Journalism

Right-Wing Think Tanks Discover “Investigative Reporting”

There's a fascinating story in the new Washington Monthly by Laura McGann about the new wave of highly partisan “investigative reporting” on the right.

Sometimes, as she points out, these efforts produce strong, legitimate muckraking work, as the libertarian Nevada Policy Research Institute did in 2008, when it hired New York Timescontributor John Dougherty to look into corrupt practices at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a ripe target. He found lax accounting and shoddy oversight — findings triggered new forms of oversight.

But in other cases, the results have been more questionable. The Nevada Policy Research Institute ended up helping organize a new nonprofit, the Franklin Center, which was created to train right-wing think tanks in investigative techniques and to support nonprofit news sites. After dipping his toe in there for awhile, Dougherty threw in the towel, telling McGann it was “hatchet journalism,” not journalism in the public interest.

One of the Franklin Center–funded sites, the New Mexico Watchdog, reported last fall that it had discovered $6.4 billion in stimulus dollars going to phantom Congressional districts, news that spread to ABC and Colbert.

The only problem: the story was, at best, misleading. In a “fact check” feature on Watchdog’s scoop, the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo took the step that the Watchdog reporters had not: he checked to see what was happening to the money. As it turns out, the funds were going exactly where they were supposed to go, not vanishing into black holes as the Watchdog sites had implied. The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database. [...] This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy.

Now, we've occasionally been queried at The Investigative Fund about whether we have a partisan slant, given our historic ties to The Nation magazine, something we hope is disproved by our tough probes of Democrats like Hillary Clinton (here, here, and here) or theteam in Albany or major Democrat donors like the Resnicks, not to mention our careful deconstructions of liberal projects like carbon offsets. But of course investigative tools, like any others, can be used in tandem with journalistic ethics and a commitment to uncovering the truth — or, as McGann points out, they can merely be opposition research disguised as journalism.

Especially after those “investigative” stings on ACORN, whose allegations of encouraging prostitution turned out to be mainly the result of creative video editing and yet managed tobankrupt the organization, I find this new right-wing craze for investigations significant.

About the reporter

Esther Kaplan

Esther Kaplan

Esther Kaplan is a radio and print journalist and editor of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. She has written for The Nation, The American Prospect, In These Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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