews.

So far the program has shown much promise. Howe, a contributing editor at RedState, produced this video telling the story of how school choice is giving students better futures in Milwaukee:

Meanwhile, Hamilton, a history-buff who has written two books, has also been on the education beat. She recently wrote about a couple who turned to a Catholic school after the public education system failed their children. And writing for Watchdog Wire, she told the story of how a middle school in Michigan is finding remarkable success by rethinking education so that students have a much more tangible learning experience.

“I’m really excited about its future,” said Lauren Bouton, Online Outreach Manager at Franklin. “As opposed to having a loose network of bloggers before, we now have the ability to gather a group and utilize their talents. As our first official fellows, Ben and Amelia have done an incredible job and have shown great initiative and interest in their work.”

One of the advantages of grassroots-level channels like blogging is that many people find they can relate to bloggers more easily than the mainstream press.

“I think that the benefit of having bloggers write about topics is that they have a different angle than many traditional journalists,” Bouton said. “They are able to report about issues that are very important to them in their communities. Many times they are also closer to their readers than someone from a large organization might be, and I think that the personal level on which they communicate makes a huge difference.”

Indeed, it’s the stories these non-traditional journalists craft that make them effective agents of liberty and government accountability.

“Being a blogger fellow with The Franklin Center means that I get to tell stories that really matter – stories of every day Americans,” says Hamilton, “Whether these are stories of school choice, success in the energy industry, or other stories, they show that what happens in government has a very real effect on lives across the country. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to tell these stories and, with the support of Franklin, to ignite in others a passion to affect change.”

Ben Howe is the director of the recent documentary Bankrupt: How Cronyism and Corruption Took Down Detroit and founder of Mister Smith Media. He will be covering the Detroit bailout and bankruptcy, and report on the policies and politics that are contributing to its fiscal crisis. You can follow him on Twitter and find his columns at RedState here.

In addition to her blogging work, Amelia Hamilton is the author of the children’s books One Nation Under God: A Book for Little Patriots and Ten Steps to Freedom: A Growing Patriot’s Guide to the American Revolution. She holds a master’s degree in both English and 18th-century history from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. You can follow her on twitter and find her books here.

Don’t Give Up on the Young Just Yet

By
Monday, June 30th, 2014

Young girl on phoneMillennials Consume News Differently, But At Increasing Rates

Do you wonder if young people today follow the news? Are they as aware and interested in the goings-on in their community, and their country, as you are?

Of course they are. But if you rarely see them opening a newspaper or expressing an opinion about today’s TV anchors, don’t be surprised. Newspapers and television news programs aren’t the mediums that draw the attention of people under 30, even when articles or programs there might help to explain their world.

The likelihood is that they’re reading and watching the same news you are, just not in the ways you are. This generation is an online generation, and online is where young people go for news.

Numbers do show the young continue to consume news, and to consume it critically. But they do so in two distinctly different ways: online and entertaining.

Millennials Prefer Online News to Newspapers

Those of the “millennial” generation, or people born in the 1980s and ’90s, are intuitively tech-savvy. They grew up on and with the Internet, and came of age with tablets and smartphones. They’re “digital natives,” as the Pew Center said in a recent study of millennial values, the first generation “for which digital technologies are not something they’ve had to adapt to.”

So is it really surprising that reading print news makes about as much sense to 20-somethings as striking sticks together to light a fire? Why, they wonder, would anyone linger over yesterday’s events and opinions when today’s are just a click away?

And young people do follow the news. Maybe not in the numbers or ways you would like, but arguably in ways more substantive than a quick glance may reveal.

Pew Research Center study of news readership trends found that 50 percent of all respondents—one in every two—now go online for national and international news. That’s a huge increase from just 13 years ago, when only 13 percent thought of reading news online.

The young, those between the ages of 18 and 30, are a clear majority of these online readers:

  • A full 71 percent of adults under 30 cite the Internet as their main news source. That’s seven in every 10 young people today—a higher percentage than those who follow TV news (55 percent), a primary source of news for all other age groups.
  • News consumption is deeper and more varied among young adults and others under 50. Fully 82 percent of tablet and smartphone owners reported reading articles in-depth “sometimes or regularly.” This group also was more likely to turn to multiple news sources, and to send and receive news through email or social networks.

In fact, young adults with mobile devices get news “in similar degrees to older readers,” Pew said.

  • Readership levels increase with education—a trend that repeats across age groups.

young man on ipadThey Want Their News Presented In a More Entertaining Way

One of the main differences in older and younger generation news consumption habits is not only where they consume it, but how it’s produced. As a generation that’s grown up being entertained and with more technology and content on demand, it’s no wonder comedic news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central are such hits with their demographic. HBO also launched a similar program recently, Last Week Tonight, with Comedy Central regular John Oliver.

This hunger for entertainment news could also help explain the virality of gifs and memes on social media outlets around news events and figures.

While some might think these trends are troublesome, others might find them uplifting as comedy often requires a deep understanding of current events to think critically and form opinions (when done well).

What’s more, the young are proving to be a discerning group, and they strongly consider the press—the online press—an important check against the abuse or misuse of power by political leaders. Their concern about infringements on liberty is especially high—in fact, it’s higher among people under 30 than among any other age group.

So don’t give up on the young. They’re following the news in ways that make sense to them—online and on the Internet. It’s the news that’s topical and relevant to this “digital generation.”

Are you looking to donate to a cause producing quality, investigative news online in innovative ways? Click here to donate or go here to learn more about our mission.

Watchdog reporters accepted into Reporting Institute

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The Franklin Center is proud to announce that Watchdog.org reporters Bre Payton and Johnny Kampis have been accepted into the 2014 McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute training!

In August, they will join a group of 20 reporters in Missoula, Montana, to learn how to follow the money trails in the 2014 elections.

The training is sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and held by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It will focus on relationships among political candidates, donors and issues. It will teach reporters how to compare political donor influence across states and election cycles so that they can trace the connection between political money and issues being debated in campaigns. For two days, they will learn how to use a variety of sources, including the Institute’s new website beta.FollowTheMoney.org, to track the influence of money in politics.

Instructors and trainers for the reporting institute will include Edwin Bender, Executive Director, National Institute on Money in State Politics; Lee Banville, Associate Professor, University of Montana School of Journalism; Eve Byron, Communications Specialist, National Institute on Money in State Politics; Joe Eaton, Assistant Professor, University of Montana School of Journalism; Denise Malan, Data Director, Investigative News Network; Norberto Santana, Editor-in-Chief, Voice of Orange County; and Ben Wieder, Computer Assisted Reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

Johnny2Johnny Kampis is a content editor at Watchdog.org, and is helping to start the organization’s Alabama Watchdog bureau in his home state. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

bre paytonBre Payton has covered government and political news for the Virginia Bureau of Watchdog.org, where she started as an intern. She has uncovered waste, fraud and abuse in areas including: transportation, higher education and voting rights.

 

 

Who’s watching the police state?

By
Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Napoleon-MRAP1

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a story with the unsettling headline: “War Gear Flows to Police Departments.”

With a dateline from the small Wisconsin town of Neenah, the story explained how local police departments are acquiring former combat equipment like M-16s, grenade launchers, silencers, and mine-resistant armored vehicles – often with little public notice. These tools are bolstering forces that already look a lot like military units as their SWAT teams see more and more action for increasingly tame situations.

It makes you wonder - why in the world do police in small, quiet towns of just a few thousand people need the same weapons used to fight the Taliban?

That’s a question we’ve been asking for some time now. Indeed, before mainstream outlets became widely aware of this trend, Watchdog.org was on the ground telling the story as the shift began to occur.

Months earlier, in April, New Mexico Watchdog journalist Rob Nikolewski reported on a commercial by the Hobbs Police Department that played up law enforcement’s military tactics, featuring cops shooting guns, helmeted officers bursting into rooms, and armored vehicles. The story was picked up by the Drudge Report, and civil-liberty advocates raised concerns over whether this was the sort of message police should be sending to new recruits.

Nikolewski suspected that other small-town police departments were acting the same way (Hobbs has a population of only 35,000), and he was right. The next week, he reported in a follow-up story that the small, relatively peaceful cities of Newport Beach, California and Springdale, Arkansas had produced similar commercials.

Watchdog.org reporter Dustin Hurst similarly found the police state pressing forward in Preston, Idaho, of all places. The police force for this city of only 5,000 people had recently acquired an MRAP, a military-grade vehicle previously used on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan designed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs.

“The city’s crime checks in far below the U.S. average,” Hurst noted, “and there hasn’t been a murder there since 2006. The city’s not exactly a crime-ridden hell hole where police might need an ambush-resistant and bomb-proof troop carrier.”

Subsequent Watchdog.org stories only confirmed this trend. In Minnesota, reporter Tom Steward found that as America scales down military action abroad, all sorts of military equipment is essentially there for the taking by local law enforcement. He cited a Department of Public Safety video that ticks off the list: armored vehicles, helicopters, handcuffs, riot shields, cranes, fuel tankers, rifles, pickups, holsters, bayonets and grenade launchers.

Militarization, Steward noted, is already well underway in Minnesota. Nearly 2,000 M-16 rifles and more than 600 M-14 rifles have been acquired by local law enforcement over the past two decades, along with 24 armored trucks, seven mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and seven Humvee utility trucks, which will be used by SWAT teams and for rescues and other emergency operations.

Meanwhile, back in New Mexico, Watchdog.org filed a public records request and learned that nearly 20 law enforcement agencies across the state — from the biggest city to some of the smallest — have received MRAPs. Perhaps most absurd of all, that list of agencies included the campus police department at New Mexico State University!

It isn’t just with military-grade equipment that local police are ramping up their capabilities. Watchdog.org technology reporter Josh Peterson has found that they are also adopting the latest surveillance technologies. Police in Florida, for instance, can track the location of a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant.

We have no intention of letting this story fall by the wayside. When civil liberties are threatened by government pushing the limits of its powers, Watchdog.org will be there to give citizens the facts about what is happening – before it’s too late.

Watchdog Texas: Amplifying the whistleblower

By
Monday, June 16th, 2014

University of Texas Regents

The whistleblower gets it right

Like many stories of political scandal and intrigue, this one started with rash accusations from powerful politicians who felt threatened. In their cross-hairs was University of Texas regent Wallace Hall (pictured above), who had made some uncomfortable requests for information about correspondence between lawmakers and UT President Bill Powers. Namely, Hall wanted to know whether the university’s president was doing admissions favors for well-connected Texas politicos.

In response, these legislators tried to railroad Hall with a series of obscure lawsuits and threatened to impeach him. The battles lines were drawn, and a premier institution’s academic integrity was at stake. One reporter stepped up to cover the story – Watchdog Texas bureau chief Jon Cassidy.

It started with Hall being frivolously targeted, but as Cassidy began an investigation of his own he found that Hall had good reasons for trying to shine the light of accountability beneath the school’s proverbial well-wedged rocks. Multiple students with absurdly low LSAT scores had been admitted to UT Law, some of which were children of state lawmakers.

Cassidy did some data analysis and simply could not escape the facts: admissions favoritism was occurring at UT Law. Though bombarded by skeptics, critics, and trolls, he stuck to his guns and reported his findings. In a commentary piece for The Dallas Morning News, he broke down the numbers.

“The University of Texas has admitted at least 18 unqualified students into its prestigious law school,” he wrote, “These students’ scores on the Law School Admission Test would make them long shots at the worst law schools in the country.”

One of the scores was so low, in fact, that you could fill in the bubbles at random and probably get a better score!

Who will clean house?

Cassidy profile picThe initial impeachment and criminal proceedings against Hall are dead in the water now. But the question remains as to whether anyone is going to clean house at UT. The state and local press, says Cassidy (pictured right), have mostly been useful idiots for the lawmakers who have been trying to impeach Hall. Legacy outlets never even tried to figure out if Hall was telling the truth, but since Texas Watchdog started digging deeper, lots of national media have picked up on it. One writer at National Review wrote that “Only Jon Cassidy of Watchdog.org is showing that the Emperor (the impeachment committee) has no clothes.” The Wall Street Journal has also done two stories – one editorial, one news – and is working on a third about Watchdog Texas’ findings.

Cassidy himself has written a few pieces for The American Spectator, and plenty of national outlets like Fox News, Red State, the Washington Examiner, Breitbart, the Daily Caller, City Journal have picked up on Watchdog.org’s lead. Meanwhile, in the Lone Star state itself, Dan Patrick, who’s likely going to be running the state Senate next year as lieutenant governor, has called for an investigation of UT Law based on what the stories Watchdog Texas has turned up.

The Watchdog effect

Stories like these set Watchdog.org apart from most journalism today because the Franklin Center is committed to providing the sort of in-depth investigative stories that the press used to do before all the newsroom cutbacks.

“A lot of reporters never get anywhere near the truth of a story, because they’re worried about offending their sources or seeming biased, and they’re not willing to make tough calls,” says Cassidy.

“Their idea of journalism is narrow and irresponsible – quote one side, quote the other, and you’re done, with no obligation to figure out if anyone was lying. We don’t tolerate lies, we love exposing hypocrites, and we’ll use any of the tools available to us, from deep data dives to working a beat to plain old-fashioned reason.”

Moving forward in Texas, Cassidy hopes to do more work on the issue of unfunded pensions, bring attention to local government bodies with crazy debt loads, and dig into tort reform.

His favorite thing about working for Watchdog.org, where reporters are self-starters and operate in their states with relative autonomy, is that the truth comes first. Sadly, the same cannot always be said for the legacy media.

“The papers do fine when there are two legitimate sides to a story,” says Cassidy, “But when one side is telling the truth, and the other is lying to protect its own interests, the papers rarely push to get the facts that readers would need to realize that.”

“The truth is often right in front of you, if you’ll just stop and consider all the facts.”

Read the entire series, “Trouble in Texas,” at Watchdog.org!