New Mexico Watchdog: Barking up the Libertarian Tree

Watchdog.org cartoon

By KAY MATTHEWS

The last few years have seen the emergence of online journals and newspapers—New Mexico Mercury, New Mexico In Depth, New Mexico Compass— that cover New Mexico politics, including La Jicarita. Most of their writers and editors are longtime local journalists who previously worked for other publications or freelanced in the state: V.B. Price, Trip Jennings, Heath Haussamen, Marisa Demarco.

Then there’s New Mexico Watchdog. La Jicarita got an invitation to subscribe to this online newsletter in September of 2012. This was before I knew anything about it or its affiliation with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity (which I will detail below) but it wasn’t hard to figure out where it lay on the left to right spread. The first online issue I received included these stories:
• Who’s afraid of ‘right to work’?
A speaker at a Rio Grande Foundation luncheon says the state can add 42,000 jobs by becoming a “right to work” state, prompting union backers to protest outside the venue. Will the issue go before the Roundhouse soon?
• Candidates spending big bucks
Speaking of the Roundhouse, both parties have plenty at stake in the November elections and Rob Nikolewski takes a look at the big spenders.
• Susana’s sky-high approval ratings
A statewide poll shows Gov. Martinez racking up an astounding 69 percent approval rating . . . and confirms that voters across the state (even in the liberal region including Santa Fe) want to repeal the law granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

A recent edition I received, on September 26, 2013, included these stories:
• Devastating report on child care in NM
Staffers at the Legislative Finance Committee discovered three registered sex offenders at addresses that matched sites of child care centers. And the staff report says system is rife for potential fraud
• Democratic fracking friends
Environmentalists hate hydraulic fracturing but two recent Obama cabinet members have gone on record saying the procedure is safe and has helped America become more energy independent.
• A call to kick the feds off NM’s public lands
More than 40 percent of the land in the state is in the hands of the federal government. Some say if the state could wrest control, it would mean an economic windfall for New Mexico.

After reading these stories two things became abundantly clear about New Mexico Watchdog: 1) Susana Martinez can do no wrong when it comes to her support of big  business, particularly the oil and gas industry, the privatization of everything, and her assertion of state’s rights; and 2) there is little distinction made between reporting and editorializing.

Watchdog.org cartoon
Watchdog.org cartoon

Both of these observations should come as no surprise after taking a look at what exactly the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is. New Mexico Watchdog is one of 23 Watchdog sites across the country that focus on state and regional issues but are all under the aegis of the Center, funded by the Donors Trust, whose largest contributors are Charles and David Koch, the billionaire reactionary industrialists (Mother Jones called the Trust “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement” in a 2013 article). The Center is run by Jason Stverak, a former political consultant with no journalism background. Stverak is part of a conservative/libertarian movement by think tanks to train “investigative” journalists to supplant what formerly was mostly punditry, e.g. Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson.

On July 4, 2013, Stverak sent an e-mail asking me (I assume I was added to the Center’s listserve because of La Jicarita) to help celebrate the American spirit by contributing a photo to the contest the Center was sponsoring about what it means to be an American: “Just like the founding fathers on that fateful day, here at the Franklin Center we’re proud to continue the legacy of keeping our republic in the hands of the people by holding government accountable and promoting transparency.”

Watchdog.org cartoon
Watchdog.org cartoon

The September 4 e-mail from the Center was a paean by Stverak to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the “workhorse of the Republican Party” who “rescued his state from soaring deficits”: “With strong leaders like Walker, states act not only as a laboratories of democracy but as incubators of freedom.”

It was Koch brothers money that helped bring Walker to power and keep him there during his recall. Remember the reporter who called Walker pretending to be David Koch, during which Walker revealed the extent of his underhanded dealings in trying to get the state legislature to pass his budget “reform” bill? The Franklin Center’s spin is that its mission is “transparency” and “accountability” and its coverage non-partisan: “All publications have a mission and a voice,” states the Center’s website. “We are unabashed in ours: to spotlight waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars by state and local governments. We conform to the Society of Professional Journalists standards, follow AP style and are not partisan or political.”

New Mexico Watchdog’s coverage of Martinez reveals the Franklin Center’s focus on exposing government waste is in line with the conservative agenda to reduce “big” government—federal and state—through deregulation and privatization: jails, education, publically owned spaces such as national parks and forests, weapons labs—just about anything and everything. Martinez’s success in eviscerating environmental regulation was recapped by La Jicarita writer David Correia in last week’s post, and her claim of “accountability” in the behavioral health department resulted in the coup that left staff fired, clients underserved, and millions of dollars over allocated to pay out of state private contractors to take over the program.

As for the claim that the Center is nonpartisan, in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review writer Sasha Chavkin has this to say about reporting versus editorializing:
“A second tendency of the Franklin Center is to occasionally blur reporting and opinion and to go beyond the facts of its findings. For example, Watchdog.org’s March 12 investigation of the liberal Tides Foundation, headlined Lefty clearinghouse funnels federal cash to militants, alleged in its first sentence that Tides bankrolls “Islamic militant organizations.” Despite the severity of its allegation, the article does not name the militant organizations in question nor offer any evidence that federal funds were provided to such an organization. In fact, the story never returns to the charge.”

For the record, the writers for La Jicarita often intentionally blur the reporting and opinion line: it’s called expose and analysis. As our manifesto states, “The new La Jicarita strives to become the place where radical political action can be considered and debated, where new tactics in the struggle for environmental justice can be hatched, and where disparate groups and interests can find common ground in a broad-based movement to bring a better New Mexico to life.” We make no claim to “objective journalism,” an oxymoron.

New Mexico Watchdog reporter Rob Nikolewski, on the other hand, makes this claim on this website: “I now focus on state, national and international policy issues. I take pride in covering political issues with as much objectivity and fairness as possible.” Nikolewski joined New Mexico Watchdog at the beginning of 2013, was hired by the Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian, free-market nonprofit in Albuquerque, to cover the capitol (now funded by the Franklin Center), is an opinion columnist at the Santa Fe New Mexican, and writes for The American Spectator, that bastion of conservative opinion edited by R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., who founded it as an alternative to student radicalism in the 1960s.

Nikolewski appeared on the October 3 KUNM call in show on the government shutdown and trotted out the Republican line that they just want to have a say in the formulation and implementation of the Affordable Care Act and are working hard to fund portions of the federal budget so more people can get back to work. Even on such mainstream media outlets as NPR and the New York Times reporters are careful to explain that the Republicans refused to have anything to do with the Affordable Care Act during its promulgation and if it weren’t for their demands that the Act be dismantled the budget bill would have passed and everyone would be at work.

Nikolewski replaced Jim Scarantino at New Mexico Watchdog, another reporter not only known for blurring lines but getting it really wrong. He broke a story in 2012 that claimed stimulus funds were being dispersed into congressional districts in New Mexico that didn’t exist, based on his examination of a federal data base that included false zip codes. The story went national, but when an AP reporter took a closer look he discovered that some of the recipients had mistyped the zip codes into the federal registry and that the money had gone where it was supposed to.

So, readers, if you want to get the low down on the conservative/libertarian agenda, read New Mexico Watchdog. If you want to dig deeper into that agenda and how it impacts people and nature in New Mexico, read La Jicarita.