Liberal mag to Center for American Progress: Open your books

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

Things have gotten pretty testy between the Nation, the venerable liberal weekly, and the Center for American Progress, the liberal nonprofit/media spin machine founded with help from convicted inside trader George Soros. The nub of the debate is this: Who exactly in funding CAP? The nonprofit has long been extremely secretive about its donors, refusing to make them public. In an exchange of letters published today, the author of a Nation expose on CAP called on it to make the information public.

“It should publish and make available an annual report or otherwise disclose at least some basic financial information, like most major think tanks do,” author Ken Silverstein wrote.

The contretemps began last week when the magazine published a long investigative piece by Silverstein on the nonprofit, noting in particular its aggressive solicitation of corporate donations and how that appeared to affect its policy stances.

For example, Silverstein wrote:

[T]he fact that CAP has received financial support from First Solar while touting its virtues to Washington policy-makers points to a conflict of interest that, critics argue, ought to be disclosed to the public. CAP’s promotion of the company’s interests has supplemented First Solar’s aggressive Washington lobbying efforts, on which it spent more than $800,000 during 2011 and 2012.

First Solar is a solar panel maker that has received billions in federal loans. It has nevertheless had a troubled financial history. A congressional hearing last year an executive conceded that most of the jobs it has created were overseas.

Silverstein also dug up a corporate fundraising solicitation from CAP’s “American Progress Business Alliance.” The document sought donations of up to $100,000 in exchange for, among other things, “invitation to VIP events with leaders from government, business and academia.”

The officials at CAP were not amused by the Nation article. In a letter to the magazine, spokeswoman Andrea Purse said it “insinuates a lot but the facts tell a different story.”  She wrote, in part:

The most central case to the author’s argument relies on a junior staffer “flagging” a hard-hitting piece we did on Goldman Sachs. The author then fails to cite the fact that the leadership of the organization raised no concerns—indeed the leadership of the organization pushed for additional coverage—and the original draft appeared verbatim and remains publicly available; along with more than two dozen other pieces of our reporting that are highly critical of Goldman Sachs. All that was required was a simple search on ThinkProgress.

The author also argues that CAP takes funds from Turkish interests, including a quote from an anonymous source that “As a result of the Turkish group’s support, CAP was “totally in the tank for them.” Again, the author’s insinuation is refuted by CAP’s body of work. In fact, just days before the Turkish Prime Minister recently visited Washington, CAP published a piece critical of the Turkish government, Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey.

The author goes even further insinuating that CAP’s growth over the year is attributable to our creation of our Business Alliance in 2007 and corporate donations. As Huffington Post wrote in March, philanthropic giving is what is responsible for our growth. The fact of the matter is only 6 percent of our funding in 2012 came from corporate donors, and it has never reached double digits.

“We expect more from the Nation” the letter concluded and urged readers to “look directly at the substance of our work.”

Silverstein responded:

CAP was given plenty of time to reply before the story was published and chose not to. Now it has sent a letter that misrepresents what I wrote and hence shoots down arguments I didn’t make.

There is evidence that CAP’s agenda has been influenced by its decision to take corporate money, but that is not the central “inference at the heart of the story.” The main point of the story is that CAP takes money from corporate donors without disclosing it, which is not an inference but a fact.

Another fact is that in doing so, CAP sometimes acts as an undisclosed lobbyist for its donors. As described in the story, First Solar gave money to CAP and CAP’s staff advocated for First Solar before Congress and in articles on CAP’s website without disclosing that pertinent piece of information.

Maybe the 6 percent figure for corporate contributions is true and maybe it’s not, we have only CAP’s word to take for it. It should publish and make available an annual report or otherwise disclose at least some basic financial information, like most major think tanks do. Furthermore if CAP is only receiving 6 percent of its budget from corporations, it’s purely a function of its failure to close the deal, not a lack of trying. (See the wonderful perks it offers to big corporate donors, as described in my story.)

It’s nice that CAP sometimes criticizes its donors, but I found numerous instances where it praised them as well. But really, that is not the point. Wall Street companies gave a lot of money to President Obama not because they expected to get his support all the time, but to get it more than they would if they didn’t give him money at all. (And I’d say they got a pretty good return on their investment.) I expect that’s the same impulse that prompts companies to give CAP money, unless you believe Boeing’s explanation to me, that its contributions to the think tank are purely “educational in nature.”

People should read my story and decide for themselves who is telling the truth.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner