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

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?

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

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”

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.”

Police militarization: How did it come to this?

Monday, August 25th, 2014


mrap and police car


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.”

Owning the Detroit narrative: past, present, and future

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Detroit is a phoenix

It’s no secret that Detroit has the potential to be the definitive example of the disastrous consequences of radical progressive policy. So when the progressive Netroots Nation held their annual conference in downtown Motor City this July, the Franklin Center decided to stage a conversation of our own.

“Our goal was to capture the narrative of Detroit through an experiential, ‘field trip’ based conference,” said Rachel Swaffer,  Outreach Manager at the Franklin Center. “We put a human face on the consequences of out-of-control government spending, corruption, and over-regulation.”

Partnering with State Budget Solutions, the Manhattan Institute, and other state-focused policy groups, the Franklin Center gathered citizen journalists, policy experts, and local businesses together for several days to highlight the past policies that failed Detroit, and to look ahead to the city’s increasingly bright future of private entrepreneurship. It gave bloggers and analysts a chance to immerse themselves in the culture and economy of Detroit so that they could go back and own the narrative in their own writing, policy, and debates.

DSC00947State Budget Solutions hosted two panels on Detroit policy, featuring panelists from the Manhattan Institute, R Street, Illinois Policy Institute, and the Mackinac Center; and State Policy Network flew in policy analysts from Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Show-me Institute, the Buckeye Institute, and the California Policy Center.

“All I knew about Detroit before was what most media were talking about: abandoned houses, rampant crime, drugs, poverty, welfare,” said blogger Carine Martinez. “While it is true of a large part of the city, it is not all there is to know about Detroit. It was important to see that many people are hard at work trying to make the city rise again.”

Some of the companies and organizations that participants visited include Detroit Venture Partners – a “hands on” venture capital firm that is funding a tech revolution in the city, Tech Town – a start-up incubator and co-working space, and Rebel Nell – a jewelry company that employs impoverished local women (click here for the full list).

I learned that Detroit’s bankruptcy has created conditions with which the people of Detroit are acting within the private sector to accomplish what government cannot,” said Chris Blakely, who blogs at The Urban Libertarian. “The spirit of Detroit is palpable when ever you are speaking to its people, and they all want Detroit to succeed. If combined with the right policies, Detroit has the drive and infrastructure available to rise from the ashes of its bankruptcy to become a prosperous city again.”

Obviously the Motor City is desperate for new solutions, but as many attendees observed, it will require a broader change of thinking to understand why Detroit went bankrupt in the first place.

“The signs are all there, the writing on the wall has been spotted, but it’s almost as if they cannot decipher it,” said Alice Salles, who blogs at United Liberty. “Those who are taking matters into their own hands are succeeding, but are still somewhat confused as to what the roots of the problems are, unfortunately.”

DSC00968The full impact of the conference is still unfolding as all the stories, blogs, and policy briefs that followed from it spread to a larger audience online. But even at this point there’s no question it helped citizen journalists and policy wonks put a face on Detroit’s recovery process. You can follow bloggers’  follow-up work on social media by searching #fcdet, #detroitrising, or #saveourcities, or go to this page for a list of stories.

“I would consider this conference successful simply for the way that we approached the city of Detroit – our decentralized, loose coalition really dug deep into the culture and personal stories of Motor City,” said Swaffer. “We didn’t go in with a predetermined agenda or story hook.”

This contrasted sharply, she said, with the Netroots Nation conference. Bloggers who visited Netroots undercover found it harshly partisan and impersonal, characterized by progressives sitting in dark rooms quibbling over policy.

“While Netroots attendees listened to panels on the evil of the State Policy Network and Franklin Center, we were actually out in the city meeting the people directly impacted by government policies,” said Swaffer.

“Rather than going to an event and listening to a bunch of people talk and just reporting on what some person said, we were able to actually go into the community and talk to people there who were proud of their city and of what they were doing,” said Pocket Full of Liberty blogger Jay Caruso, who wrote about Detroit’s current transition period. “They may not be names people will be familiar with, but their stories are compelling.”

Leading the march back into the statehouse

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

FranklinSlider Capitols

Several years ago, Watchdog.org Senior Content Manager Mark Lisheron wrote a story for American Journalism Review that turned out to be prophetic about the role alternative news models like Watchdog.org would come to play in statehouse news coverage.

He began by recounting a theatrical encounter between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and state Senate president Stephen Sweeney, in which Sweeney handed Christie a bill he was sure to veto, and Christie responded by sending it back.

“Sweeney promised he would be back after getting enough support to override the governor,” wrote Lisheron. “‘We’ll see,’ Christie said. Sweeney and his allies turned to leave, and that was that.”

The story made the top page in the next day’s Newark Star-Ledger and headlined most other state news outlets. Plenty of reporters had showed up for the confrontation, but how much meaningful news actually happened?

It was little more than political theatrics, and for Lisheron (pictured below), it raised the question: Is that all we have left in statehouse news?

Last month, the Pew Research Center released a chilling report about America’s shifting statehouse press. Like Lisheron in his AJR story, it found that the number of reporters covering state officials has dropped 35 percent over the past decade. Of those that still remain, less than half work for their publication full-time.

Mark Lisheron picOn its surface, the situation doesn’t look good, but it is far from hopeless.

Where once state governments rebuffed requests from Watchdog.org reporters asking for professional credentials, new models for journalism, like nonprofits, have come to play an integral role in providing the in-depth, hard-hitting coverage voters count on to make decisions and form opinions of their local elected officials.

“These nontraditional outlets employ 126 full-time statehouse reporters (17% of all full-time reporters),” the Pew report found. “But that does not make up for the 164 newspaper statehouse jobs lost since 2003.”

At the Franklin Center, where we’ve spearheaded both a network of state-level professional journalists at Watchdog.org and a nationwide movement of citizen journalists at WatchdogWire.com, these kind of statistics only spur us on to work harder to step into the gap left by struggling traditional news sources.

“Who were these upstarts, these popinjays to invade the longstanding club of reporters working for newspapers and television? By what right could they call themselves journalists?” Lisheron recently wrote at Watchdog.org. “The debate is much older than Watchdog. It’s as old as the first blog. What the hell is journalism and who should be allowed to do it?”

That’s the $64,000 question. But at the end of the day, isn’t this is what the free press has always been about? One of America’s great virtues is that it allows for a marketplace of ideas. Those who approach the news from a certain perspective deserve first, the freedom to write the stories that they believe are important and relevant, and second, the same access to public officials that legacy media outlets have always enjoyed. Having an opinion – left-leaning, right-leaning or otherwise – doesn’t disqualify you from asking a fact-driven question that taxpayers deserve an answer to.

“I might deplore the politics of (left-leaning outlets like) the Union Labor News and Devil’s Advocate staff, but I fervently believe they qualify for press credentials,” Lisheron wrote. “Outstanding journalism like ours is being done on the right and the left every day whether anybody likes it, condones it or licenses it. Point of view isn’t the problem.”

Any independent news outlet covering the statehouse is far superior to the alternative, which is government-owned-and-operated news outlets. Recently the city of Davenport launched its own digital newsroom. This, more than a conservative news site like Empower Texans or the leftist Daily Kos, is what news consumers should truly be worried about.

In the meantime, Watchdog.org will be here to write about it.

Training the watchdogs of tomorrow

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Journalism internship program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explore the program:

About the Internship

How it Works



Staff and Speakers


Watchdog stokes debate over border crisis in Nebraska

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

immigrants NE watchdog story

The great relocation

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

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

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

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

Everyone’s talking about it

Deena Winters NE watchdog

Reporter Deena Winter

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

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

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

Joe Jordan NE watchdog

Bureau chief Joe Jordan

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

Dear taxpayers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uber, Lyft, and the regulations in between

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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