Also see SourceWatch (other group)
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) is a Wisconsin-based left-wing media, opposition research, and agitation group. CMD has its origins in the anti-corporate and conspiratorial career of its founder John Stauber and his co-author Sheldon Rampton. While Stauber headed CMD, he and Rampton wrote books alleging that the George W. Bush Administration sought to turn the country into a right-wing one-party state and that mad cow disease would become a substantial public health crisis.
CMD operates the websites PRWatch and SourceWatch, both of which serve as repositories for opposition research targeting business-aligned conservative groups. More recently, CMD has led an attack campaign against state-level policy organizations that support free-market ideas.
CMD has been funded by left-wing foundations since at least the year 2000. Following the 2010 Wisconsin state elections, which saw the state switch from Democratic control to control by Republicans seeking reform to labor union policy, Center for Media and Democracy changed its stated policy to accept contributions from labor unions. In recent years, the organization has received substantial contributions from the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
As Center for Media and Democracy’s profile has risen in recent years, the group has faced criticism for its hypocrisy regarding donor disclosure. While CMD lists a selection of the foundations which fund it, the group also takes substantial money from anonymous contributors through donor-advised funds—in other contexts decried by CMD as “dark money.”In 2011, CMD received over 60 percent of its revenue from a single donor-advised fund.
The Center for Media and Democracy grew out of the far-left environmentalist, anti-technology, and anti-capitalist movements of Jeremy Rifkin and the Foundation on Economic Trends, where John Stauber worked before founding CMD. With his coauthor Sheldon Rampton, Stauber used his new nonprofit to publish a series of books attacking businesses and the public relations industry.
Stauber began his political involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and he continued his opposition to American military involvements while heading CMD. Stauber and Rampton openly argued that the First Gulf War—authorized by the United Nations to respond to the illegal annexation of a sovereign state—was a “crass grab to save cheap oil.” Stauber and Rampton’s radical positions led the New York City alternative weekly The Village Voice to make the following characterization of the CMD authors in a review of one of their books: “These guys come from the far side of liberal.”
Stauber’s CMD began the SourceWatch opposition research wiki project and the PRWatch periodic newsletter, both of which attack business interests. In 2009, CMD moved in the direction of the mainstream liberal-left, appointing Lisa Graves, a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and senior legislative strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union to replace Stauber as executive director.
In 2010, Graves’s CMD made a major change in the organization’s stated funding policy. CMD had accepted foundation contributions and rejected contributions from businesses (with the stated exception of politically liberal activist mobile telephone provider CREDO), but internet evidence from 2010 indicates that CMD changed its previous prohibition against receiving contributions directly from labor unions. While CMD discloses a non-comprehensive list of foundation contributors, the substantial contributions CMD receives from labor unions are only identifiable through unions’ annual disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor.
With support from unions and progressive foundations, Center for Media and Democracy’s efforts now focus on supporting the unions’ and labor-aligned left-wing groups’ assault on free-market state-level policy groups. The group has published websites attacking the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — an association of state legislators supporting free-market policies — and the State Policy Network (SPN), an association of free-market think tanks focusing on state-level policy. CMD has also published a “toolkit” for left-wing activists to use to attack these groups; then-Michigan AFL-CIO president Karla Swift plagiarized paragraphs of it in a column for the Detroit News.
Most of the Center for Media and Democracy’s revenue is traceable to known organizational contributors. CMD provides a partial list of these contributors on its website, but the list obscures important sources of CMD funding, as it does not include donor-advised-fund or labor union contributions to the organization.
Sources of CMD Funding
The Center for Media and Democracy is principally funded by left-wing foundations, most significantly the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy associated with Bill Moyers, a left-wing former PBS presenter who served as White House Press Secretary in the Lyndon Johnson White House. In 2013, the Schumann Center provided CMD with $250,000—over 28 percent of the organization’s revenues. Other substantial foundation funders to CMD from recent years include the Park Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and progressive financier George Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society.
The Center for Media and Democracy faced criticism for its largest foundation contribution, which came in 2012. CMD received $520,000 in contributions from the Schwab Charitable Fund, a donor-advised fund that allows donors to obscure the sources of funds. The contributions made up 60 percent of CMD’s revenue in 2012. CMD does not list Schwab as a foundation funder on its website’s list of contributing foundations.
Also not present on CMD’s list of supporters are the national labor unions that have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Center for Media and Democracy since 2012. In the years since CMD changed its previous prohibition on accepting contributions from labor unions, the SEIU, AFT, NEA, AFSCME, and AFL-CIO have given money to CMD.
Double Standards on Ideological Funders
After conservative news sources criticized CMD for attacking free-market groups that received anonymous contributions, Lisa Graves argued that “This is a grant we received from an unknown donor, we literally don’t know the name of the man or woman who gave the funds.” The timing of the contributions was such that 30 percent of CMD’s revenue in both 2011 and 2012 came from the “dark money” Schwab grant.
Graves later argued that liberal donors’ use of the Schwab Charitable Fund to contribute to her organization was different from conservative contributors’ use of similar donor-advised funds to support free-market groups, an assertion a California-based financial planner called “a bunch of baloney.”
Graves has also deflected criticism that CMD (and liberal campaign finance activists in general) excuse liberal donors and politically involved nonprofits from scrutiny. She alleged that “The question of conservative funders versus liberal funders, I think, is a matter of false equivalency.”
Attacks on State-Level Free-Market Policy Groups
Since 2010, Center for Media and Democracy has raised its profile by choosing trendier left-wing conspiracy theories to endorse. CMD runs campaigns attacking the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and State Policy Network, non-partisan associations of free-market state and local legislators and free-market state-level policy organizations respectively.
Amid national controversy over the death of Trayvon Martin, CMD launched “ALEC Exposed,” a project attempting to tie the group’s support for “stand your ground” self-defense laws (which played no significant role in the case) to Martin’s death. In addition to public attacks, CMD has filed numerous—estimates exceed 2,500—open records requests with state legislators and state officials seeking any correspondence that those individuals have sent to or received from ALEC.
CMD has also attacked the State Policy Network, a federation of free-market state policy groups. In 2014, the Center published a website attacking what it calls “Stink Tanks.”
Consistent with its duplicity on funding, the Center for Media and Democracy is deeply involved with national liberal and left-wing groups engaging in state-level advocacy. CMD has worked closely with liberal state policy organization State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and its predecessor organizations the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, Progressive States Network, and Center for State Innovation.
Lisa Graves served as executive director of Center for Media and Democracy, a post held from 2009 to 2017. She now serves as senior research fellow with CMD. Graves made her career in liberal and Democratic Party politics, serving as a staffer in President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department and for the Senate Judiciary Committee when it was chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). She later worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a legislative strategist during the 2000s.
Center for Media and Democracy deputy director Mary Bottari is also a former Democratic U.S. Senate staffer. She worked for then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) in the 1990s. She later spent time working for the Naderite group Public Citizen on its anti-trade campaigns. Bottari is married to John Nichols, a national affairs correspondent for the progressive magazine The Nation.
Center for Media and Democracy staff have ties to numerous progressive groups. CMD research director Nick Surgey is an alumnus of Common Cause. Jay Ristenberg, a Common Cause staffer who once worked as a campus canvasser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, spent time working for CMD. Calvin Sloan, another CMD author, was formerly a registered lobbyist for People for the American Way.