As dark money pours into a conservative infiltration of traditionally liberal mainstream media, “Who among us is without bias?”
By C.S. Hagen
FARGO – Working from inside a taffy shop in Medora a little-known conservative nonprofit quickly rose to the national frontline by infiltrating statehouses with trained and like minded journalists.
The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, part brainchild of former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party, Jason Stverak, was registered in North Dakota during a record-setting blizzard on January 13, 2009 with one main goal: to “perform outreach to the United States’ new media to train and collaborate with those online journalists who are seeking to shine a bright light on the various state and local governments around the country,” according to the Franklin Center’s 2015 Internal Revenue Service filings.
The infiltration began long before the recent far-right’s wolf cries against liberal “fake news,” time enough to begin manipulating and financing conservative attacks on labor unions, climate scientists, public schools, and economic regulations. For eight years, the Franklin Center’s lengthening arm has reached into kindergartens and high schools through the Walton Family Foundation, a major funder of charter schools, and into state capitols, becoming at times mainstream media’s unfiltered voice of favored politicians.
For conservatives, organizations like the Franklin Center are simply trying to “balance the scales” from a left-of-center media domination; for liberals, the strategic placement promotes bias.
The Franklin Center shrewdly took advantage of a gap, which started in 2001 when cash-strapped news agencies began firing journalists due to a decline in circulations, and it began to “directly address that gap in state-capitol reporting,” according to 2015 IRS filings. The Franklin Center’s aim was to become a watchdog for government waste, fraud, and abuse in state and local governments. Today, the Franklin Center, a nonprofit, helps deliver news free to local newspapers in more than 40 states, including North Dakota, and claims to be the source of 10 percent of all state news in the United States.
According to 2011 IRS tax filings, the Franklin Center assigned letters or numbers to each contributor to protect anonymity. Realizing that the “press could be the strongest asset of those hoping to found a new nation,” the Franklin Center provided support for “several state-based organizations to establish news organization to provide original news content.”
With its principal office in Alexandria, Virginia, and an address now registered inside Bismarck’s Dakota Community Bank, the Franklin Center is listed as a tax-exempt corporation by the IRS, and receives much of its funding from Donors Trust and its sister, Donors Capital Fund, right wing conservative foundations that funnel anonymously-contributed funds, known as “dark money” to a vast network of think tanks and media outlets, the Center for Public Integrity reported. Both charities are funded in part by the DeVose family, the Koch brothers and the Bradley family, which have ties to the far right-wing John Birch Society.
Donors Trust is a charitable organization promising anonymity and non-divergence from the organization’s goals to support conservative agendas, according to its website. Since 2004, Donors Trust has solicited more than $412,270,052 in funds, according to the IRS.
The Franklin Center’s mouthpiece, Watchdog.org, reports it is a nonpartisan news organization, but receives nearly 95 percent of its funding from the Franklin Center, according to the IRS.
Stverak’s motto on his Facebook fan page is, “One man with a laptop and a wireless card is more powerful than the New York Times.” The page has seen little action since 2014, after he became Cramer’s director of communications. In 2008, Stverak was with the Sam Adams Alliance, a political activist group that helped setup the Franklin Center. He is currently listed as the founder of Haym Salomon Center and a lobbyist for the Christians United for Israel Action Fund, according to his LinkedIn page. Stverak did not reply to requests for comment.
Starting with a budget of zero dollars, the Franklin Center’s budget jumped to $2.4 million within a year, according to IRS filings. From 2011 until 2015, the Franklin Center solicited a total of $45,129,491 for the express purpose of supporting news outlets such as Watchdog.org and fund individual reporters to push conservative agendas through the media such as the Say Anything Blog, according to Source Watch and Media Matters. The Say Anything Blog is now owned by the Forum Communications Company and edited by Rob Port.
“They’re wrong, but they’re not terribly credible sources” Port said.
Port is the founder of Say Anything Blog, and was formerly a Watchdog.org reporter, simultaneously writing for Say Anything Blog. Port sees the conservative responses to a predominantly liberal media as an attempt at balance. Nearly half the nation votes Republican, and the media has underrepresented them, Port said.
“The Franklin Center comes up and suddenly they’re evil. The Franklin Center is a manifestation of a sort of polarization that already happened,” Port said. “Where there is demand there will be supply, and I think outlets like talk radio, blogging, and nonprofits like the Franklin Center are serving the demand for something the people aren’t getting.”
The Franklin Center holds “several training sessions throughout the year, equipping our reporters with strategies and tactics uniquely suited to their mission and reporting efforts,” according to the center’s 2011 IRS filings. Currently, the Franklin Center has 14 listed reporters with Watchdog.org, six communications directors, four people in leadership roles, and two in development working for Watchdog.org, according to its website.
In 2014, the Franklin Center received $205,000 for K-12 education grants by the Walton Family Foundation, according to the Walton Family Foundation website. The Walton family also despises unions, and it spends heavily to promote charter schools and legislation to allow federal funds into private schools, according to Mercedes Schneider, author of “School Choice: The End of Public Education?” The family’s retail chain, Walmart, has been cited for violating child labor laws and for bribing Mexican officials to speed up building permits. Furthermore, the Walton family has employed prison labor to grow produce, and though it operates 4,000 stores across the USA, its employees must rely on public programs for health care coverage, Schneider reported.
The Franklin Center is also a sponsor of the Koch Industries-funded ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate bill mill where corporations hand state legislators their wishlists, according to Source Watch and Conservative Transparency.
“There’s a lot of mythology about this, but usually when people talk about this it is evil money, Koch brothers’ money,” Port said. “A lot of people who make a statement that the Koch brothers funded it, so what? George Soros funded it, so what? I don’t see a problem with people putting more information out.”
Where many look at the media today and see polarization, Port sees pragmatism.
“There never was unbiased journalism,” Port said. “Who among us is without bias?”
Agencies like the Franklin Center and Watchdog.org are reinforcing their journalists with bias, and conservatives and liberals alike are guilty of similar tactics, according to C.T. Hanson, professor of communication and journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
“It is an ethics issue, and I think it’s a little like using social media for your source of news, there’s no filtering and that’s the problem, if you train people to look at one side of things, or have a bias, then it impacts the information you share with the general public,” Hanson said.
“And it’s getting worse in terms of having objective truths surface because not only do we have biased reporters but the public is taking sides in terms of media consumption. So we only tune in or we only read publications that fit our mindset, which is a natural thing. You look for information that confirms your beliefs and values and you shy away from the things that seem contrary to what you believe or value.
“It certainly does get in the way of the truth being told.”
The North Dakota Watchdog Network is not associated with the Franklin Center’s Watchdogs. “We are completely independent, 100 percent in-state funded,” founder of the North Dakota Watchdog Network Dustin Gawrylow said. The North Dakota Watchdog Network doesn’t try to hide the fact that it has a conservative agenda.
“The Franklin Center tries to give the pure journalism perception, even though everybody knows they’re not,” Gawrylow said. “I don’t try to give that perception. My model is not similar to theirs.”
The North Dakota Watchdog Network started out as the Koch Industries’ supported North Dakota Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which ended in 2008, he then started the North Dakota Taxpayers Association.
“We’ve always been the conservatives pushing Republicans in the right direction, wrapped around general transparency and good government,” Gawrylow said. “As long as Republicans are pushing for less government and Democrats are pushing for good government, we will have a better product in the end. Unfortunately, more times than not neither none of those things happen. It’s everybody for themselves, and everyone wants to run their own empire.”
In 2012, he went after Congressman Rick Berg, criticizing his use of taxpayer-funded “slick campaign” mailers sent to state residents during his campaign for a Senate seat. The controversy created difficulties, and he later started the North Dakota Watchdog Network.
He tried to obtain sponsorship from the Franklin Center, but “it never went any farther than one discussion. We’ve never really reached out to national money, I run a pretty bare bones operation the way it is.” He is in contact with the Franklin Center and other similar organizations, Gawrylow said.
Eighty percent of Gawrylow’s network donors are mainstream Republicans in North Dakota, the rest are independent or Libertarian, he said.
The North Dakota Watchdog Network raised $44,957 in 2015 and $71,236 in 2014, according to the IRS. Funds were spread across the state with at least $43,189 going toward publications, and $63,209 toward professional fees, according to the IRS. In 2015 the North Dakota Watchdog Network overspent, eating most of the previous year’s balance of $17,691.
Gawrylow, of Bismarck, is not a Trump fan, nor did he climb onto the Obama bandwagon. He is frequently interviewed on radio and television news stations. Gawrylow’s articles are published in publications such as the Grand Forks Herald, Say Anything Blog, and the The Dickinson Press, all of which are owned by the Forum Communications Company.
The conservative fascination with infiltrating the media was in part a response to the left’s domination in the press, he said.
“Conservatives are always slow to react to technology or structural changes,” he said. Gawrylow is one part lobbyist, or “anti-lobbyist” as he frequently fights lobbyists, one part journalist, and one part activist, who has managed campaigns, participated in legislative races, and writes — unabashedly — about issues in the state reflecting his political views.
He mixes politics and journalism because he doesn’t claim to be a journalist first. “People know I have an agenda, people know I have my own goals, and instead of being a journalist with an agenda, I try to have an agenda that uses journalism.
As a conservative, he rarely sees a conversation including both sides to an issue in any publication in North Dakota. Media outlets belonging to the Fargo Communications Company pay homage to the establishment on both sides, but not to those outside the aisle, Gawrylow said, and the result is a media war further polarizing the differences between conservatives and liberals, and between intellectuals and anti-intellectuals.
“If you’re the underdog conservative willing to speak out against the establishment Republicans, you get the cold shoulder by the conservative media and the liberal media will let you have as much time as you can possibly use. It’s very shocking, and that’s the way our media works here in this state.”
The Fargo Communications Company owns 30 newspapers, one monthly magazine, 20 shopping and three agricultural publications, radio station WDAY-AM970, and four television stations all affiliated with the ABC Network, according to its website.
Gawrylow and a listed officer of the North Dakota Watchdog Network, Duane Sand, who has frequently run for government office in North Dakota, are also listed in 2015 as registered lobbyists for Independent Water Providers, water pumping services sold to oil frakking companies, according to the Secretary of State of North Dakota. Sand is also listed as a lobbyist in 2016, and Gawrylow is listed as a registered lobbyist for the North Dakota Watchdog Network in 2017.
The Franklin Center’s Watchdogs operate in North Dakota and across the United States through Watchdog.org, according to media outlet Mother Jones and the Center for Public Integrity. In 2011, Donors Trust helped the Franklin Center expand state-based reporting projects in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Virginia, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
“They [Franklin Center] were an organization and somebody who wanted to promote state-based reporting,” Port said. “I was already doing that and I did some of it for them. They weren’t hiding the fact that they were a free market oriented organization. Most of the people who worked there were people who worked in journalism, but absolutely, there was an ideology present, they felt they were right of center at the very least.”
Port started blogging in 2003, and began writing as a type of journal. He’s a college dropout, once worked with his father as a private investigator primarily investigating insurance fraud, and also spent time working for the Scott Hennen Show, he said.
He has tried inviting liberals onto his show and to write for Say Anything Blog, but he’s mostly ignored, Port said. “The North Dakota Democratic Party won’t send me press releases. They try to pretend I don’t exist. The left in this state works to ‘othering,’ I think that’s the word for it. I’m the ‘other.’ I’m the boogeyman, and they don’t want to engage me.”
Port frequently publishes articles from Gawrylow on Say Anything Blog. He also has worked with former president and CEO of Freedom Force Communications LLC Scott Hennen, who hosts the far-right Scott Hennen Show on AM1100 “The Flag” and FM106.9 “The Eagle,” both conservative radio programs that broadcasted one-sided interviews and cast long, dark shadows across the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy in 2016.
Port once worked for Stverak with Watchdog North Dakota Bureau, where he won “Watchdog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and Americans for Prosperity Award for Online Excellence” in 2011. Between Watchdog.org work and the Fargo Forum, Port detoured and wrote for HPR Magazine as a columnist. His articles through Say Anything Blog are published in newspapers including the Fargo Forum, River Falls Journal in Wisconsin, The Pioneer, West Fargo Journal, Duluth News Tribune, the Jamestown Sun, all of which fall under the Forum Communications Company’s widening umbrella.
Owned by the Marcil-Black family and run by William Marcil Jr., the Forum Communications Company has opened a port for unprecedented access to right-wing politicians such as Cramer to voice opinions and propaganda — unfiltered, unedited — through Say Anything Blog, which self advertises as “North Dakota’s Most Popular and Influential Political Blog.”
It could be argued that, through its outlets, Forum Communications Company is passing on biased information funded by right wing advocacy groups with ties to the John Birch Society, listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “occasionally” anti-Semitic conspiracy-theorist “political third rail” once exiled from America’s political halls, but now slowly climbing back.
“Adding Rob was 100 percent business decision,” Marcil said. “We watched him grow his audience over the years and become successful. The fact that he is right leaning is a bonus. Our stable of columnists are not conservative.” Some of the Forum Communications Company’s columnists include Mike McFeely, Winona LaDuke, Jim Shaw, Joel Heitkamp, and Amy Klobuchar, Marcil said.
“None of them are darlings of the Republican Party. In my position I find it interesting that when a person reads their paper they search out what they believe. Liberals like to tell themselves and me the the paper is conservative. The exact opposite for conservatives. Honestly, I would love to have some more conservative columnists.”
And as if Cramer’s sway with much of North Dakota’s press wasn’t enough, in early April Cramer sent letters to news broadcast companies with questions pertaining to bias. He focused on executives at NBC Universal, ABC, and CBS, arguing that the use of public broadcast resources justifies his interest in the issue, according to news reports. In November, 2016, Cramer announced intentions to call for hearings pertaining to media bias.
A discussion held by the Northern Plains Ethics Institute was held late March to discuss “fake news” and journalism ethics. Among those included in the discussion were two WDAY anchors, Fargo Forum editors, Hennen, WDAY talk-show hosts, and North Dakota State University professors.
The panel met at the NDSU Alumni Center to discuss issues including the polarization of the news media and its effects on “fake news” with little success, except to point out that there are dangers when readers are unable to separate fact from fiction.
The left side of the political aisle is not blameless, and claims its own share of manipulating the news since the 1960s. Online news organizations such as ProPublica and Democracy Now! are openly liberal websites attracting readers who naturally agree with their points of view, just as some conservatives click toward websites such as the “alt-right” Breitbart.
A difference between left and right is that organizations such as the Tides Foundation, established in 1976, and its “legal firewall” the Tides Center, aren’t as tight lipped about contributors, and have not been actively inserting like-minded journalists into mainstream media, instead, the organization invests in movies, supports activism, and in some cases issues donations to online media platforms.
The Donors Trust’s antithesis, the Tides Foundation, supported in part by billionaire George Soros, is listed as a charitable organization by the IRS, soliciting funds in excess of $405,017,500 since 2013. The Tides Foundation’s primary purpose is grant making and to “empower individuals and institutions to move money efficiently and effectively towards positive social change.” The organization also focuses on education, environment, civil rights, relief services, the environment, media, human rights, LGBT rights, and youth development, according to its 2014 IRS filings.
Other issues the Tides Foundation rallies behind are gun control, abolition of the death penalty, and anti-war movements, and it is funded in part by the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, according to its website.
One controversy the Tides Foundation was involved with was its support of news or fact checker organizations, with a more than $4 million donation to Media Matters, and a $2 million donation to Wikipedia. Media Matters, launched in 2004, is a nonprofit research and information center “dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in U.S. media,” according to its website. It monitors print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets, and issues “rapid response” articles and alerts activists, journalists, and the public about misinformation.
Another controversy is the Tides Foundation’s relationship with non-profit activist groups organized by billionaire George Soros, and the “Shadow Party,” which is comprised of hundreds of political committees to funnel “soft money” into Democratic Party endeavors.
Right wing conservatives believe organization like the Tides Foundation are seeking to destroy the American way of life by moving the country’s constitutional foundation to a European-styled socialism.
The Tides Foundation was registered in Bismarck on March 27, 2002 as a foreign nonprofit corporation, according to the Secretary of State North Dakota. Its principal office is in San Francisco, and its business scope is listed as grant making.
One way to reverse the polarization in the media is to offer better salaries to reporters, Gawrylow said.
“I don’t know how you reverse the partisan media situation, because you can’t do it with state funding because you’re a propaganda machine,” Gawrylow said. “Everything is ratings and sales oriented, but it’s not for the right reasons, not for the old “20/20” investigative journalism with the hidden camera.
“The only way you can get back to it is, number one, reporters have to make more money.”
You get what you pay for, Gawrylow said, and North Dakota rarely retains its talented writers. Many television station personalities hold little more than internships, and in 2006, he applied for a $23,000 full time job as a political reporter, a sum, he said, which would not have been enough to keep him interested for long.
“When people complain about the lazy journalists and liberal journalists with an agenda, they’re not paid enough to care,” Gawrylow said. “You don’t get quality, and if you’re only here for six months, you’re not making connections.”
Port never expected anyone to initially read his blog, he said. Now, as a political columnist for the Fargo Forum, he doesn’t see a problem with offering an information highway to North Dakota’s conservative politicians.
“Maybe that’s because I’m a Republican and they see me as a friendly face. Fine. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Social media, Port believes, is one of the main reasons for the widening gap between left and right in the press. Facebook algorithms allow the user to see what they want to see, not opposing ideologies. North Dakota Democrats have fallen for that snare, he said.
“They’re all just talking to themselves,” Port said. “The only people they’re reaching are the people who already agree with them. They’re not changing anyone’s mind. Maybe if we had more voices like mine in the ‘traditional media’ it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Hanson doesn’t read Say Anything Blog, because it’s heavily biased, he said. “I don’t think it’s accurate. I feel he has an axe to grind, and it’s not objective reporting so why waste my time with it.”
He also believes that social media is exacerbating the polarization of political reporting.
“North Dakota is politically a very conservative state and not terribly receptive to new ideas or change,” Hanson said. “Look at the state legislature in Bismarck, and it’s pretty dark. If you don’t know the background, or the kinds of trails they’ve been traveling and the connections, you can easily get mislead.”