Last week David Bernstein noted the ringing dismissal of the judicial ethics complaint that had been lodged against Judge Danny Boggs for attending judicial education seminars. Monday, the Washington Times ran this column by Robert Huberty of Capital Research on the same issue, "Why Press Gets 'Bad Press.'" Huberty writes:
The Capital Research Center is a nonprofit organization that studies other nonprofits. We are familiar with both the Community Rights Counsel and FREE and with the games some journalists play: using the "funding" issue to discredit one organization, while ignoring the financing of others.
All this raises serious questions at the heart of the media's problems. For example, what is the accepted media definition of "corporate-financed" and when and why is the term used?
The Urban League, NAACP, Council on Foreign Relations, Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, and National Council of La Raza (among others) all have received hundreds of thousands of dollars — in some cases, millions — from U.S. corporations. Among environmental organizations, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (among others) receive corporate support — including money from companies vilified by the media as "anti-environment."
Yet, of all the organizations I named, only FREE is identified as "corporate-financed." Why?
If facts really matter, FREE openly provides details about its funding. Of the $896,000 it raised last year, 78 percent came from foundations and individuals; just 22 percent from corporations. More important, no corporate money — and no foundation money with corporate ties — is ever used for its legal seminars, which (for the record) are cosponsored by Montana State University. This information is readily available on the organization's Web site ( www.free-eco.org). All a reporter has to do is look.
And how about the motives and financing of the organization complaining about FREE's seminars: the Community Rights Counsel. Should that be part of the story? Some readers might find it interesting, for example, that the organization receives major funding from George Soros.
FREE is transparent about its funding sources, listing on its website, its major donors and the amounts they contribute, both corporate and foundation. On the front page of FREE's website, there is a link for "funding," which takes you to a page that breaks out FREE's funding sources.
The Community Rights Counsel (CRC) , the complainants in the ethics complaint, does not disclose its funding sources or amounts up-front on its web site. It does provide a list of its financial supporters (not amounts) inside two of its publications, here and here). It states that it "receives a very small percentage of its funding from a small number of individual donors; it has never taken money from a corporation or a corporate foundation." As Huberty notes, Geroge Soros's Open Society Institute is disclosed as providing funding for the latter report.
Huberty states that "some readers" might find that last bit of information "interesting." Personally, I do not--I don't really see as very relevant the ideological predispositions of a donor foundation, or the guilt by association of linking one organization to others that a given foundation may support. Given the variety of philanthropic foundations out there and the variety of programs that they support, it seems inappropriate and unreasonable to draw inferences about the receiving organization from the ideological predispositions of the donor foundation (or the other organizations that the foundation supports). Randy commented on this awhile back in the context of gun research, and I think his views are pretty close to mine as to what the rules should be.
On the other hand, CRC seems to agree with Huberty and disagree with my view about the relevance of this sort of information. In its ethics complaint complaint against Judge Boggs, it charges:
FREE's funding comes almost entirely from corporations, corporate-controlled foundations, and a collection of highly-ideological foundations, including Sarah Scaife Foundation (run by Richard Mellon Scaife), Charles Koch Foundation and Claude Lambe Foundation (both controlled by Charles Koch and other employees of Koch Industries) and Castlerock Foundation (run by the Coors family of Coors Inc.).... Almost all of FREE's foundation funders also finance other organizations, such as the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), that bring environmental litigation in federal court. FREE's funders also share the same perspective on federal environmental protections: either for pecuniary or ideological reasons, FREE's funders desire judicial rulings that limit or cut back on environmental protection. (emphasis added).
Leaving aside the specific of the Boggs complaint, Huberty's larger point is important as well. As he notes, the term "corporate-funded" is a term of aspersion which some see as relevant only in some contexts. For instance, Enron in its heyday was a major supporter of the Kyoto Protocol and was widely praised by leading environmental organizations for its positions on environmental issues. Enron, of course, was not an oil or coal company, but rather, made its money off natural gas and alternative energy; thus, it is not surprising that it threw its lobbying efforts behind a treaty designed to reduce the use of rival fuels and increase demand for Enron's products. Leading environmental groups went so far as to lobby for tax breaks that had the effect of directly subsidized Enron's alternative energy programs.
Moreover, as I noted in a law review article a few years ago (73 Tulane L. Rev. 845 (1999)), these sorts of rent-sharing arrangements between industry and environmental groups are quite common:
The presence of these "gains to trade" politics may explain the otherwise puzzling financial support of industry for environmental interest groups. For instance, in recent years members of the waste treatment industry have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of various environmental advocacy groups, including the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. Indeed, the Sierra Club has recognized that "the commercial waste industry has an interest in improving regulations sufficiently to drive mom-and-pop operations out of business." Of course, the waste treatment industry also is aware of these potential gains to trade. Oil companies, including Atlantic Richfield and Chevron, contribute to environmental groups such as the National Audubon Society, who lobby to restrict opening new areas for drilling, thereby keeping new supplies off the market. As these examples illustrate, there are ample gains to trade between environmentalists and polluting industries, and they are usually exploited.
So, when environmental groups take positions consistent with the financial interests of their corporate donors, and support policies that subsidize their donors (such as tax breaks), or injure their competitors (small commercial waste companies), or assist them in foreclosing competition and raising prices (such as restrictions on oil drilling), why wouldn't it be relevant that these groups too are "corporate funded"?
[Like David, I too have participated in FREE programs, having lectured at the program on "Understanding the Ecology, Economics, and Ethics of Climate Change" in July 2002. Also on the faculty were Michael E. Schlesinger, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at University of Illinois, a leading expert on the science of climate change, Rob Mendehlson of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Lakshman D. Guruswamy, University of Colorado College of Law, among others. Over all, as a check of the FREE website will confirm (they list their programs since 1993 on their website), their programs feature a range of speakers from a variety of perspectives (much more than say the typical AALS program), and have featured quite a distinguished faculty.]