The founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP), John Podesta, is joining the Obama inner circle in an effort to save his second term. This development led to a somewhat unflattering profile in the NY Times yesterday. The group’s ostensible mission is to be a liberal political lobby and think-tank. But it accepts major donations from the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in America. In return, it lobbies Congress and the administration on their behalf. It would be one thing if the issues it lobbied for were an organic part of the liberal agenda. But if they did this, they wouldn’t get any of that big money. That means they trim their sails and adopt a corporatist agenda. So, the Times notes that Podesta:
…Will…arrive at the White House after having run an organization that has taken millions of dollars in corporate donations in recent years and has its own team of lobbyists who have pushed an agenda that sometimes echoes the interests of these corporate supporters.
The Times points out that a big gift from defense contractor Northrop Grumman propelled CAP to lobby against defense budget reductions.
It would be one thing if CAP was only a lobbying group. Then you could understand such self-interested activity. But it prides itself on being a liberal interest group taking progressive positions on major national issues. That gives it cachet in the left policy wonk community, some of the circles most supportive of Obama administration initiatives. But you can’t have it both ways. If you try you’ll end up being bad at both.
CAP’s president carries out Podesta’s corporatist agenda. She defends its good name and principles:
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said in an interview that the group frequently takes positions that conflict with the corporate agendas of its donors…
“This is an institution that tries to find the right answers,” said Ms. Tanden, who reports to Mr. Podesta, the board chairman. “It does not answer to the agenda of any individual supporters or corporations.”
Ken Silverstein notes Tanden has far broader concerns than only doing the right thing:
Raising money had always been important…but Tanden ratcheted up the efforts to openly court donors, which has impacted CAP’s work. Staffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors, I was told.
CAP also defends itself by claiming less than 10% of its funding is corporate money. But this does not include funding from corporate foundations, which include millions more.
Ironically, Podesta was a registered lobbyist till 2005. Since he no longer is, he doesn’t have any conditions preventing him from joining the administration or limitations governing his actions. This despite the fact that CAP itself is a major lobbying venture.
CAP also has a political shop, including an online website, Think Progress (TP), which publishes news and analysis on progressive issues. Though the Times profile did not mention this, TP is an integral part of CAP’s claim to fame as a liberal powerhouse. TP offers wonky, sometimes cutting edge coverage of major news and policy issues. Think of it as a liberal-Democrat version of Huffington Post (without the sex videos!).
Two years ago, several TP contributing writers got themselves embroiled in controversy over comments they made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jewish neocon right, in the person of Josh Block, Alan Dershowitz and others began a massive smear campaign (here’s a typical example) against contributors like Ali Gharib, Eli Clifton, Ziad Jilani, Matt Duss and Ben Armbruster, who were the major forces behind TP’s Middle East coverage. Word came down via Tanden that there would no longer be free rein in reporting on the I-P conflict. Stories would be vetted both by editors and others within the organization. Certain topics were off-limits altogether. In fact, some of their reporting was censored by management. This editorial hand-holding was supposed to be a temporary situation until the storm blew over.
CAP was getting hammered by the Israel lobby for the daring and moxie of Think Progress’ Israel reporting. If it had stuck by the writers and thumbed its nose at the smearmeisters, it would’ve had to weather months more of such controversy (at least so it figured). The powers that be (Podesta and Tanden) determined that this would be too distracting for CAP from its overall agenda. I’m also certain they thought about the acrimony it might stir up among the major donor community. Butting heads directly with Aipac can cause immense pain to a Beltway think tank-lobby group. That had to be an important consideration for reining in these reporters.
Though some in the media who reported this story said the TP writers were fired or pressured to leave, in actuality those who left felt they didn’t want to submit to such confining editorial restrictions. They were essentially given a choice to stay and wait till things blew over or leave. Gharib, Clifton and Jilani left. Gharib eventually teamed up with Peter Beinart’s ill-fated Open Zion (about to close up shop as Beinart moves to join Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic). Clifton is now at The American Independent. Jilani eventually left the Beltway policy community (temporarily, one hopes) to attend grad school at Syracuse University.
Duss has now become a CAP foreign policy analyst (presumably a step up from contributor to TP), where he’s taken a decidedly less assertive approach to Israel-related issues. His coverage of issues related to Obama administration policy like Iran also take a decidedly pro-administration slant. It represents the defanging of truly progressive voices on Mideast politics. Duss has also become a champion of controversial Iranian-Israeli “analyst” Meir Javedanfar. They appear regularly together at BloggingheadsTV. Maybe someday Duss will get Javedanfar appointed as a junior CAP Iran analyst, so the latter can sell his nostrums inside the Beltway!
Unfortunately, the Times profile did not refer to this earlier controversy. It should have. It would’ve further supported the claims that CAP pulls its punches when it’s called on to speak out on behalf of progressive values. When those values conflict with corporate or political power (like the Israel lobby), then power trumps values. That’s pretty much the way the Obama administration functions, so Podesta should feel right at home.
As a result of all this, CAP became the Lobby’s obedient poodle when it came to its Israel coverage. Others have told me that over time, the writers who remained have been given more free rein. But as far as I’m concerned, the damage was done. CAP can no longer be an honest broker or present free and unfettered analysis of Israel-Palestine.
As an aside, there was another victim of this entire mess. It was my friend, M.J. Rosenberg who then blogged at Media Matters. His use of the perfectly reasonable term, ‘Israel Firster,’ to mock the Lobby, was fraudulently portrayed as anti-Semitic (the term was first coined by good liberal-Zionist, Brandeis Pres. Abe Sachar!). There was an amicable parting of the ways and M.J. took his blog independent. He can also be read at Huffington Post. Despite all this, it’s terribly sad to see good, decent advocacy groups buffeted by the idiot winds of the Lobby and their neocon henchmen. It’s even sadder when one of them turns tail and runs rather than standing and fighting for what’s right.
On the other side, those who orchestrated this campaign like Josh Block suffered little more than a slap on the wrist. Shortly thereafter he assumed the reins at The Israel Project, an Israel Lobby group which wages political war on behalf of the Israeli government. It was an agent of the State beforehand, now it’s even worse, if that’s possible.