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Think you’re finished paying your taxes? Not so fast.

By
Friday, April 24th, 2015

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“A century ago, the income tax form was a single page,” writes Watchdog Arena contributor Peter Ingemi, but “today the tax code has become increasingly complex to the point where very few people actually do their own taxes.” In fact, a recent survey found that most Americans get an “F” in their understanding of income tax basics, scoring an average of 51 percent on a ten-question quiz.

We may have solved the problem of taxation without representation in 1776, but “it has been replaced by something almost as bad and nearly as destructive: taxation without understanding,” Ingemi quipped.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mess that is the American tax system. Granted, it may not seem like that big of deal that most people don’t really understand the tax code when they can use a computer program like TurboTax or hire an accountant. But to send your taxes off to an expert or computer is to concede that you don’t understand precisely how much you’re paying Uncle Sam – and why. It also means sacrificing a substantial amount of time (or money) to work your way through all the forms. Estimates of how long it takes to do an average individual return range from eight to almost 12 hours, and total tax compliance costs for the country are estimated to be as high as $182 billion. If you are “fortunate” enough to get a refund, don’t celebrate too much; it just means the government has been taking your money all year as an interest-free loan.

In the end, this widespread public ignorance makes it all the easier for government to collect and spend ever more money in ways unbeknownst to the typical taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Tax Foundation.

What can the average citizen do to start making sense of it all? The journalists and citizen contributors at Watchdog believe the first step toward understanding the present situation of our tax system is to realize just how much Americans are taxed. Every year the Tax Foundation releases a report that calculates America’s Tax Freedom Day, the point in the year at which the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay off its tax bill for the year. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 24th, which is 114 days – or 31 percent – into the work year. It’s also a day later than last year. When all federal, state, and local coffers have been filled, Americans will have paid a grand total of $4.85 trillion in taxes, according to the Tax Foundation report. That’s more than they will spend on food, clothing, and housing combined.

But that’s not all; it gets worse. As Watchdog Opinion contributor Kathryn Hickok pointed out, when you include annual federal borrowing in that calculation (which we will eventually have to repay anyways), Tax Freedom Day falls back another two weeks to May 8th.

You can find where your state ranks on this map. If you live in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oregon, or Virginia, Watchdog writers and contributors have written a more in-depth analysis of their state’s ranking and what it means for you.

Want to learn more? Get the latest news about how government is spending your tax dollars at Watchdog.org

 

Booze, babes, and EBT: Watchdog.org covers welfare abuse

By
Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

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The Washington Post recently ran a series of articles purporting to explain how welfare benefits are spent in America. They open with ledes like “Poverty looks pretty great if you’re not living in it,” and “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way.” The idea behind such pieces is to provide a counter-narrative to the “suspicion” that the poor use food stamps and other government benefits to buy luxury goods like lobster and filet mignon.

Absent from the Post’s coverage is clear, convincing data about how much abuse takes place when it comes to welfare spending. They skirt the obvious question: Can anything be done to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent more responsibly?

For Watchdog.org, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The Post’s stories were prompted by welfare reform bills in statehouses, such as House Bill 2258 in Kansas, which tightened restrictions on government assistance. In short, it means no more spending welfare funds on movies, gambling, or tattoos.

What drew lawmakers’ attention to welfare abuse in the first place? The story was nowhere until Kansas Watchdog began reporting on the issue in 2013. When reporter Travis Perry first investigated trends in the state’s distribution of funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, he was stonewalled and told that his request for records posed “an unreasonable burden on agency resources.”

Asking for such information was well within reason, especially since rumors of welfare fraud at the time had already prompted investigations in New York and Tennessee. Perry kept digging into the story, and eventually was able to expose thousands of abusive transactions where welfare cash had been withdrawn at liquor stores, smoke shops, casinos and strip clubs. In all, he calculated that Kansas residents receiving assistance through TANF spent about $43,000 on potentially-illicit goods and services from August to October of 2012.

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Kansas law prohibits the use of government assistance to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets. But the rule is more bark than bite because most businesses that cannot process EBT cards conveniently have an ATM location nearby, allowing welfare recipients to skirt the law with ease.

Just a few months after Kansas Watchdog exposed the poor enforcement of the law, Watchdog.org’s Tennessee bureau found itself facing a similar situation. In response to Tennessee Watchdog stories detailing a plethora of questionable EBT transactions, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law prohibiting the use of EBT cards at adult establishments like liquor stores and strip clubs. But when Tennessee Watchdog followed-up on the story, reporter Chris Butler found that the law had been slow to go into effect – the owner of a Memphis liquor store, for instance, hadn’t even been notified of the new law!

Not all news has been discouraging, however. Many of Watchdog.org’s reports on welfare spending have led to more promising government action. Last year, for example, Colorado Watchdog published a series of stories showing that withdrawals from ATMs at casinos, liquor stores, and strip bars were still happening even though both federal and state laws prohibit it. Worse, Colorado Watchdog also discovered that welfare recipients had withdrawn money at pot shop ATMs and out of state in places like Las Vegas, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. All in all these abuses totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the stories prompted a federal review of whether the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) is doing enough to stop them.

The state legislature soon acted to curb the abuse, introducing bills that would help keep CDHS more accountable by requiring it to regularly report illegal withdrawals to lawmakers. Businesses would be required to post a sign near ATMs saying welfare withdrawals are prohibited at their establishments, and owners of businesses or ATMs could face penalties if they do not act to stop the abuses.

Kansas, Tennessee, and Colorado do not represent isolated incidents. Watchdog.org has uncovered similar stories across the rest of the country, such as New Mexico, Iowa, and Texas. In each state, these stories represent a textbook case of what Watchdog.org was created to do – shine a light on abuse so that our government can do better. And now after years of faithfully reporting on the issue of welfare abuse, the national conversation is finally starting to turn. Legacy media outlets like The Washington Post may attempt to take the moral high ground and dismiss efforts at reform, but they only tell part of the story. These states ultimately acted to make better use of their tax dollars because Watchdog.org dared to undertake a grueling investigation and fearlessly report the facts.

Read more Watchdog.org stories about welfare abuse.

Social Media for News Consumption

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

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In our past blog posts we discussed the growth of nonprofit news versus traditional media coverage – with a particular focus on the increasing impact of digital news. Most of that digital news takes the shape of a website with news reports, videos, and photo coverage. That web content is also supported by social media, which typically gets the headlines out and attempts to draw readers into the full story.

Growth of Social Media

The Pew Research Internet Project’s January 2014 research on social media shows that 74% of all adults online use social networking sites. The 18–29 year-old segment leads the way with 89% using social media, while the 30–49 range is at 82%, 50–64 at 65%, and 65+ at 49%.

In a deeper social media study from September 2013, the Pew Research Internet Project reports that 71% of adults online are Facebook users, 22% use LinkedIn, 21% use Pinterest,18% use Twitter, and 17% use Instagram. They also report that 63% of Facebook users visit the site every day, while 40% visit multiple times each day. The International Business Times has posted a superb News on Facebook Infographic that does a great job of summarizing all this data.

We can see from the numbers and our own experience that social media is truly embedded in our daily lives. Foremost, it is about sharing experiences with family and friends. We can liken the image of social media to sharing stories over the backyard fence. It’s just that the backyard fence connects New York to Los Angeles and beyond. So what is happening on social media around the news?

Using Social Media for News

Again the Pew Research Center provides some keen insight – this time from their Journalism Project and recent report on social media and news. They report that half of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from those sites.

The Pew Research Center has parsed the numbers slightly differently in that they report 64% of the United States’ population uses Facebook. Note that this is different than the aforementioned 74% of adults who are online, a slightly different perspective on the numbers.

The big takeaway is that 30% of the United States’ population report getting their news on Facebook. Of those who consume news on the site, 78% find the news while on Facebook for other reasons. Just 22% of users think of Facebook as a useful way to get news, while only 34% “like” a news organization, commentator, or journalist. With Twitter, 16% of the United States’ population is on the site and 8% get their news there. You can see this in the chart below provided by Statista.

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Some interesting differences between Twitter and Facebook for news consumption emerged in Pew’s State of the News Media 2012 report. As expected, most of the news links that people report seeing come from friends and family. Yet 13% of Facebook users report most of their news links come from news organizations versus 27% of Twitter users. From this, it would appear that news organizations are a bigger part of the conversation on Twitter.

It is also important to examine what type of news topics people report seeing on Facebook. The breakdown from the Pew Research Center Facebook News Survey 2013 is:

  • Entertainment 73%
  • Community Events/People 65%
  • Sports 57%
  • National Politics 55%
  • Crime 51%

The Pew Research Center also reviewed traffic data from top news websites and found that those referred from social media sites as well as from search sites spent far less time on the site, inferring less engagement with the news and the site itself. They found that those arriving directly spent just over 4.5 minutes on the site, while users arriving from Facebook or from a search engine spent 1.5 minutes. That is a significant difference.

In a nod to citizen journalism, Pew studies also found that people are not only sharing news stories on social media (50%) but are also using their mobile devices to post photos (14%) or videos (12%) of news events. We can still recall that one of the first prominent uses of Twitter was the photos posted of passengers standing on the wings of an airliner that had just landed in the Hudson River—citizen journalism at its best.

What Does All This Mean to the Future of News?

Social media is where people spend their time, and this will only grow in the future. No longer is it enough to drop the newspaper on the front door step at a set time each day. Likewise, publishing the news on a website, while providing deep coverage, is not where people will “find” the news. They will be finding it on social media, through posts from friends and family.

Yet another avenue of news distribution are mobile platforms and news apps. We’ll explore this growing channel in a later post.

New Jersey Watchdog: Cultivating hard-hitting news in the Garden State

By
Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

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New Jersey Watchdog reporter Mark Lagerkvist is as much of a veteran journalist as they come. This year marks his fourth decade as an investigative reporter. His experience spans the gamut of network television, local stations, newspapers and magazines, and he has won more than 60 journalism awards over the course of his career. For him, however, reporting for New Jersey Watchdog isn’t simply the latest in a long line of media gigs. Journalism at Watchdog.org is different because it gives him the opportunity to follow his reporting instincts, find the hidden stories, and tackle complex issues.

“This is the most professional freedom I’ve enjoyed to pursue great stories,” he said, “and I appreciate that.”

Indeed, if you ask Lagerkvist about the most important story he has covered, he refuses to pick one and elevate it above the rest.

“All of New Jersey Watchdog’s reports are important. We don’t waste time with fluff, trivia or infotainment,” Lagerkvist said. “The most important stories have yet to be written.”

This relentless forward-thinking has propelled New Jersey Watchdog from an upstart, investigative website trying to find its place at the state media table to a critical source of substantive news coverage and analysis. Whether it’s crunching the numbers and cutting through government spin of the state’s public pension woes, or calling out the governor’s office for a lack of transparency, the result is bound to be both original and significant for readers who care about where their tax dollars are going.

For an in-depth look at New Jersey Watchdog’s coverage of the state’s public pension predicament, download our free whitepaper.

“New Jersey Watchdog specializes in original investigations and in-depth reports – tough stories on important topics that otherwise would not be told,” said Lagerkvist. “As traditional news outlets have cut back and downsized, New Jersey Watchdog has stepped up to the plate in the Garden State.”

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Lagerkvist (left) accepts a New York Press Club Award for political coverage.

Through the reach of media partners and outlets that use New Jersey Watchdog content, including television, newspapers, radio programs, and websites, the influence of New Jersey Watchdog is multiplied far beyond its own web traffic. This means the broader public is being informed about issues ranging from their highway system to their county sheriff department to their governor’s travel expenses. And equally important, that influence has reached the state’s movers and shakers.

“New Jersey Watchdog has been a major force in bringing the scope and extent of the state’s public pension problems to light,” said Lagerkvist. He notes that one of New Jersey Watchdog’s most comprehensive reports, “The Seven Deadly Sins of NJ Pensions, was recently cited by Gov. Chris Christie’s blue ribbon task force.

The shift in attention did not happen overnight. It has taken years of tenacious, persistent coverage, and will likely take many more to continue bending New Jersey’s media narrative around hard-hitting investigations into the uses and abuses of its taxpayer dollars. But so far Lagerkvist sees an encouraging change in how the public has grown more concerned about truly pressing issues like public pension reform.

“When New Jersey Watchdog began reporting on the state’s pension problems in 2010, no other news outlet was focusing on the issue,” said Lagerkvist. “Now it is center stage, widely seen as an obstacle to the state’s fiscal health.” It has taken such a focus that Christie devoted his annual budget address to it in February, but it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will act.

 

For an in-depth look at New Jersey Watchdog’s coverage of the state’s public pension predicament, download our free whitepaper.

What does journalism mean for democracy: fewer journalists on the beat

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

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You may have seen some of our earlier stories on “Covering State Government Today, On the Frontlines with Nonprofit News,” along with “The Changing Nature of News: A Study of Five Online Nonprofit Groups.” Nonprofit and online news organizations are where reporting is happening at the state and local levels as traditional news reporting recedes with declining advertising and funding. But what are the challenges, other than funding, that these smaller news organizations face?

Threats Facing Citizen Journalists

Even with all the foment of new media channels and multiplying sources of information, there are profound threats from having fewer journalists on the beat. We tend to think of some relatively recent journalistic work like Watergate, the Clinton Impeachment, NSA Wiretapping, and others. Wikipedia has even assembled a complete list of U.S. federal political scandals dating back to the 1700s.

A few things closer to home actually pose considerable concern. For example, GreenTech Automotive filed an $85 million lawsuit against the Franklin Center for our reporting. This suit was tossed out of court, but it is the type of thing that poses a considerable threat to fledgling news organizations and citizen journalists who do not have the resources or skill sets to defend themselves while continuing to report the facts as they see them.

Here are just a few of the threats and concerns that readily come to mind:

  • Libel Suits. These suits can be used by organizations and governments to shut down reporting, including any financial support. How does a citizen journalist or small organization defend itself in these situations?
  • Access Issues. There is a growing challenge of gaining access as a journalist if you do not have a business card from a major news outlet. How does a small organization or citizen journalist challenge a refusal to allow access?
  • Protecting Sources. You may have seen our work about media shield laws. How does a citizen journalist or small organization find the legal talent to help them battle court or government directed efforts to identify confidential sources?
  • Freedom of Information Requests. These can be blocked, delayed, or redacted to the point of obfuscation. How does a small organization develop the skill set and stamina to pursue this vital method of gathering information?

Reporting Limitations

reporter typewriter b&wIn addition to threats there are limitations to news reporting that happen as a result of smaller organizations or even solo journalists reporting the news. These include:

  • Multiple Stories. It can come down to production capacity. How does a solo journalist or smaller organization cover multiple stories at any one time?
  • Big Data. More and more we are finding large news organizations sifting through big chunks of data to identify trends and develop insight into changes. How does a small organization find the skills and staff to accomplish this task? 
  • Legislative Activity. While a small organization may be able to dig into one or two key stories, how does it keep on top of all that is of concern on its particular beat? For example, BillTrack50 provides mounds of data on legislation underway at the federal and state level. If your beat is California, how do you keep up with the more than 1,000 bills? Plus, state resources vary by how up-to-date and robust their website is with legislative information and more.
  • Fact Checking. How does the smaller organization dig deep to back up their facts and do so without breaking the bank or running out of time? FactCheck.org and Politifact.com are two resources, but there needs to be more.
  • Power of Brands. There is a real power of brands. For example, the New York Times generates a great deal of credibility and power in addition to bringing considerable resources to bear on reporting. For small organizations or citizen journalists it is BYOB—Build Your Own Brand.

Positive Trends

The good news is that for nearly every threat a growing capability is being developed on the Internet to assist journalists. But even so, a critical mass of resources and expertise are still required to defend lawsuits and pursue leads that elude the best of citizen journalists or the smaller news organizations.

Another promising trend is for larger news brands to pick up stories from the smaller outfits. This is particularly appropriate in statehouse or investigative reporting where the mainline news organizations have significantly cut back on their own coverage and capabilities.

How Can You Respond?

Those threats can be overcome by supporting the revolution in reporting across the breadth of new media that has been emerging over the past several decades. These include our own watchdog reporting that continues to grow – now in place in 36 states, and expanding its coverage within those states.

You can also support those organizations and issues that are near and dear to your own heart. For example, we have invested considerable energy and resources both publicizing and shaping the debate about a media shield law. John Fund at the National Review says, “What the Franklin Center is doing is the most exciting thing in journalism.”

Step into the light: Franklin Center celebrates Sunshine Week

By
Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

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On Monday the White House made a startling announcement: it was removing a federal regulation that made its Office of Administration subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This is the office that handles record-keeping duties for the White House, like e-mail archiving.

Sadly, such obfuscating tactics reflect a widely-accepted line of thought that assumes transparency isn’t helpful for reform and is actually part of the problem in our government. The change in policy appears intentionally timed in conjunction with the scandal erupting around Hillary Clinton’s email usage as Secretary of State. But there’s another national event taking place this week, and the White House’s move only goes to underscore its importance: Sunshine Week.

What is Sunshine Week?

Sunshine Week is an annual celebration that takes place among news outlets, activists, and community organizations across the country. It centers on access to public information (or lack thereof) and aims to show how important it is for you and your community.

Sunshine Week originated in Florida – the appropriately nicknamed “Sunshine State” – as “Sunshine Sunday” on James Madison’s birthday in 2002. The Florida press at the time was reacting to efforts by the state legislature to close information off to the public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the controversial death of Dale Earnhardt, both in 2001. The idea caught on, and now includes a broad and deep coalition ranging from the Associated Press, to local papers like The Oklahoman, to high school students who live-tweeted an open records audit of their local government.

The aim of Sunshine Week – to shine the bright light of accountability on our government and those who serve in it – fits perfectly into the mission of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Over the past five years, this week of heightened attention on the importance of transparency has given the Franklin Center an opportunity to celebrate the work we do year round to fulfill the vision of our namesake, Benjamin Franklin, of bringing integrity to our public institutions.

What is the Franklin Center doing about it?

shutterstock_128822344 edited“We need to guard against this being a press-only event,” said Andrew Alexander, a former Washington Post ombudsman and award-winning journalist, at a Newseum panel celebrating the Freedom of Information Act.

He’s right. Sunshine Week can only work to the extent that citizens are engaged and informed. Last year, for example, our citizen journalism team performed audits of their city, township, and county websites. They found that in many cases, their local government was actually doing a good job of making public information easily accessible, but hurdles to filing open records requests often remained.

This year, the professional journalism team at Watchdog.org is taking the lead through a series of stories made possible by OpenTheBooks.com. Through the government spending website, they uncovered stories about how the federal Small Business Administration has been poorly tracking the default rate of its loans, giving loans to luxury goods retailers like Lamborghini and Rolex, and essentially gambling millions of taxpayer dollars behind a wall of state secrecy.

In addition to this, Watchdog.org reporters have been drawing attention to failures to achieve greater transparency, such as an utter absence of support for transparency-increasing bills by the congressional delegation from Alabama and Mississippi.

Even the contributors for Watchdog Arena, our citizen reporting arm of Watchdog.org, got in on the action, reporting that even though a recent bill allowing more fees to be charged for right to know requests was defeated in New Hampshire, local bureaucrats still make accessing documents as hard as humanly possible. And in New York, they found that Hillary Clinton isn’t the only politician with email troubles. Governor Andrew Cuomo has found himself in the middle of an email controversy after he instituted a policy of deleting emails after 90 days.

We still have work to do

Such stories, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Penetrating the dense government bureaucracy to make sense of what goes on behind the scenes is still notoriously hard. Current laws make it virtually impossible for government employees to go on the record, which is just one facet of the many-sided challenge of watchdog journalism. Such challenges are no reason to give reporters a pass for neglecting to ask hard questions and unearth the story behind the story. The role of the newsman has always been hard, but that is what makes it indispensable to democratic governance.

“We are not there to be their PR agents. We are there to do our job,” Alexander said about the tendency for reporters to content themselves with statements from government spokespersons.

The journalists at Watchdog.org could not agree more.

Watchdog.org’s news podcast takes you behind the headlines

By
Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

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“The internet is a fire hose of information – there is so much out there. But how much is reliable and accurate?” asks Watchdog.org radio host Ben Yount.

The question is a daunting one for news consumers. The Internet age has brought us unprecedented access to information, but so much of that information comes to us helter–skelter and void of context. Often it leaves us wondering: how does one go about separating the wheat from the chaff?

To address this challenge, the journalism team at Watchdog.org has launched a regular news podcast aimed at taking our audience behind the headlines and explaining the context of the stories that matter to them. You can subscribe to it on iTunes and Stitcher.

“That’s what podcasts can do so much better than text stories or Twitter updates,” said Yount. “We can explain, go in depth, ask questions out loud. The tone, tempo, and tenor of the podcast clearly communicates the headline and perspective much more clearly than even the best written word.”

As the news media world grows more fragmented, readers are free to find their own news sources. They no longer need to wait for the evening news, and as a result, news organizations have an opportunity to provide them with something deeper and more engaging than a one- or two-minute package.

“A new consumer does not want to be talked to or talked at, they want to be included in the conversations,” said Yount. “That’s where podcasts come in. Well-done podcasts can supplement a traditional story.”

shutterstock_183925640Our podcasts function as a supplement, explains reporter and frequent Watchdog.org Podcast host Eric Boehm, because we frequently have our own reporters on as guests. This lets them share additional juicy details from their stories and provide more context about the subjects they cover. In addition to reporters, the podcast sometimes brings public policy experts or public officials on as guests so they can offer their own unique insights.

The Watchdog.org Podcast is sorted into six different series, depending on the issue up for discussion.

  • “Sit Down, Shut Up” looks at education issues at the national, state and local levels. In these episodes, hosts Ben Yount and Bre Payton have talked about concerns like the exploding costs of higher education in the U.S. and the humorous (but sad) inability of Philadelphia’s school system to provide adequate toilet paper.
  • “Breaking the Piggy Bank” breaks down the national public pension crisis by looking at local manifestations of pension abuse and unsustainability. In this series, hosts Eric Boehm and Steve Greenhut have talked about what California is doing to secure pension payments from the bankrupt city Stockton, and they’ve exposed a nifty trick discovered by public sector employees that allows them to sometimes double or even triple their annual pension payouts.
  • The “Code Blue” Podcast provides a weekly look at heath issues, ranging from the latest public health debates to small government views on health care reform. Topics addressed by reporters Katie Watson and Jason Hart include the cultural debate over vaccination and the problematic math of Medicaid expansion.
  • In “Say it Loud, Say it Proud,” host Matt Kittle talks free speech and First Amendment issues – rights that are some of the most important to our society, but also some of the most frequently under attack. Most significantly, Kittle has talked about the plight of a Marquette University professor who was fired for comments he wrote on a private blog.
  • As its title suggests, Watchdog.org’s “Behind the Headlines” podcast aims to take a deeper look at the state-level political news being uncovered by our reporters. In this weekly installment, host Eric Boehm has looked at the consequences of the FCC’s embrace of “net neutrality,” and unpacked the true cost to workers of being part of a labor union.
  • “In Our Backyards” looks at why local government – city councils, school boards and even water treatment authorities – is so important to keep an eye on. It turns out your tax dollars can be wasted by local officials just as easily as they can be wasted by member of Congress.

Through these series, Boehm said, “listeners will get a solid, free-market perspective on the news of the day and will hear from the people who are on the ground in the states and statehouses around the country.”

“We hope the podcasts will add to the value that people are already getting from reading Watchdog.org,” said Boehm, “and in a format that allows them to easily download and listen at any time and in any place.”

Click here to subscribe to the Watchdog.org Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher!

What does journalism mean for democracy: the role of objective reporting

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

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“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States

This quote from Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of our nation, shows that he truly appreciated the value of journalism in maintaining a free society. In fact, it appears he valued it higher than government itself.

Role of Journalism in Democracy

It is our belief that the role of journalism in a democracy is to:

  • report on those in power through what we call watchdog journalism;
  • report on the public’s needs, impressions, and wants;
  • provide reassurance and even panic prevention by shedding light on critical events.

The Pew Research Journalism Project provides a nice summation of both the purpose and the current challenges in an article titled A New Journalism for Democracy in a New Age. We love its conclusion: “Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government and human dignity possible.”

Gatekeepers vs. Referees

The 2005 article also has an important point to make about journalists becoming “referees rather than gatekeepers” for information. They note that the fences are already down with many, many other sources of information available. They were quite prescient in that now, some nine years later, there are substantially more sources of information available to anyone with a smartphone.

Referee red cardFrom another perspective, one need only look at the challenges of journalists in nations where democracy is either in its infancy or does not exist at all. In those nations—from Cuba to Russia and extending across continents—journalists face the very real threat of death for reporting what those in government do not want reported.

The World Movement for Democracy provides a short summary of the broad range of issues affecting journalists in a post titled “The Role of Journalists in Democratic Development.” This list includes a huge array of issues that we largely take for granted in the United States, from intimidation and violence to bribery and just trying to eke out a living from very low pay.

Objective Reporting or Advocacy Journalism

“Journalists believe that objective journalism provides facts and information to citizens who can then make their own judgment.” This is from Michael Schudson, professor of journalism at Columbia University, in his article titled “Reluctant Stewards: Journalism in a Democratic Society” in the Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Schudson further states that this mindset has often morphed into advocacy journalism, where reporters attempt to demonstrate that they “know best” regarding what you should think and act upon. He then tracks the development of traditional journalism, which he estimates is only about a century old. Schudson’s final key conclusion is that “Pluralism, pragmatism, and decentralized invention may do better at stewarding democracy than a coherent philosophy of moral guardianship ever could.” He further states that “fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy.”

Citizen Watchdog Journalism

In our viewpoint he is really pointing to the decentralized and pragmatic emergence of citizen watchdog journalism. This movement has been growing, due in part to the Internet’s ability to get the news out and do so in an extremely cost effective and rapid manner. It has also been growing because there are important areas that mainstream news outlets can no longer cover or where they have reduced their coverage. This includes our own statehouse reporting.

This does place into perspective what so many of us have come to believe is the normal of traditional journalism: newspaper, television, and even radio. We need to be reminded that the golden age of radio lasted about three decades. What we call newspaper journalism has been in place roughly a century and began its decline a couple of decades ago. Television continues strong in viewership, but its news reporting has substantially declined.

We also forget that Thomas Paine and his pamphleteering helped lead the way to the Revolutionary War. At the time his approach to getting the word out was pretty revolutionary, so to speak. Much of this type of revolutionary reporting is happening today. It is happening through citizen journalists, watchdog groups like our own, and even social media—think of the photo of the plane landing in the Hudson River that was first posted on Twitter.

You Can Help

Citizen journalism begins with you, the citizen. It can be as simple as your choices regarding news sources. Advertisers and funding will move with the readers.

If you see this growing threat to “fact-based accountability news” which is “the essential food supply of democracy” as the serious matter we believe it is, now is the time to step forward and make a difference.

Erik Telford responds to the FCC’s Net Neutrality ruling

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

February 26, 2015
Contact: Breyana Franklin
breyana.franklin@franklincenterhq.org
571-385-2926

Alexandria, VA — I’m disappointed to hear about the FCC’s decision today to achieve so-called net neutrality by regulating the Internet as a Title II public utility. The FCC’s party line vote mirrors President Obama’s proposal, reflecting blatant partisanship and making eleventh hour revisions to gratify the wishes of special interest groups such as Google and Free Press. This type of policymaking fails to provide a comprehensive road map for the online space that aims for the best interests of both businesses and consumers. Rather than follow the spirit of the federal court ruling that made this decision necessary in the first place, it uses a back door through a Great Depression-era law to subvert the court’s ruling and bring the Internet under an unprecedented level of government control.

Under the guise of openness and fairness, this decision to subject the Internet to stifling new regulations and government scrutiny will result in greater costs for broadband consumers, harm investment, and hamper technological innovation. I hope the FCC will choose to release its entire plan to the public immediately. And I call on those who support a truly free Internet to continue advocating for the principles of liberty to be applied in the online space in order to ensure a better future for us all.

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Burning bright: Watchdog.org covers environment and energy issues

By
Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

power plant coast

In the heat of the 2014 midterm election campaigns last September, Politico ran a story examining a new strategy among national environmental groups, such as liberal billionaire Tom Steyer’s super PAC NextGen Climate.

“Seeing no end to gridlock in Congress,” the story read, “national environmental groups are trying a new strategy for winning battles on climate change and green power: pouring record amounts of money into legislative races in a handful of states.”

The story went on to detail how these groups were making a multi-million-dollar push in races for the state legislature in places like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, where flipping just a few seats could change the balance of power in the statehouse.

A month later, however, election results would prove their effort largely wasted, as Steyer-backed campaigns turned into a long list of losses. But since then, environmentalist groups have since shown no signs of pulling back from their agenda at the state and local level.

Just as Watchdog.org was on the ground during election season asking hard questions about alternative energy and environmentalist agendas, our reporters have kept up their scrutiny as statehouses around the country convene for a new term. Here are just a few issue areas where Watchdog.org is providing a counter-narrative to the environmentalist rhetoric of these groups.

The coal smokescreen

“Everyone wants as clean an environment as possible,” said Rob Nikolewski, National Energy Correspondent for Watchdog.org, “but one thing you quickly learn about energy is that in order to generate power there has to be a cost. Nothing is generated without it.”

Last year, for example, when the EPA announced its Clean Power Plan, an ambitious new proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 30% by 2030 as part of President Obama’s climate-change agenda, Watchdog.org reporters were some of the first to look at the local- and state-level costs of complying with the plan in places like Missouri, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.

“EPA regulations come at a cost — and some states have to pay more than others,” Nikolewski noted. “It’s a big part of Watchdog’s job to get government officials to spell out how much these regulations will cost and let readers decided if those costs equal the supposed benefits.”

The flurry of media scrutiny over the Clean Power Plan has largely subsided, but our reporters have continued to investigate coal energy issues. In Wisconsin, Adam Tobias recently covered a new report that found the state would lose thousands of manufacturing jobs over the next several years if forced to comply with the EPA’s plan. Similarly, Vermont Watchdog reporter Bruce Parker noted that Vermont would see a 3.4 percent dent in manufacturing jobs, according to the report.

Furthermore, as Kenric Ward has reported, not all states are taking the crushing new regulations lying down. Several bills in the Virginia Senate would provide a last line of defense against tougher EPA rules by protecting customers from likely rate hikes and allowing the General Assembly to sue the EPA using State Attorney General funds.

Wind energy in the doldrums

Shutterstock imageWhen it comes to wind energy, Nikolewski said that “too much reporting simply parrots the talking points of its supporters and glides over inconvenient facts — such as the high cost of offshore wind farms and the number of birds that are killed.” Last year, for example, he covered the backlash that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suffered after enacting a 2013 rule exempting wind farms from prosecution for the unintentional deaths of bald and golden eagles. And in Watchdog.org’s Minnesota bureau, reporter Tom Steward has written a number of similar stories over the past year on the devastating toll wind turbines take on local wildlife.

As Steward has reported in other stories, concerns over wind energy are not limited to the endangered animals they may harm. They have also been the subject of costly tax breaks, such as when Minnesota recently waived $625,000 in taxes for a wind turbine manufacturer. And it gets worse at the federal level. At the end of last year, Kenric Ward reported that Congress voted for another $10 billion in renewable energy credits. Skewed heavily toward wind and solar, those credits help sustain industries that would have a hard time existing without help from taxpayers.

“Just about everyone touts the growth of the renewable energy industry,” said Nikolewski, “but it remains to be seen. . . whether renewables like solar and wind have the energy density to make really significant contributions, especially if they can ever stand on their own without government subsidies.”

Stories like that of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, for example, which was intended to provide electricity to the area at a cost of $2.5 billion but then lost financing from its two biggest customers, raise hard questions about the future offshore wind projects in the U.S.

Fracking isn’t a dirty word

“A lot of reporters repeat assertions by fracking opponents about dangerous incidents,” said Nikolewski, “but few report that there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing.”

For his part, Nikolewski says he tries to be specific and clear on this issue, and to keep in mind an important piece of context: the capability for fracking has been around for decades. Even though it has only started making frequent headlines in the past few years, the technology has improved markedly over the years. These improvements, however, have apparently not been enough to stop states like New York and Maryland from restricting fracking, as Watchdog.org has reported.

One of Nikolewski’s most important stories since starting on the energy beat focuses on a fracking ban that was later tossed out of federal court. His investigation revealed how a small county in New Mexico may have been taken for a ride as a test case when it was encouraged by a Pennsylvania-based environmental group to pass the ban. Now that the ban has been invalidated, the county – one of the poorest in the Southwest – may be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Context, costs and critical thinking

Energy is at the heart of modern society because it is a fundamental part of almost everything we do. As such, it makes sense that energy topics show up often in debates not only at the federal level but in statehouses and city councils all over the country. Informed debates that lead to effective policy, however, are only possible with accurate facts and honest analyses of our energy sources.

Because so many people are emotionally invested in seeing green-energy causes advanced, Nikolewski worries that reports that put the environmental movement in a negative light can be given short shrift or ignored altogether. Unfortunately, this attitude can bleed into media coverage.

“Reporters are skeptical by nature,” said Nikolewski, “but too many times reporters on energy beats across the country come across as cheerleaders, especially when it comes to green energy.”

“There needs to be more critical thinking when it comes to energy reporting and I think that’s what Watchdog.org provides.”