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Help us defend the First Amendment

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Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Giving Tuesday-FirstAmendment_Donate

When I think of everything I’m thankful for this year, one of the first things that comes to mind is the generous support that makes great stories like the one I’m about to tell you possible. I’d like to share that story with you, and I’d also like to tell you how we can keep the momentum going into 2015 through the unique opportunity presented by Giving Tuesday.

A year ago last week, Matt Kittle, our Wisconsin bureau chief, received a startling tip: prosecutors had launched an investigation into conservative allies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. It was a secretive “John Doe” investigation. Those subpoenaed or under scrutiny were bound by a gag order.

It was, Matt realized, a frightening abuse of prosecutorial power – an attempt to silence conservatives under cover of darkness. He decided that we needed to invest in fighting back, and that he would risk jail time to protect his sources.

One year and 145 stories later, Matt has blown the investigation wide open, exposing the politically-charged motives and dirty, often illegal tactics of the prosecutorial team. He’s helped halt the investigation in its tracks and supported Wisconsin’s reformers as they seek redress.

But this case is far from over. Progressive interests in Wisconsin continue to seek ways to punish conservative reformers, even as those reformers look to take their case to the Supreme Court by arguing that their First Amendment rights suffered a serious violation.

There’s still more work to do in Wisconsin, and we can’t do it without you. Next week is Giving Tuesday – a national day of philanthropy to begin the holiday season. Can you help us use this opportunity to raise $10,000 so that Matt can finish his investigations this year? For this very special effort, every dollar you give will be matched by a supporter, doubling the effectiveness of your gift.

Your support is vital in helping us meet our $10,000 goal so that Matt can finish the job in Wisconsin. Thank you for your generosity.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

How Wisconsin Reporter became a game-changer

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

By M.D. Kittle

The left likes to call it “an October surprise,” a nefarious attempt by the “right-wing” news media to sink the Democrat’s candidate for governor in the closing days of Wisconsin’s heated campaign.

SPOILER ALERT: It wasn’t.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wisconsin Reporter’s investigative report on Mary Burke’s troubled professional resume is that we were the first media outlet to report on what has been described as a “game-changer” story in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

True, we broke the story on Burke, the Madison liberal who spent the past year selling her executive experience at her family-owned company as admittance to the governor’s mansion, on Oct. 28 – exactly one week before the general election. Burke, at the time, was in a dead-heat race with incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Oct. 28 was, by the way, the same day that a good source tipped off Wisconsin Reporter that an insider had information that Burke was fired from Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Corp. in the early 1990s by her brother due to “non-performance.”

As I have told people since the story hit our Watchdog.org national website, if the tip had come in six months before, Wisconsin Reporter would have published it six months before.

What was most amazing to me, as I found out while talking to high-placed executives at Trek, is that Mary Burke’s checkered resume was perhaps the worst-kept secret in parts of Wisconsin and there is strong evidence to suggest that reporters at some of the state’s largest dailies had been notified of the discrepancies long before.

At first, it seemed like one of those too-strange-to-be true stories. After spending a couple of hours tracking down phone numbers of former Trek executives and getting nowhere, I started to think maybe there wasn’t anything here. Some wouldn’t talk, others couldn’t remember much from 20 years ago, many couldn’t be reached for comment.

Photo courtesy of Royal Broil

Former Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.

And then Trek’s former human resources director called me back.

He said Burke, who had long struggled to explain her two-year work hiatus in the early to mid-1990s after mysteriously leaving the company her father started, was fired by her own family following overseas financial losses and plummeting morale among Burke’s European sales staff. The HR director said the sales team threated to quit if Burke was not removed from her position as director of European Operations, and that Burke was made to come back to headquarters and personally apologize to the employees about her poor performance.

The source was good. They don’t get much better than a human resources director with a company for more than a dozen years. But he had some baggage. He was active in local GOP politics and had made some incendiary comments on his Facebook page.

The source was eventually crucified in the press by a mainstream media that was livid about being beaten on this “bombshell” story. Instead of looking into the allegations, they attacked the messenger. For a time, anyway.

We had four other former executives or managers who corroborated the HR director’s accounts, asserting that, under Burke’s leadership, Trek’s operations in key markets such as Germany bled money. These were very good sources, one in particular extremely high placed. The trouble was, none of them wanted to go on the record. They feared retribution from the company, and some had retirements at stake.

The mainstream players suddenly found one top executive, Trek’s former president during the time in question, who went on the record and corroborated Wisconsin Reporter’s story. Every detail. The mainstreamers reported the executive’s account with clinched fists and teeth. Even then, their headlines were, “Ex-Trek execs with conservative ties say Mary Burke was forced out.”

Because, they implied, conservatives cannot be trusted to act without political motivation.

Many of the same news outlets wrote scathing commentaries about that terrible, no-good Wisconsin Reporter, “a pseudo-journalistic publication bankrolled by conservative foundations,” as the Milwaukee Journal editorial board put it. Wisconsin’s largest newspaper said this, “The story was published by the conservative mouthpiece less than a week before the election — a classic political trick, an October surprise of innuendo and half-truths. It was intended by Walker partisans, if not the conservative mouthpiece itself, to confuse voters.”

Apparently confusing the voters is shorthand for telling the truth, giving Wisconsin’s electorate the critical information they needed that the mainstream media either was too lazy or, more egregious, too partisan to report on.

Feeling the heat, Burke and her campaign quickly called the story “ridiculous,” filled with “baseless allegations,” right after the candidate acknowledged for the first time that her position at Trek was “eliminated” after a company “reorganization.” As one political observer colorfully put it, successful companies don’t typically downsize their most successful employees, and Trek certainly has built a reputation as a successful company over the years.

While we were excoriated in the mainstream for our “October Surprise,” Wisconsin Reporter heard from many Wisconsin voters – conservatives, independents, even some liberals – who said they were glad that there are still organizations committed to investigative reporting, doing the important work that mainstream publications have all but abdicated.

Covering State Government Today: No Bureau Necessary

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

FranklinSlider Capitols

“Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,” Andrew Jackson, 1837 Farewell Address.

This advice from the seventh President of the United States captures our concern over the decline in reporting at every level – especially those levels that are the least visible to many in our society. Recently the Pew Research Center released a report titled America’s Shifting Statehouse Press, and it’s subtitle raises an important question: “Can new players compensate for lost legacy reporters?” It provides great insight into the media landscape at the state level.

We will admit that reading through these research reports can start to make your head spin, and that’s even before you’ve begun to read the analysis and conjecture about the meaning behind the numbers. For our part, we boiled it all down to a few key numbers while we worked our way through the funnel — from overall perspective to the critical coverage at state legislatures. Here’s what we found.

Declining Reporting at All Levels

As online media and technology have launched creative destruction across most industries, they have been profoundly disruptive in the news business – particularly with traditional reporting. Of course, this has happened primarily in response to the crumbling business models of traditional newspapers, television news, and press services. It hasn’t helped matters that the reporters who remain with these media outlets are very capable of bemoaning their decline. But what are the actual numbers?

The Pew Research Center tapped the American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Census and presented yearly numbers of the overall newsroom workforce. Here’s what they show across the dates that closely match the statehouse press numbers:

total newsroom workforce 2012

Source: American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Census.

Statehouse Reporting Levels

As you can see, over the last decade or so, the number of reporters in traditional newspapers has declined substantially, although there is a bit of leveling off happening over the last few years. This, of course, has had a significant impact in all areas of reporting.

The recent Statehouse Press report shows a similar trend, summarized in the table below:

statehouse newspaper reporters 2012

Source: Pew Research Center, America’s Shifting Statehouse Press

So you can see that statehouse reporting levels have declined at a much sharper rate than overall reporting — a nearly 40% drop in statehouse reporting compared to a 30% reporting drop overall.

Obviously there are challenges inherent in obtaining a true apples-to-apples comparison. The latest overall numbers are from 2012 and the statehouse numbers are from 2014. Even so, this comparison does give us a good idea of the seismic changes that are underway.

The good news about the Pew Center’s statehouse research is that for the first time ever they’ve collected numbers not just from statehouse newspaper reporters but from all media sectors. Their total statehouse tally is 1,592, which is split across newspapers (604), television (263), wire services (139), radio (124), universities (109), nonprofit (92), and additional sectors. See Who Covers the Statehouse for further insight.

Why is Statehouse Coverage Important?

BillPassed_NewsfeedThere are some more staggering numbers from the Pew Center’s report that highlight the importance of the statehouse and its potential for impacting just about every aspect of our lives. They point out that the 112th Congress (2011 to 2012) passed 283 bills that were signed into law. While that is significant, they go on to point out that during 2012 California’s legislature passed 1,013 bills and Michigan 948. A total of 24 state legislatures enacted more laws than Congress.

They also quote Gene Rose, former communications director for the National Conference of State Legislatures: “I think you’re seeing fewer stories. The public is not being kept aware of important policy decisions that are being made that will affect their daily lives.”

What’s Franklin Center Doing?

The Franklin Center has long recognized the threat from declining media coverage of all levels of government, from federal to state to local government. There are over 87,000 units of state and local government that spend a combined $3 trillion annually (and growing).

NonTraditionalMedia_NewsfeedIt’s nice to see the Pew Research Center’s Statehouse Report recognize our effort and place us in the segment of nontraditional (which includes nonprofit), government insider, ideological, and for-profit. They note that “in seven states — Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont — the outlet with the largest number of full-time statehouse reporters is one of these upstarts.” We’re proud to be included with the upstarts.

They also note our efforts at syndicating these stories to the legacy media, all of which goes to advancing our mission of addressing falling standards in the media and the steep falloff in reporting on state government. We do this by providing professional training; research, editorial, multimedia and technical support; and assistance with marketing and promoting the work of a nationwide network of nonprofit reporters. This includes Watchdog.org.

How Can You Make a Difference?

For starters, you can reach out to these “upstarts” who are reporting on state and local government and support their efforts. That support might be a simple as reading their stories and sharing them with your friends. It could also be financial support or volunteer time.

One such volunteer outlet is our own WatchdogWire. With this site you can not only find news and insight you typically can’t find anywhere else, you can also “Sign up as a Citizen Journalist and get involved in Information Activism.” You can be up and running in no time, reporting on your state or local government, and then published on WatchdogWire. It’s a great way to get involved and make a difference.

Plus, as you can see from the declining number of reporters at the state level, your involvement is more important than ever. We need all the help we can get to keep citizens informed and government accountable.

Hot on the trail: Watchdog.org drives 2014 election coverage

By
Monday, October 27th, 2014

Voting pins

As the last leg of the midterm races begins this week, it serves as a reminder of how elections are much more than the opportunity to choose new political leaders. To be sure, the candidates that we vote into office matter, but the election season can also stoke debates that go much deeper – and have much more important ramifications – than a senate term.

What role does money play in politics and campaign funding? Is the voting process free of fraud and intimidation? To what extend should the federal government have the power to regulate campaign advertisements?

Voting issues

Just as in past elections, Watchdog.org stories have been driving many of these debates in 2014. For example, Watchdog.org contributor Paul Miller reported that a voting machine in Cook County, IL, was automatically marking votes for the Democratic candidate, even when voters repeatedly selected otherwise. The Cook County Clerk’s Office Deputy Communications Director said the machine was taken out of service and tested, and that it was found to have had a “calibration error.” The story was quickly picked by Drudge Report, scandalizing the country, and later Fox News and a number  of other outlets.

Amazingly, Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward found almost the exact same thing happening in Maryland, as several voters reported that their “x” would not stay on the selection of the candidate they wanted to vote for. And again, the local election director chalked it up to a “calibration issue.” Ward’s story is particularly troubling for a state that already has some of the loosest election rules in the country and is seeking to “modernize” its online registration process. Under some of these newly proposed rules, Ward reported earlier, people would not have to show proof of legal residency to register to vote.

Election wars in Wisconsin

Voters could also have a hard time at the polls in Wisconsin, where Wisconsin Reporter’s M.D. Kittle reported that the Democrat-heavy City of Milwaukee Election Commission essentially banned a 78-year-old grandmother from doing her job as a poll observer. The commission’s executive director turned in Marguerite Ingold to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, which she said they did because the election director believed should could have become “violent and stormed the city hall.” Yet by all accounts, Ingold is a professional, highly trained and well versed in the laws and procedures of elections and what observers can and cannot do. She is nothing more than a concerned citizen who takes her job seriously.

Candidate microphonesIt seems she isn’t alone, however. In a subsequent story, Kittle reported that the Republican Party election observers monitoring in-person absentee voting at Milwaukee’s largest polling place say partisan election officials are shutting them out. And this all comes from an election commission that is pushing a policy that would keep election observers farther away from voters. Poll watchers have complained that these new rules would make observation impossible.

Meanwhile, other journalists at Watchdog.org’s Wisconsin Reporter have had their own difficulties covering the tight gubernatorial race between Governor Scott Walker and his Democrat opponent, Mary Burke. Earlier this month, the Burke campaign barred reporter Adam Tobias from attending a campaign event that featured first lady Michelle Obama. Once again, Drudge Report picked up the story, and free press advocates across the country cried foul.

Union influence

On the money-in-politics front, Watchdog reporter and union-money whiz Jason Hart has found that labor unions have poured tens of millions of dollars into political and lobbying expenditures. The Labor union coalition AFL-CIO, for instance, spent more than $30 million on politics during the past year, all by shoveling money taken from workers to big-government groups across the country. And that figure does not even include the $4.8 million in AFL-CIO payments to political nonprofits that were reported as “Contributions, Gifts and Grants” or “Representational Activities.”

In another story, Hart found that the American Federation of Teachers alone reported $24.9 million in political and lobbying expenditures during its most recent fiscal year. Like AFL-CIO, that figure almost certainly understates the true extent of AFT’s influence.

“Considering that most of AFT’s members are public-sector workers,” Hart noted, “essentially all AFT activities are political.”

Hart’s stories line up with Watchdog.org reporter Eric Boehm’s story from last February about how the biggest benefactors from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling were labor unions – not conservative mega-donors as many people assume. Many liberals decried the court’s ruling loosening federal rules for political spending, but it appears to have benefited Democrats more than Republicans.

Boehm’s story is a prime example of what Watchdog.org strives to do: Counter the unquestioned narrative of establishment media with local, fact-based stories that otherwise would go untold. We believe that voters need and deserve the stories that expose questionable voting practices, shine the light of transparency on money in politics, and call out candidates when they show press favoritism or misconstrue the facts.

Covering tech policy: From D.C. to your Wi-Fi router

By
Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Josh Peterson cover image

Josh Peterson cut his teeth on technology the good old fashioned way – through hands-on experience building websites and doing social media for small businesses and music groups he played in. When he moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue journalism, he made it clear to many of his first contacts that he wanted to pursue tech and national security issues, and he subsequently began building policy expertise and a contact list of sources.

That path took him through writing tenures at Broadband Breakfast, the Heritage Foundation, the Daily Caller, and – as of the beginning of this year – Watchdog.org, where he is part of Watchdog.org’s early forays into specialized beat reporting.

The technology beat he covers while based in Washington, D.C. hardly seems the natural domain of someone who majored in religion and philosophy in college and plays local music gigs on the side, but Peterson says this background helps him see the forces of human nature at play amid all the technical jargon.

“Studying religion and philosophy taught me to critically examine the ideologies that motivate people, organizations, and businesses,” he said. “When I report on tech issues, I look for the political drama of ideological and business conflicts.”

Indeed, if there’s one thing Peterson consistently stresses in his reporting, it’s depth. One of his favorite things about reporting for Watchdog.org is that its focus on state and local governments gives him the ability to explore the deeper implications of federal level regulatory and legislative battles. This allows his reporting to go beyond the surface level he-said/she-said coverage that so many journalists are forced to resort to these days.

“Tech policy is highly political and ideological,” he said, “but it is driven by the competitive and innovative needs and goals of the companies involved in the tech and telecom sectors.”

The result is a fascinating mishmash of companies focused on meeting growing business and consumer demands and politicians and bureaucrats working to accomplish their political goals while serving their constituents. Often the two clash bitterly.

“That being said,” Peterson (pictured right) noted, “the parties involved do find ways to work together and find common ground between them.”

Photo courtesy of Josh PetersonIn a busy and complex world, the value of this kind of in-depth reporting that makes the issues digestible to everyday Americans is huge.

“Most consumers don’t care about the nuts and bolts of tech policy, and understandably so, because they’re busy with their own lives,” Peterson said. “What they do want is to get what they paid for regarding their devices and services.”

On one hand, the proliferation of social media and advancements in communications technology enable American consumers to more easily and effectively voice their concerns to their elected officials, but the PR campaigns that various organizations and companies run through the media often harness this same power and use it to distort the conversation with misinformation or a lopsided set of facts. This makes it harder for taxpayers to make sure that they get what they want from the companies they like and their government officials.

Like many issues, technological advances are a mixed bag in terms of how they improve the quality of government. The internet and Big Data, for example, have at times created opportunities for government waste and abuse.

“One of the original complaints of the pre-Snowden NSA whistleblowers was that the agency favored a bloated and expensive system for finding terrorists over a more efficient cost-effective system,” Peterson said. “Another example is the Healthcare.gov debacle – not only did a politically favored company build the system, but bureaucrats complicated the implementation process, enabling security problems to fester.”

On the flipside, however, Peterson noted that websites like data.gov and usaspending.gov give taxpayers more insight into the activities of their government, which in turn create opportunities for greater accountability, reform, and transparency.

When asked what is the most important story he has covered since coming on board at Watchdog.org, Peterson has a quick answer: the threat of EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attacks.

“Reporting on electric grid vulnerabilities and EMP attacks is critically important, because electricity is the backbone of the modern world and a severe attack would have catastrophic implications for our society,” he said, referring to a danger that sounds almost apocalyptic in scope but is in fact all too real.

From a tech industry standpoint, however, Peterson said the big story that has dominated the conversation this year is the continuing debate around net neutrality.

“The outcome of the net neutrality debate will have huge implications for the future of the tech industry from both a development and governance standpoint,” he said.

Interestingly, Peterson has found that the imminence of the Federal Communications Commission adopting net neutrality rules is simultaneously one of the most over-hyped and under-reported tech issues today. At stake are concerns that broadband providers will abuse their power to provide quality high-speed internet, as well as the opposite fear that the FCC will impose excessive regulations that rein in companies to such an extent that they stifle innovation and growth.

“Major coverage of the issue has generally been very one-sided,” Peterson said, “giving Americans only a part of the story of what amounts to a very nuanced conflict between incredibly innovative companies.”

Although the terms and details of the debate can be difficult to decipher at first, it is important for Americans to stay informed about tech issues and the government’s response to them simply because technology pervades nearly every bit of modern life. As such, governments in America and around the world are expressing increasing interest in technology’s implications for their citizens.

“The Founders believed that a well-informed citizenry was important to the success of the American experiment of self-government under the rule of law,” Peterson said, “and making the time to understand tech issues is important for the future of self-governance.”

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

By
Tuesday, September 30th, 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 website 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.

 

Power play: The Obama administration and its war on whistleblowers

By
Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Image courtesy of Executive Office of the President of the United States

You know things are getting pretty bad for press freedom when even establishment media bastions like the New York Times are complaining about it.

In one poignant incident last spring, for instance, Times reporter James Risen made himself inescapably clear when he said the current White House is “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

Risen, who had been fighting (and recently lost) a court battle to protect a confidential source from being forcibly revealed by the federal government, clearly had matters of foreign policy and national security in mind. However, the problem is not limited to matters of security. Risen’s case is only one example among many of the Obama administration’s ramped-up campaign against whistleblowers across America.

In a recent blog post, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee lists eight ways that the Obama administration is blocking information, which in turn are hampering efforts by reporters to find the data and sources needed to keep government accountable.

“Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling,” Buzbee writes in one of her points. “AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.”

She goes on to note that the Freedom of Information Act is “under siege.” Agencies are slow to respond to requests – often so slow that news agencies requesting important documents for their investigations have been forced to sue to force action. Even more chilling, the administration routinely forwards FOIA requests to political appointees so that it can discover and track what news organizations are pursuing.

Whistleblower word cloudBuzbee’s last point – that the administration is intervening in the affairs of state and local officials to control which information they release – mirrors a recent Watchdog.org report that found a similar troubling trend. In that story, Watchdog.org reporter Kenric Ward cited former agency employees like Robert MacLean, an air marshal for the Transportation Security Administration, and Robert Van Boven, a doctor from a Veterans Affairs facility in Texas. MacLean said that managers at the TSA “thumb their nose” at whistleblower protection laws, and Van Boven said he found the bureaucratic culture “fights transparency and degrades whistleblowers.”

On one hand, whistleblowing is on the rise, according to Carolyn Lerner, chief attorney in the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Yet it is also targeted more fiercely than ever. Out of last year’s 2,900 cases,  1,400 involved retaliation against whistleblowers, who lost more than three-quarters of the time.

The problem is not one or two cases centered in Washington, it seems, but is systemic nationwide. Van Boven, for example, was a medical doctor in Texas who was fired after alleging “fraudulent billing and ghost employees who didn’t help one single veteran.”

Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, says that the crackdown is made possible as more agencies exploit and expand a “sensitive jobs loophole” to keep government employees from speaking out about waste, fraud and abuse. Such “sensitive jobs” aren’t just held by the likes of NSA leaker Edward Snowden anymore. They can include employees in roles as innocuous as stocking sunglasses at military base exchanges.

Ward notes that the Obama administration has paid lip service to this problem by “enhancing” the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act in 2012. But contrary to President Obama’s claim that he has overseen the “most transparent administration in history,” news reports have trumpeted “Obama’s war on whistleblowers.”

Such dire circumstances only highlight the importance of a robust, free press that asserts its First Amendment rights in the dark corners of government.

“Beware the government that loves secrecy too much,” warned AP president Gary Pruitt last year after the Department of Justice was found to have secretly probed thousands of AP reporters’ calls. The Franklin Center could not agree more. 

Big Labor bosses and so-called “solidarity”

By
Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Big labor FC feature image

The year of the union?

Last February Franklin Center posted an article highlighting Watchdog.org’s coverage of organized labor’s political shenanigans. With reports of illegal activity allegedly perpetrated by union workers, and with organized labor gearing up for massive spending in the coming mid-term elections, we wondered whether 2014 would be the “year of the union” even though membership has been on the decline. Since then, subsequent investigations by Watchdog.org reporters show that in many ways the answer is yes – this has been a big year for unions.

Watchdog.org reporter Jason Hart recently published a “Meet the Bosses” list of America’s 100 highest-paid union officers and employees. In all, he found that they received a total $54.8 million in direct compensation, taken from employees last year. If you kept going down the list of top earning union officers and employees, you’d find that 472 of them were paid more than $250,000 in 2013.

For many Americans, such payouts fly in the face of the “solidarity” rhetoric that union leaders frequently use. As Hart reported in a subsequent story, for example, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten earned $543,150 last year. Yet the AFT released a statement in Weingarten’s name that stated “We can create a nation fueled by democracy, justice and opportunity for all, instead of for the very few.”

“In unity,” it concluded.

What is organized labor up to in your state?

Other Watchdog.org reporters have since helped localize the story in their states. In Montana, Dustin Hurst found that the head of the thinly populated state’s largest labor union earned $125,995 in total compensation in 2013. That’s puts him in the top 10 percent of Montana’s wage earners – closer to the “one percent” than the working class.

Meanwhile, Watchdog.org reporter Arthur Kane found that big money flows to the top brass of an Oklahoma-based plumbers and pipe welders union. A dozen of their top officials, in fact, made more than $200,000 last year. As one of Kane’s sources noted, that’s lot of money for a local union.

In Hart’s home state of Ohio, he found that 413 union leaders in the state were paid more than $100,000 last year. And of those, 75 were paid at least $150,000 — 25 more than the previous year — and there were 16 paid more than $200,000. Topping that statewide list were the leaders of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 75, whose motto is: “A voice for working America.”

What do they have to say for themselves?

So far, responses from top officials cited in the story have been underwhelming.

“Union officials seem to find it easier to ignore revelations about their pay,” Hart said. “Unfortunately, because everyone has other things on their minds, many union members rely on their union for information about politics and the role Big Labor plays in policy.”

Hart has found that more generally speaking, union advocates respond to $250,000-plus union boss salaries with complaints about CEOs, who often make many times that amount. However, he notes, the critical difference between CEOs and labor bosses is that CEOs don’t take their money from workers by force.

Wait, where’s the traditional media?

Hart’s “Meet the Bosses” story can serve as a template for reporters and even citizen journalists who want to expose organized labor’s influence and hypocrisy in their state. Surprisingly, it is not difficult to find this information from the Department of Labor. Hart suggests that citizens in particular refer to the DOL’s Bureau of Labor-Management Standards for union annual reports that contain officer and employee pay as well as all sorts of other interesting information.

Watchdog.org reporters have been owning this beat in their states, but if stories about union leader pay conflicting with their “solidarity” rhetoric are not difficult to unearth, why the dearth of media coverage from traditional outlets?

“I think part of it is access,” said Hart, “reporters know they’re not likely to get quotes from union leaders whose six-figure salaries they’ve drawn attention to.”

Where is it going from here?

While 2014 may be the year of the paycheck for labor leaders, it does not necessarily bode well for their future. Momentum from worker freedom laws like the ones passed in Indiana and Michigan — and in Wisconsin for most public-sector workers — is poised to spill into more states over the next several years. The discrepancies between labor leaders and the working class, and their exposure to the public, can only speed up the process.

“I would expect this trend to accelerate if more Americans could see the clash between what union bosses pay themselves and what they claim to stand for,” said Hart.

“Here in Ohio the NEA affiliate has paid ever-higher salaries to officers and employees even as membership has dropped from over 130,000 to under 120,000,” Hart adds. “I would expect that to be true nationally.”

Keeping watch on state budget shenanigans

By
Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

FranklinSlider Capitols

We often hear the dire figures about America’s national debt. It’s no secret the federal government has a spending problem and that our fiscal policies are leaving future generations of Americans on the hook for trillions of dollars.

What isn’t talked about nearly as much is the additional layer of state debt that taxpayers face. Watchdog.org has been covering this issue for years now. Out of control state spending is something Americans should be worried about more now than ever before.

Experts from Truth in Accounting, an economic think tank based in Chicago, have dubbed states that are currently sinking in debt “sinkhole” states, in their “State of the States” report. For fiscal year 2013, they found that 41 states fit this description, while only 9 “sunshine” states can boast a surplus.

Hawaii ranks among the top five nationwide for the highest average share of state debt per taxpayer at $27,000. That’s more than half the average resident’s annual income. Watchdog.org reporter Malia Zimmerman’s story notes that Hawaii’s financial statements hide the full extent of this by showing $4 billion in retirement liabilities, while the state actually has nearly $15 billion of unfunded retirement promises.

Coming in significantly lower than Hawaii – but still shockingly high – were Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Vermont, which have saddled each of their taxpayers with debt burdens of $14,500, $14,000 and $14,000 respectively. One of the largest common denominators driving the debt burden in all of them, our reporters found, is retirement benefits for public-sector workers.

There’s a simple reason that pension obligations can become such a problem for states – future costs are easy to ignore in the present. Yet it is awfully ironic when state and local officials tout a balanced budget while also mentioning their structured debt. And as Truth in Accounting’s report notes, states tend to use antiquated budgeting and accounting rules to report their financial condition.

“We were like, ‘Oh, my God, these elected officials are making decisions about the finances of the state and the budget based upon misleading information,” said Sheila Weinberg, founder and CEO of Truth in Accounting.

Somewhere in the middle are states like Mississippi, whose taxpayers owe $10,700 apiece for the state’s mounting debt and Wisconsin, with $4,400. Closer to the bottom but still decidedly in the red are Nebraska and Florida, with more modest burdens of $2,200 and $1,900, respectively, for each taxpayer.

In his piece about Wisconsin’s state debt, Wisconsin Reporter journalist Adam Tobias helped put the magnitude of this level of state spending in perspective. Badger State taxpayers could buy a lavish home entertainment system, a reliable used car, a trip to Europe, or braces for their child with the amount of money their state has racked up in debt on their behalf.

It isn’t just professional reporters trying to draw attention to this issue. Citizen journalist Michael Chamberlain found that Nevada ranks in the best 20 among states for lowest taxpayer burden of state debt. But that debt still weighs in at a whopping $2.7 billion, amounting to more than $3,000 per taxpayer. He noted that even though Nevada, like most states, is required to balance its budget each year, the state has still found ways to rack up debt, with unfunded pension liabilities again being one of the major factors.

North Carolina resident Anne Kane, meanwhile, found that each taxpayer in North Carolina is on the hook for $9,400. More than half of this burden, she found, can be attributed to unfunded retirement pension and health care liabilities.

“Governments are borrowing money to pay current bills,” said Weinberg. “You can’t run a deficit and balanced budget at the same time.”

Police militarization: How did it come to this?

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Monday, August 25th, 2014

 

mrap and police car

1033.

That’s the number that’s been on the minds of journalists, politicians, and concerned citizens across the country since clashes between heavily-armed police forces and protesters in Ferguson, Mo. broke out several weeks ago.

As Watchdog.org journalist Eric Boehm reports, the “1033” designation belongs to a Department of Defense program approved by Congress in 1990 that allowed the transfer of military surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies. Although now nearly a quarter of a century old, the effects of the 1033 Program have only just recently become painfully obvious to the media and elected officials – thanks in large part to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than $5 billion worth of military-grade equipment has been handed out to local law enforcement units over the program’s lifetime. As the New York Times documents in this interactive map, just since 2006, dozens of grenade launchers, hundreds of armored vehicles and countless assault rifles have been distributed to counties all over the country.

The outcry over this has been so great that President Obama has now ordered a review of the federal programs and funding that allow military-surplus equipment to be transferred to local law enforcement agencies.

“The review will include whether the programs are appropriate, if the agencies are getting enough training and guidance to use the equipment and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of the equipment,” Fox News reported Sunday.

“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement,” said President Obama, “and we don’t want those lines blurred.”

Blurring, however, seems to have already occurred, and Congress has been complicit in it. As Eric Boehm reported for Watchdog.org, Congress had a chance two months ago – before police militarization became part of the national conversation – to partially defund the 1033 Program and stem the tide of Pentagon freebies flowing to states. They shot down Rep. Alan Grayson’s proposal, however, in a decisive 62-355 vote.

SWAT team backUnsurprisingly, Boehm found, the U.S. House members who voted against Grayson’s amendment received, on average, 73 percent more from defense contractors than the 62 members who voted to restrict the 1033 Program.

Like Congress, many states have welcomed surplus military gear with open arms. In Missouri, for instance, the nexus of the militarization controversy, Governor Jay Nixon said he was “thunderstruck” by the “overmilitarization” he has seen. But as recently as January he signed off on statewide participation of the 1033 Program.

The outcry over Ferguson and elsewhere shouldn’t come as a surprise to Watchdog.org readers. Months before mainstream news outlets became widely aware of this trend, we were on the ground telling stories about local police departments gone wild – like this recruiting video in New Mexico, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles rolling into small town Idaho.

We noted last June that when civil liberties are threatened by government pushing the limits of its powers, we’d be there to give citizens the facts about what is happening. And we have, reporting on the acquisition of military-grade equipment by police departments in states like Kansas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin. We even found what appeared to be some encouraging news in New Mexico as officials in Albuquerque announced last month that they were getting rid of their MRAP, only to discover that police had purchased a new tactical vehicle and planned to acquire another.

As the national debate metastasizes, we will continue to cover the stories that help Americans understand what their local PD is up to. You can read all of Watchdog.org’s stories uncovering the state-level impact of the 1033 Program HERE.

“A full-throated argument — even an angry one full of distortion and political bias — has been long overdue,” wrote New Mexico Watchdog reporter Rob Nikolewski as he reflected on what has become America’s “militarization moment.”

“After all, local police forces are funded with tax dollars that come from each and every one of us. Police are public servants, first and foremost, just like our elected public servants, our mayors, city councilors and clerks.”