State “Stink Tanks” Exposed

Dave Johnson

How many times have you read or heard in the news something along the lines of “a new report from the Institute of Free Markets and Liberty finds that giant corporations and billionaires create jobs if given tax cuts,” or how about your classic “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You“? Well guess what, a new report from an actual, honest think tank exposes a national network of corporate PR firms masking themselves as think tanks. The report calls these corporate-front PR firms “Stink Tanks.”

The Stink Tanks

The report, titled Stinktanks.org, exposes the State Policy Network (SPN), an $83 million web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. These organizations present themselves as nonpartisan, objective and scholarly, But instead of being actual, honest “think tanks” all of these organizations are funded by and/or work for groups like the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers and other billionaire conservative and corporate funders like the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation, and the Coors family. Instead of acting as honest “think tanks” they instead operate as PR firms. The “reports” and “studies” these organizations issue always support the legislative efforts of these conservative billionaires and corporations.

Denise Cardinal, executive director of Progress Now, said of these organizations,

“The bottom line is these organizations of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich are representing themselves as groups that are looking out for the best interests of everyday, working class Americans and it’s just a blatant lie. What we’re doing is trying to bring some transparency to the damaging work they’re doing on a daily basis. From policies that promote polluting the air and water to the destruction of our public education system and a tax system that benefits their rich donors, what these organizations are doing is shameful and it’s time that someone brought this to light.”

Key Points

The first key point is that these PR/lobbying firms are claiming under tax laws to be objective, nonpartisan tax-exempt organizations when it appears they are actually corporate lobbying operations.

From the Stinktanks.org report:

  • “While it has become an $83 million dollar right-wing empire, SPN and most of its affiliates do not post their major donors on their websites. The identities of the donors we have discovered reveal that SPN is largely funded by global corporations — such as Reynolds American, Altria, the e-cigarette company NJOY, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Kraft Foods, Express Scripts, Comcast, Time Warner, and the Koch- and Tea Party-connected DCI Group lobbying and PR firm — that stand to benefit from SPN’s destructive agenda, as well as out-of-state special interests like the billionaire Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Bradley Foundation, the Roe Foundation, and the Coors family — who are underwriting an extreme legislative agenda that undermines the traditional rights of modern Americans.
  • Although SPN’s affiliates are registered as educational nonprofits, several appear to orchestrate extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, despite the IRS’s regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities.
  • SPN and its affiliates push an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to privatize education, block healthcare reform, restrict workers’ rights, roll back environmental protections, and create a tax system that benefits most those at the very top level of income.
  • SPN and many of its affiliates are some of the most active members and largest sponsors of the controversial ALEC, where special interest groups and state politicians vote behind closed doors on “model” legislation to change Americans’ rights, through ALEC’s task forces. SPN has close ties to, and works with, other national right-wing organizations like the Franklin Center and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.”

How The Game Works

There is a certain credibility that comes from academic-sounding “studies” and “reports” from actual “institutes.” But in this case the self-serving “reports” that come from this network of organizations come from what appear to be corporate PR and lobbying firms, not real think tanks. These “studies” and “reports” provide credibility to the usual nonsense that the public, opinion leaders and legislators would otherwise dismiss as just more corporate PR releases.

The reports and studies are non objective, academic or scholarly at all. They just reach directed conclusions — they are written to say what the funders of the studies want them to say, to help persuade the public and legislators to support giving the corporations and billionaires tax breaks, subsidies and other benefits — at the expense of the rest of us.

These organizations also provide speakers masked as “academics” and “scholars” who go on the radio and TV, write op-eds for newspapers, and testify before legislative committees. The speakers are paid to provide pro-corporate lines like the minimum wage will “cost jobs” and tax cuts helps “job creators.” But because the organizations are labeled as “institutes” or otherwise masked as objective, non-partisan, tax-exempt organizations they appear to have greater credibility and authority than is given to PR and lobbying firms.

The Actual Think Tank That Exposed The Stink Tanks

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) is an actual “watchdog organization” think tank. They also run PR Watch and the Sourcewatch Wiki. CMD is not funded by corporations. It does actual research — including a project that I worked on, Total Wall Street Bailout Cost. This project gathered all of the available information about the various bailout programs, explained each, calculated the total funds disbursed, funds “at risk” and funds outstanding. (The table is now out of date.) These are the people who exposed ALEC, did great work helping to expose Fix the Debt and the Pete Peterson anti-Social Security operation and lots of other great and important work.

CMD worked with ProgressNow, a non-corporate-funded network of state advocacy groups, working to promote progressive ideas.

Take a look at Stinktanks.org.

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