Progressive watchdog follows a double standard

As the friendly volunteers wearing Santa hats and ringing bells will tell you, it’s the holiday season and time to donate to your favorite charities and nonprofits. 

But all is not calm and bright: This year, one self-proclaimed “watchdog” called the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has launched attacks on a select group of nonprofits it deems unworthy of your trust. Unfortunately, CMD has failed to disclose its own biases and serious failings when it comes to transparency and honesty.

Through its Wikipedia-style website SourceWatch, CMD is proud to “expose” the nonprofits with a perceived conflict of interest. But if the absence of many left-leaning think tanks from SourceWatch’s exposés is any indication, undisclosed donations are only taboo if a nonprofit lacks the proper left-wing credentials.

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For example, CMD frowns on past links between free-market groups and the tobacco industry, and has an entire section dedicated to it on SourceWatch. But CMD's research conveniently omits an in-depth exploration of the substantial funding that the industry has given to advocacy groups affiliated with labor unions.

Beginning in the late 1980s and running through the mid-1990s, for instance, the tobacco industry’s trade association made annual payments to a labor union-backed think tank called the Economic Policy Institute. The Institute during that time released research consistent with the industry’s position on topics such as excise taxes.

But the Economic Policy Institute isn't mentioned in CMD’s tobacco industry profiles. Consistent with the rest of the website, organizations promoting free-market policies bear the brunt of the name-and-shame treatment.

This double standard is seen across CMD’s work. Rather than pointing fingers at the undisclosed donors of liberal organizations such as ProgressNow, CMD instead promotes their work. In one recent opinion piece, CMD director Lisa Graves even gushed about a report from “scholars at UC Berkeley” without mentioning that the report was actually a product of a labor-backed research outfit that has a who’s-who of union leaders on its board.

That's rich given that political donations from labor unions often come from compulsory union dues. Unlike the voluntary donations received by nonprofits, union members don’t have much choice on the causes supported by their leaders.

CMD is particularly critical of free-market organizations that receive a substantial percentage of their budgets through gifts from donor-advised funds. Such funds permit donors to recommend grants any time after making a charitable contribution to the fund. One of CMD’s favorite foes is DonorsTrust, which—unsurprisingly—is a fund that primarily donates to limited-government, free-enterprise organizations.

CMD writes breathlessly about the so-called “murky money maze” that donor-advised funds permit. But as WatchDog.org reported last week, CMD itself has received more than a half million dollars from the one of the country’s largest donor-advised funds.

In a recent interview with the Capital Times (WI), CMD executive director Graves argued that her organization's anonymous donations were acceptable because she herself wasn't aware of who the donor was. Even the reporter she was talking to questioned this claim -- how can the executive director of an organization be unaware of the origin of 30 percent of its budget? Graves offered to swear "on a stack of Bibles--or all religious texts" that she didn't know the origin of these donations. It's safe to say her own organization wouldn't accept a similar excuse from the groups it has targeted with smear campaigns.

CMD has every right to promote its own ideological viewpoint, and even to receive anonymous support from major left-wing interests and donor-advised funds. But it shouldn’t be described as an “independent watchdog” when it’s so transparently looking out for the interests of its own donor base and favored organizations--and receiving donations from the same anonymous sources it criticizes. 

No matter how tough or uncompromising your approach to policy advocacy, the spirit of the season calls us to demonstrate honesty and goodwill instead of hypocrisy and double-standards.

Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute. The institute is a nonprofit funded by a coalition of businesses, foundations, and individuals.