Last week RT America, the Russian state media network, was in the news after two of its anchors voiced opposition – on air – to Russian action in Ukraine. Part of the reaction to these events was a discussion in the media about how RT America covers stories, a discussion which apparently piqued the interest of one former writer for Think Progress the official blog of the Center for American Progress (CAP).
Zaid Jilani, a previous writer at Think Progress, wrote and published a blog on his Tumblr accounted titled “How Working In Washington Taught Me We’re All A Little Like RT America.” The post details some incredibly revealing behavior of the Center for American Progress, including coordinating and taking orders from the Obama Administration on how to cover stories.
It all started with a 2011 story by Think Progress on the Afghanistan War. Jilani had written a post that gained traction in the larger media even being featured on MSNBC. That’s when things got interesting.
I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.
The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.
But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy.
No scandal so far. CAP is a 501(c)(3) so it not only allowed to be independent of Team Obama it is required under the law not to support political candidates. So getting chewed out by the White House is fine, it means CAP is following the rules and maintaining its legally required independence.
But what happened next is where the story takes a dark and legally treacherous turn. After the White House called and told Think Progress writers to stop criticizing them a meeting was called at Think Progress and writers were given new orders by CAP executives.
Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama. It confused me a lot because on the one hand, CAP was advertising to donors that it opposed the Afghan war — in our “Progressive Party,” the annual fundraising party we do with both Big Name Progressive Donors and corporate lobbyists (in the same room!) we even advertised that we wanted to end the war in Afghanistan.
But what that meeting with CAP senior staff showed me was that they viewed being closer to Obama and aligning with his policy as more important than demonstrating progressive principle, if that meant breaking with Obama.
“Aligning with policy” or coordinating with a political candidate – as President Obama was at that time for the 2012 election – is exactly what a 501(c)(3) is not allowed to do. How close these CAP orders were to violating the law, if at all, is hard to say. Though it definitely creates serious doubt about “independence” at Think Progress.
Jiliani ultimately left Think Progress and the coverage has been hyper-supportive of the Obama Administration in recent years. The purportedly progressive news organization has even attempted to defend some of President Obama’s most illiberal policies.
CAP has also been caught providing a back channel for business interests looking to influence the Obama Administration. Taking money from defense contractors, Wall Street, and commercial spying organizations that fall far short of “progressive” values. It offers contributors access to Team Obama staffers they might not otherwise have which is exactly the kind of malevolent influence of money in politics CAP is supposed to be opposing.
Is the Center for American Progress really progressive or is it just a cynical tool to liberal wash corporate money while doing the bidding of the Democratic Party?
Image by ProjectManhattan under Creative Commons license.