Pew’s Non-Neutrality

January 25, 2011 09:31

Remember when Pew and some of its friends got caught with their hands in the cookie jar a few years ago on the issue of campaign finance reform? Now “net neutrality,” another dubious “reform,” is in the news, and once again Pew is under fire.

Part 1

By Scott Walter, president, Campion Consulting

Remember when Pew and some of its friends got caught with their hands in the cookie jar a few years ago on the issue of campaign finance reform? Now “net neutrality,” another dubious “reform,” is in the news, and once again Pew is under fire.

In the earlier controversy, Sean Treglia, a former Pew staffer, explained to some journalists in 2004 at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism how Pew and seven other left-of-center foundations created a snowball of research, “grassroots” groups, and more, all in order to fool Congress and the courts into imagining that Americans believed they had too much freedom in political campaigns and a government crack-down was needed.

To refresh your memory, you can read Bill Schambra’s account for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Treglia, of course, was quite abashed when his speech became news and tried hard to backpedal.

‘Bloggers Not Journalists’

Appropriately for today’s net neutrality chapter of this old, old story, Treglia sneered at bloggers as he tried to cover his posterior: They are “not news journalists. To the contrary, they are nothing more than partisans engaged in an effort to discredit the campaign-finance movement.”

Got that? “News journalists” wouldn’t say such awful things (that’s true; none of the fine journalists who heard Treglia’s speech reported it), and the only “partisans” in existence are the persons who criticize the movement into which Treglia, the nonpartisan non pareil, poured tens of millions of Pew’s money, with the eventual result that two houses of Congress, a Republican President, and the U.S. Supreme Court allowed broad new legal restraints on political speech — restraints that conveniently bypass news journalists like Pew’s friends at the thoroughly nonpartisan New York Times and National Public Radio, whose freedoms are left untouched.

Now John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has put the spotlight on Pew & Co. again in “The Net Neutrality Coup.” Fund observes that many of the same left-of-center donors are trying to do to Internet speech what they did earlier to political speech. Pew president Rebecca Rimel quickly tried to brush off the charge, but the dispute won’t go away. It deserves attention precisely because of the larger issues it raises about a big and powerful part of the philanthropic sector.

Fund’s Case

1. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last month passed net neutrality rules on a partisan basis: 3 Democrat commissioners for, 2 Republican commissioners against.

2. There’s little evidence the public wants these rules, and the public’s representatives in Congress certainly don’t. Not only did a Democrat-controlled Congress not pass a net neutrality law last year, but opposition to it was bipartisan and will increase sharply in both parties in the newly elected Congress.

3. The President, however, has long supported net neutrality and has appointed a law school pal to head the FCC. The two men have met at least 11 times at the White House (as a former White House staffer, I assure you many agency heads never get one such meeting).

4. Net neutrality is the brainchild of Robert McChesney, a professor who co-founded the liberal lobby Free Press. He’s a self-described socialist who’s “hesitant to say I’m not a Marxist,” and he told SocialistProject that he has an incremental agenda whose “ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists.”

5. The Free Press’s press flack is now the FCC’s press flack, and another top FCC staffer co-authored a Free Press report that calls for stringent new regulations that will change the “imbalance” in talk radio. (And, the report adds, if those regs don’t make the media capitalist pigs toe the line, the swine must be slapped with a fee that will go straight to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “to cover controversial and political issues in a fair and balanced manner”!)

6. Free Press has been funded by “a network of liberal foundations that helped the lobby invent the purported problem that net neutrality is supposed to solve,” in a manner similar to the previous campaign-finance fairy tale on which Sean Treglia spilled the beans: “The idea,” as Treglia told his uninterested journalist audience, “was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot,” because “if Congress thought this was a Pew effort it’d be worthless.”

7. A Political Money Line study of campaign-finance reform found that eight liberal foundations were the source of $123 million of the $140 million spent from 1994-2004 to directly promote campaign-finance reform. Pew was the biggest donor, giving nearly 1 in every 3 dollars of the $123 million.

8. After the campaign-finance bill passed in 2002, several of the same foundations shifted to “media reform.” In 2003, Free Press was founded; it now has 40 staffers and a $4 million annual budget.

9. “Of the eight major foundations that provided the vast bulk of money for campaign-finance reform, six became major funders of the media-reform movement. (They are the Pew Charitable Trusts, Bill Moyers’s Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Joyce Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)”

10. A Free Press poll found little public desire for federal Internet regulations, so its pollsters manfully concocted an amusing guide to spinning the public on the issue.

11. In 2009 the FCC asked a Harvard research center to provide it with an “independent review of existing information” so the FCC could “lay the foundation for enlightened, data-driven decision making.” The report is here, and John Fund was too polite to quote this embarrassing gush over the work’s incestuous parents:
I am proud and grateful of the support we received from the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Both foundations were remarkably open and flexible in their willingness to receive and process our requests for funding in lightening speed, so as to allow us to respond to this highly time-sensitive request to support the FCC’s efforts, while maintaining complete independence from the agency.

Fund’s conclusion:

the “media reform” movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for. Now they have their policy. That’s quite a coup.

Pew’s Response

To Fund’s indictment, Pew’s Rimel had only a terse letter to the editor in reply. The Journal, my friends there assure me, printed it in full:

Regarding John Fund’s Dec. 22 op-ed, “The Net Neutrality Coup,” the Pew Charitable Trusts has not been a funder of an advocacy organization called Free Press. Pew has also never taken a position on so-called net neutrality, and has no intention of doing so.

Of course, that’s a straw man: Fund never said Pew had funded Free Press but that it had invested heavily in the broader “media reform” movement. (After Treglia’s speech gained notoriety, Pew pulled the same straw-man stunt by insisting it had not violated the laws on formal lobbying or on disclosing grantees. All true, but nobody claimed it had broken them.)

Fund’s argument is untouched by Rimel, and though he did not go into further detail in his article, Fund could easily have shown how Pew’s tentacles are entwined in the “media reform” movement.

For example, during the last decade, Pew gave millions of dollars to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and the like. Many of those millions were passed through the Tides Center, which is intriguing because Pew didn’t need a middle-man to fund its own projects and centers. (You’ll find more of these grants to Tides if you use than if you search Pew’s own database.)

No doubt Tides, which doesn’t pretend not to be left-wing, captured a healthy percentage of Pew’s millions as they passed through. And year after year the Tides Foundation also gave grants of varying size to, yes, Free Press (as high as $87,000 in 2007).

Tides also has as one of its “projects” the Center for Social Inclusion, which has done such useful things as publish “Broadband Equity Today,” a document that “applaud[s] the FCC’s efforts to develop a national plan to expand broadband access.”

Pew’s Free Press Popularity

Pew’s Internet Project has added its two cents with such things as a recent study on Internet use that industry observers at headlined, “New Pew Stats To Fuel Net Neutrality Fans.” Pew research certainly is popular with Free Press. Search their Web site for “Pew” and you’ll get hundreds of hits.

A glance at the Web site of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media finds that last year’s “Funder Conversation,” hosted by the not-quite-nonpartisan Open Society Institute, included a talk by Helen Brunner, director of the Media Democracy Fund, who “has also advised Ford, Pew, Andy Warhol, Quixote, Women Donors Network, Leeway, and other foundations in the areas of communications policy, independent media, freedom of expression, and the arts.”

The best evidence of Pew’s discreet relationships with net neutrality advocates comes from “Funding Media for Social Change,” a report from the MediaWorks Initiative designed “to document and quantify the need for increased strategic funding of progressive media.” It describes the Communication Policy Funders Network:

a newly-created list-serve organized to facilitate conversations among grant makers who have a shared interest in communications and media policy. The goal is to encourage more funding for media policy projects. Discussions focus on a broad range of policy, regulation and legislative issues, plus related telecommunications topics like spectrum management, internet privacy, and digital intellectual property rights. Organized by the Ford Foundation, this list has about 50 participants from diverse foundations including ARCA Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts….

In short, net neutrality has the loving support of one big happy nonpartisan family. Isn’t it nice that “news journalists” don’t bore the American public with all these purely coincidental connections?

Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I gave reasons to be dubious about the Pew Charitable Trusts’ claim that it is far above the political controversy that surrounds “net neutrality,” a nebulous notion whose thrust is that “media capitalists” endanger the Internet as we know it. Advocates of net neutrality want federal regulators to significantly expand their powers — notwithstanding a federal court’s decision that such an expansion is unlawful — and write new “rules of the road” governing the Internet and broadband providers.

I’d suggest media capitalists are not the only big, wealthy, influential folks that Americans should keep an eye on. Big foundations, for example, bear watching. They are more secure financially than any media empire (just ask AOL-Time Warner, whose now-failed merger was once supposed to threaten life as we know it). And far from the spotlights that scrutinize media empires, big foundations can quietly work to change laws and herd public opinion, as well as to seduce less cunning foundations into joining them.

As John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has shown, Pew and other left-of-center donors like the Ford and MacArthur Foundations who now push for net neutrality are the same donors who poured tens of millions of dollars into the Wizard-of-Oz mirage that achieved passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill.

Before the ink had dried on that bill, these funders began propping up “media reform” efforts (including net neutrality) in multiple arenas. This time, Pew directed most of its support into research projects rather than advocacy work, but as Part 1 explained, Pew and the gang were well connected in various ways, such as a Ford-led list-serve.

Of course, the mainstream media has done little to nothing to connect the dots among funders, activists, researchers, and government officials. Why should they? As Pew president Rebecca Rimel always assures us, Pew is nonpartisan and bipartisan; its support goes only to the most disinterested experts who can help the benighted rest of us see the world more clearly. And if that weren’t wonderful enough, Pew, Ford, and the rest also shower millions on journalism of the highest quality, like National Public Radio.

‘Pretense of Nonpartisanship’

You’d think that Rimel, or perhaps Susan Berresford (long-time president of the Ford Foundation, now retired) is the model for the classic statue Lady Justice: noble of brow, blind-folded, and holding out golden scales that are perfectly balanced from left to right. In reality, that left scale has a few thumbs on it, pressing with the weight of billions of dollars.

Yet the pretense of nonpartisanship, expert wisdom, good government, and objective journalism still works its Oz magic on many. The best-paid – pardon me, “most respected” – media will report any research put forth under these auspices as if it descended from Mount Olympus.

A spell is also woven for other, less prominent donors who can be induced to enter the funding stream. That’s why you are not likely to hear someone at, say, a Council on Foundations meeting ever argue against net neutrality or campaign-finance reform from the Right.

For evidence on the last point, consider the Web site of Grantmakers for Film + Electronic Media (GFEM), an affinity group sponsored by the Council on Foundations, which is dominated by the likes of Ford, MacArthur, et al. Type “net neutrality” into its home page and you’ll pull up a number of articles, all carefully selected. While one of the first dozen or so documents actually comes from a conservative source, the Christian Coalition, that piece argues in favor of net neutrality. Any grantmaker seeking an education on the topic is carefully protected from sustained criticism of net neutrality from the conservative side of the aisle. GFEM only offers sources of information that run the gamut from the polite Left to the angry Left. The angrier the source, the more it complains that the FCC’s latest net neutrality policy should be far more extreme.

Media Democracy Fund

Want further proof of the way a few big donors — who feign pristine indifference to politics and partisanship — herd potential donors in the direction of non-neutrality? Check out GFEM’s donors-only conference call on net neutrality scheduled for January 27. While you keep Lady Justice in mind, look at the wonders of nonpartisan expertise involved in this call. Are you a foundation staffer unsure what net neutrality is about? They’ve got you covered: “To learn more about how communications policies like net neutrality may impact your foundation’s issues, see:”

What’s the Media Democracy Fund? Well, first, it’s the co-sponsor of this GFEM conference call. It’s also not exactly neutral on the issue of net neutrality but rather a pillar of the media reform movement. Its “funding partners” include, naturally, the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and other leading lights of the Left. Its “thought leader” is Helen Brunner, who you’ll recall from Part 1 has advised “the Ford, Pew, Andy Warhol, and Quixote Foundations” on media reform.

Leading the conference call will be Jack Rosenthal and Gigi Sohn. Rosenthal currently hails from The Atlantic Philanthropies, having come from the New York Times Foundation. He works under Atlantic’s president, Gara La Marche, who came from the Open Society Institute. Ms. Sohn is president of Public Knowledge, “a Washington DC based public interest group working to defend your rights in the emerging digital culture.” Sohn is a Huffington Post blogger who previously worked at the Ford Foundation, where she “oversaw grantmaking for the Foundation’s first-ever media policy and technology portfolio.” (Her current organization, funded by Ford, MacArthur, and Open Society, makes no pretense of neutrality on net neutrality: “Public Knowledge supports enforceable Net Neutrality regulation and a neutral Internet”; nor does she hide her close connections to powerful Democrats in Congress making tech policy.)

As you see, at Grantmakers for Film + Electronic Media it is indeed a small world after all. In fact, it’s possible that nearly everyone who speaks on this conference call will have received money, either as a staffer or grantee, from the Ford Foundation or the Open Society Institute. (The odds a registered Republican will speak? Infinitesimal.)
Some observers may feel a tad squeamish at the thought that America’s laws governing the Internet may be shaped by a group so sorely lacking in diversity.

Personally, I don’t doubt that things as complicated as the Internet and the broadband industry will operate imperfectly in countless ways. But one of the greatest virtues of a free civil society — as opposed to cabals of the moneyed and the office-holding — is that citizens and private groups, including “media capitalists,” can criticize others’ imperfections and create new and better ways of doing things without government bureaucrats silencing them.
Want real media reform? Then let a billion electrons bloom.

Scott Walter ( is president of Campion Consulting, a philanthropic consulting firm for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged. Reprinted by permission from Philanthropy Daily,

See more articles by Scott Walter, president, Campion Consulting

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