Heartland Institute Response to Free Press, Huffington Post Charges

Published August 20, 2009

Timothy Karr, campaign director of the deceptively named “media reform” group Free Press — deceptive because their version of “free” means giving the state more power to control the Internet — thinks he has it all figured out. Free Press created a cute, interactive widget to illustrate how “astroturf” groups have undue influence over Internet policy in America. As Karr makes clear in his August 2009 cross-post at The Huffington Post, one of those “phony” grassroots organizations pulling the strings in Washington is The Heartland Institute.

Please. If Heartland could play “puppet master” in Washington, things would be quite different in this country. For starters, parents with the freedom to choose their public schools would be improving the dreadful government monopoly in primary education, junk science would not be used to set economically ruinous environmental policy, market forces would be unleashed to lower health care costs and improve services, and federal regulators would not be poised to strangle the vibrant Internet we now take for granted.

Our only mission here is to raise the banner of liberty. We labor to remind Americans that market-based solutions to public policy questions are not only more efficient than government-directed schemes, but also have the virtue of preserving the freedom of the individual. The fact that leftist groups like Free Press have put a target on our back is actually encouraging. They’d be ignoring us if we were not presenting strong arguments that threaten their aims of more government control of the Internet.

There’s much in Karr’s piece that grates, but his preening tag line is especially irritating:

Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the national, not-for-profit media reform group. Free Press accepts no money from industry, industry groups, political parties or government.

Right. Free Press takes no money from any industry groups or any members of the technology industry (more on that nonsense below). We’re supposed to believe that thousands of individuals bust open their piggy banks and send the coins to Free Press’s offices … or something. Maybe a money tree Free Press grows in the garden between its unicorn pen and the jungle gym for leprechauns finance its $4 million annual budget.

It’s hard to say for sure because when you look at the group’s 990 forms to the IRS, the names of the donors are redacted. On the top of every page of contributors on Free Press’ 2007 forms is a hand-written note: “Not open to public inspection.”

Redacting the names of individual donors is an entirely legal and common practice among nonprofit groups, including The Heartland Institute — which started doing so reluctantly. But considering Free Press also keeps secret the names of its donors, it is the height of hypocrisy for Karr to write this:

$incerity vs. Sincerity

The Heartland Institute, in particular, is a poster child for deception. This coin-operated “think tank” specializes in aping industry talking points to downplay global warming, oppose health care reform and attack Net Neutrality. Its Fortune 500 clients include Philip Morris USA, the ExxonMobil Corporation and major telecommunications companies.

When asked to report the sources of its funding, Heartland President Joseph L Bast demures: Heartland “now keeps confidential the identities of all our donors” because revealing it would give fodder to those who want to “abuse a sincere effort at transparency.”

Like the others, the Heartland Institute seems to think a lack of transparency gives more credence to their arguments, when in fact, it simply demonstrates what more people are coming to realize: Astroturf has no place in politics.

A healthy 21st-century democracy doesn’t need phony front groups. We need openness, accountability and real debate. And we need to know whom we’re talking to — and who’s talking to us.

Since Karr asked, no more than 5 percent of Heartland’s annual budget consists of donations from any single corporation. Our research fellows, writers and editors work independently from Heartland’s fundraising team. And I can vouch from personal experience that Heartland writers often publish copy at odds with the public policy desires of Heartland’s corporate and individual donors. The Heartland Institute has been advocating liberty and free markets for 25 years — and our mission to advance those principles is compromised for no donor.

So, “who’s talking to us” through Free Press? The major donors listed in its latest annual report are a veritable “who’s who” of left-wing organizations, such as the Tides Foundation (Teresa Heinz Kerry), the Streisand Foundation (Barbra Streisand), and the Open Society Foundation (George Soros, the Daddy Warbucks of the Left).

Now, there’s nothing objectionable about these deep-pocketed lefty donors deciding to help fund a like-minded group such as Free Press. But let’s stop pretending Free Press is some kind of “sincere” expression of the “public interest.” By Karr’s standard, Free Press is an “astroturf” peddler for these leftist organizations.

What about Free Press’s claim it is clean of the “nefarious” corporate dollar? That’s not true, either. Putting aside the fact that corporations donate to the foundations that send money to Free Press, among the direct donors to the group is a long-distance, credit card and mobile phone company called Working Assets. According to the company’s “about us” Web page:

Each time you use one of our services — CREDO Mobile, CREDO Long Distance or the Working Assets Credit Card — we automatically send a donation to nonprofit groups working for peace, equality, human rights and the environment.

To date, says Working Assets, “we’ve raised over $60 million for progressive causes.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with this — except for the sanctimonious nonsense that Free Press is not “soiled” with money from telecommunications companies pushing an agenda.

We here at The Heartland Institute are working to protect liberty on the Internet by arguing against the loopy idea that allowing the government more control over it best preserves “freedom.” The irony is that statist groups like Free Press have a great advantage. For starters, they’ve established the misleading terms of the debate.

The issue of “net neutrality” is virtually unknown to the public, and too complicated for many people to get their heads around. The term sounds harmless enough, and an ordinary person would think being against “neutrality” is strange, if not somehow wrong. But advocates of net neutrality want to replace a flexible and responsive free-market system for managing the immensely complex Internet with government planners in Washington. There’s nothing “free” or “open” about such a scheme. In fact, it would work against a proper understanding of the “public interest.”

Yet despite groups such as Free Press having the ear and sympathy of all the power players in Washington — from the majority of the Federal Communications Commission, to the chairmen of relevant committees in Congress, and even the president himself — they are obviously a bit scared.

Maybe that’s why Karr also laments how Heartland and its allies “fool members of the media into putting them on the air?” For an outfit called “Free Press,” that sure is a strange and chilling statement. If you can’t win the argument, you argue that your opponents should not be able to speak at all.

But The Heartland Institute still can speak, and will not be bullied into silence.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.