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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Former Pew Executive Described $39 Million, Six-Year Strategy to "Create Impression of Groundswell of Support" for Campaign Finance Reform

It's not often that a liberal foundation executive talks candidly about the goals and strategies behind the organization's grant-making. But former Pew Trusts Program Officer Sean Treglia's March 2004 presentation on "Covering Philanthropy and Nonprofits Beyond 9/11" at Annenberg's Western Knight Center was probably too candid for non-profit backers of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, aka as "McCain-Feingold."

Treglia - a former Capitol Hill aide and campaign manager - told the seminar attendees that while at Pew he had developed "a six-year strategy, an incremental approach that included a number of small steps" to gain passage of campaign reform legislation. The seminar audience included a number of working journalists. You can read Treglia's bio here.

"The target was 535 Members of Congress and the idea was to create the impression that a mass movement was afoot, that everywhere they looked people were talking about campaign finance reform," Treglia said.

Treglia's presentation occurred at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication's USC Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy.

One of the results of passage of McCain-Feingold - named for main sponsors Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Russ Feingold, D-WI - is the forthcoming proposed rule from the Federal Election Commission regulating political speech on the Internet. The FEC effort is drawing fire among critics of McCain-Feingold who cite it as proof that the measure violates the First Amendment's bar against Congress passing laws limiting freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly.

You can listen to Treglia's presentation here. You will need to scroll down to the entry for March 12, 2004, and then click on the video link. Please let me know if you have trouble opening the video, as the WKC claims there is no problem with it but I and others have had a great deal of difficulty getting it to work.

The plan to create the impression of widespread public support for campaign finance reform was one cog in an innovative and aggressive "directed funding" campaign by Pew designed, according to Treglia, to "take the Ford Foundation's approach to affecting public policy and go one step forward, to bring in the pros to say now to spend the money, set the goals, hire the people to make these things happen."

The aim of directed funding, Treglia said, is "to drive public policy by strategically placing your money." He estimated the campaign finance reform effort included as much as $39 million in such funding. Treglia said he realized during his first year at Pew Trusts that "with a good idea and a little foundation money, you can change the world."

Disclosure of Treglia's presentation here follows allegations published last week by Tech Central Station columnist Ryan Sager describing a $140 million effort by a large group of liberal foundations, including Pew, to cultivate editorial support in the MSM for campaign finance reform. Sager's column was based on a Feb. 25, 2005, report by PoliticalMoneyline.com that is only available to subscribers.

Here are the key graphs from Sager's column:

"Ignored by the media to date, [the Political Moneyline report] details how the supposedly grass-roots campaign-finance reform movement has been funded over the last decade to the tune of $140 million. Of that $140 million, the vast majority ($123 million) came not from retirees scraping together their last nickels for the cause of democracy, nor from schoolchildren collecting deposits on cans plucked from dilapidated playgrounds.
"No, the money came from just eight ultra-liberal foundations (including the Ford Foundation and George Soros' Open Society Institute), the same folks who fund: the Earth Action Network, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood, the Naderite Public Citizen Foundation and the Feminist Majority Foundation."

Not only did the campaign create a media impression of widespread public support, it also resulted in a David and Goliath myth about the most visible pro-campaign finance reform non-profits, according to Sager:

"All of the major reform groups -- Common Cause, the Alliance for Better Campaigns, the Campaign Finance Institute, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Responsive Politics, Democracy 21 and the William J. Brennan Jr. Center for Justice -- are funded by the same eight liberal foundations, and have received millions upon millions of dollars each.
"Yet, by maintaining the fiction of independence from one and other, they appear to much of the press to be a pack of scrappy underdogs sinking their teeth into the ankles of the big-money men."

Among the examples of the campaigns grants to media outlets were these, according to Sager:

Payments to the media found by Political Money Line include: the $132,000 to the Prospect, $69,000 to Public Radio International, $935,000 to the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and more than $1.2 million to National Public Radio for items such as, in the words of the official disclosure statements, "news coverage of financial influence in political decision making."

As reported here earlier this week, officials from RTNDAF and NPR denied receiving any funding that led to pro-campaign finance reform coverage.

The following was posted on the WKC web site either late yesterday or earlier today following my inquiry about the malfunctioning link:

"EDITOR'S NOTE: The following clarification was provided by Sean Treglia in response to questions from journalists who did not attend the WKC seminar. According to Treglia: 'It is contrary to all of my experience at Pew and incorrect to suggest that the organization would attempt to deceive or mislead about its funding efforts. I regret that my comments have led to any confusion and want to be clear now that the grant making efforts of Pew in and around campaign finance were transparent and intended to be transparent at all times.'"

Treglia's statement carefully avoids the basic question of whether he is now disavowing his clear and unambiguous statements recorded on the video. I hope this editor's note is not evidence that WKC has decided to follow an Easongate-like strategy in this budding controversy - i.e. avoid the actual issues and hope the problem goes away.

Even so, the Political Moneyline report raises numerous troubling questions about the relationship between liberal non-profits and the MSM. Among these questions are: How did Treglia know favorable coverage would result from grants to MSM outlets? How did Pew measure the effectiveness of its grants in this six-year campaign? Who were the MSM editorial officials approached by Pew and the other foundations? How did those officials decide to accept or reject the funding proposals? Have the grant-making foundations provided subsequent funding for the MSM organizations and if so for what editorial coverage?

There are undoubtedly many more important questions to be asked and they will be as the Blogosphere moves forward fisking the issues raised by the Treglia presentation and the Political Moneyline report.

Most important, though, is this question: If the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was based on the mere appearance in the MSM of widespread public support - an appearance that was bought and paid for by eight of America's most prominent liberal foundations - then how can such a discredited measure continue as the law of the land?

Makes me envy California's recall process.


Did Pew get a good return for its money?

"The money from Pew led directly to key provisions of McCain-Feingold."

"If you look at the Supreme Court decision on McCain-Feingold, you will see that almost half of the footnotes there came from Pew-funded research."

Transparency for who?

One of the attendees questioned Treglia sternly, noting that at the outset of his presentation he noted that he always asked grant recipients to keep Pew "in the background," which contradicted his emphasis throughout his presentation that a main purpose of campaign finance reform was transparency. Treglia response:

"We disclosed who was receiving Pew funding. We complied with the 990 disclosure requirements. We just didn't issue a press release announcing what we were doing ... If any reporter had wanted to know, they could have connected the dots. The fact is they didn't."

So where was the MSM?

But there was a point late in the congressional debate on McCain-Feingold when Treglia said "we had a scare." In response to an attendee asking him what Pew would have done if the media had reported what he was doing he said:

"We had a scare. As the debate was progressing, and getting close, George Will stumbled across a report we had done and attacked it in a column. Some of his partisans were becoming more aware of what we were doing and were feeding him information. He started to reference the fact that Pew was playing a large role in it, that it was a liberal attempt to hoodwink Congress.
"But you know what? The good news, from my perspective, was that journalists just didn't know the sector, the journalists just didn't care and nobody followed up. There was a panic there for a few weeks because we were afraid the story would grow. But nobody picked it up."

It should be noted that several of Treglia's questioners were working journalists and seemed quite upset with his presentation.


Ryan Sager, who started the current critical look at campaign finance reform funding with a devastating column last week in Tech Central Station, has another one in The New York Post, and excerpts from the Treglia video on his blog, Miscellaneous Objections.