TrueTies Activist Demands Transparency Without Transparency
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner It is reprinted here with permission.
An Op-Ed appeared earlier this month on PBS MediaShift that seemed to describe a civic-minded endeavor aimed at increasing awareness of who on the nation’s editorial commentary pages was trying to influence public opinion.
“Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial ‘experts’ from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation’s newspapers,” wrote Gabe Elsner.
“What these readers don’t know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are ‘impartially’ writing about,” Elsner wrote.
Being the editor of the editorial page of a major American daily, I was struck by several things upon reading Eisner’s introduction. For one thing, his opening sentences set up a straw man by claiming that “authors of opinion pieces” claim to be writing “impartially.”
But authors appearing on opinion pages are by definition writing as advocates, not as impartial voices, so I had to wonder what Elsner was really up to.
Problem with Elsner’s Bio
My suspicions were heightened considerably when I read the tagline at the end of his piece where Op-Ed authors customarily describe themselves.
Elsner described himself as “a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates.”
Note the absence there of an organizational affiliation. A little further on in the tagline, Elsner said he “joined the “Checks and Balances Project,” but provided no identifying information about the organization, except to say that it exists “to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy.”
He also didn’t say that he is listed on the Checks and Balances Project as its deputy director.
Three days after his Op-Ed first appeared on MediaShift, Elsner responded to a comment noting his lack of transparency about himself by appending a longer tagline.
There he described himself as having led a group opposed to California’s Proposition 23, which he said “was funded by Big Oil companies.” He also listed other activities in which he supposedly led student lobbying efforts in California and Washington, D.C.
He also said the Checks and Balances Project is funded by “the New Venture Fund” and “several foundations.” Note the lack of names for the latter organizations.
Why the Ambiguity in His Ties?
What made all of this notable was that these verbal gymnastics about Elsner appeared in an Op-Ed in which he argued that opinion page editors should “ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest — and then tell readers about the conflicts.”
But if that’s what Elsner thinks, I wondered, why the ambiguity about his own ties? So I did some digging to learn more about him and the obscure Checks and Balances Project.
Turns out that the Checks and Balances Project is indeed funded by the New Venture Fund, but guess who funds the New Venture Fund? One of its funders is the Big Green power, the Sierra Club, which spends millions of dollars every year trying to stop oil and gas industry exploration, drilling and production across America.
Other grants to New Venture Fund came from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for “conservation and science,” the Wilburforce Foundation for “Responsible Trails America,” and the Azby Fund of New Orleans for “civic projects.”
One of the Packard grants was to “finance efforts to protect public lands on the Colorado Plateau threatened by oil and gas development and to provide support to tribal entities in their efforts to transition away from fossil fuels.”
Azby, incidentally, is a private foundation that receives millions of dollars in income from investments in energy companies, which is then given in grants mainly to local Louisiana charities, including numerous environmental groups like the Garden Conservancy.
As for the Wilburforce Foundation, it gives millions of dollars in annual grants to a veritable who’s who of Big Green activists groups large and small, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, Greenpeace and the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, among many, many others.
No stance on energy?
In other words, Elsner was writing on behalf of an organization — the Checks and Balances Project — that is a front group for anti oil and gas, pro Big Green environmental activism.
Interestingly, when the Columbia Journalism Review’s (CJR) Craig Silverman asked Elsner if his group has a stance on energy issues, his response was: “We don’t have a stance on energy policy.”
But that’s not all. The Checks and Balances Project established yet a third front group, TrueTies.org, to rally public support for greater transparency from authors like … Elsner about their financial support!
I’m thinking now that you won’t be surprised to learn that not a word appears on the TrueTies.org web site under its “About” entry regarding its funding.
Nor will you be surprised to know that the New Venture Fund acknowledges on its IRS 990 tax return to spending thousands of dollars on direct and indirect lobbying of government officials on environmental issues.
And it probably won’t raise your eyebrows a nanometer to discover that, according to CJR’s Silverman, among the directors of New Venture Fund is one P.J. Simmons, who was deputy chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative for energy and climate change.
Bottom line? Left-wing activist kettles like Elsner have no business calling right-wing advocate pots black.
I wonder if the 50 journalists — five of whom identified themselves with the Society for Professional Journalists — who signed a TrueTies.org letter to the New York Times endorsing the demand for Op-Ed page transparency were aware when they signed the letter of the hypocrisy behind the campaign or Elsner’s prevarication about his group’s stance on energy issues?
I’m guessing it wouldn’t make any difference if they did.
Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, where this post originally appeared. http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/10/lefty-activist-demands-oped-transparency