Opinion

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Closing Range

Lots of Luck

Why is the Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. publishing articles in Montana newspapers?

Is Montana journalism dead? Perhaps. On November 15, all five of Lee Enterprises’ Montana dailies featured “How Greg Gianforte’s donations to special interests helped him win the special election.”

The 1,200-word story led off with Congressman Gianforte’s “unprovoked flash of World Wrestling Entertainment-style violence” last May, then asserted Gianforte’s victory had been “bolstered by $2.4 million in all-but-unrestricted ‘super PAC’ cash.” Mr. Gianforte had also “helped seed” the rise of super PACs thanks to the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust’s donation of “$133,500 from 2008 to 2015” to the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a so-called nonprofit group that “does not publicly disclose its donors.”

The article was definitely not Montana journalism-as-usual: Long, complex, harshly-toned and stuffed with at least 20 hotlinks. Democratic sources were plentiful, while Republicans specifically refused interviews — also unusual.

Which Lee Montana reporter produced this masterwork, featured only in the five Lee dailies and one other website? None!

The writers don’t work at Lee, but for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., which isn’t a newspaper. Rather, it’s a “nonprofit watchdog” working at “investigating the influence of money in politics.”

The Center’s website features the original article (simultaneously published by Lee) among hundreds of stories showing much more investigation of Republican money than Democratic — unsurprising given the Center merged with the Huffington Post’s investigative operations in 2010.

After learning the above, I had to ask a Lee editor why this story wasn’t done in-house, and further why it was published as straight “news,” not opinion. The response: “We were lucky they allowed us to use their story. Let me know if you see any inaccuracies in the reporting.”

Granted, CPI’s writers were scrupulously “accurate” — with their intended narrative. But others can be accurate where it fits, too: The Gianforte family foundation, jointly run by Mr. and Mrs. Gianforte, spends vastly more on charity than “dark money.” The foundation’s IRS return shows total gifts of $7.355 million in 2015, primarily to Christian-oriented churches, education and charities.

As for “nonprofit” politics posing as charity, there is some: Grantees Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Montana Family Institute all openly play pro-life, social-conservative politics. Including $50,000 given to the Alliance (a “legal ministry” with $51 million in 2015 gross receipts) and a whopping $1,000 for the evil Heritage Foundation, $338,000 might be “dark,” versus millions of indisputable charity in 2015.

Furthermore, Federal Elections Commission (FEC) records show both Mr. and Mrs. Gianforte donated well north of a million dollars to Republican efforts over the years … but nothing to the Congressional Leadership Fund.

As for the Center, yes, donors are identified, but broadly without specifics. In the $100,000-plus class are foundations like Open Society (George Soros and Son), Park Foundation (anti-fracking), et cetera, all affirmatively leftist.

CPI also lists individual donors in the $50,000-plus class — serious dough for any pet cause, even “investigative journalism.” But the FEC records for only the second CPI donor I looked at, New York real-estate tycoon Michael W. Sonnenfeldt, presented a textbook, hypocritical example of another pet cause: the exact same “dark money” shenanigans the Center supposedly “investigates.”

Mr. Sonnenfeldt exclusively supports Democrat and environmental politics, giving at least $1.115 million. But his additional $350,000 in federal soft (dark) money spending includes $250,000 split this spring between two amorphous super PACs nobody’s heard of yet — Citizens for a Strong America and United for Progress.

FEC records show Citizens has 10 total donors, giving $781,000. United has 11, giving $851,000. Nine people, from all across the country (including the owner of the Chicago White Sox), gave to BOTH, in equal amounts. Coincidence!

Both are headquartered in post-office boxes (242432 and 242233) in Charlotte, North Carolina — and even though these “head offices” are likely in the same room, each entity has its own treasurer. Coincidence?

Of course, the Center for Public Integrity will never “investigate” Mr. Sonnenfeldt. And, after my Lee editor correspondent pointed out the “key is not letting that money influence your coverage,” and sees “no reason” to think the Center’s “reporting” on Gianforte was influenced by its donor structure — what will I expect from Lee Enterprises? Lots of luck.

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