Center for American Progress
The Center for American Progress (CAP) and its parallel advocacy arm the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAP Action) are two key cogs in the left-wing policy and message machine. Using the institutional imprimatur of CAP’s “think tank” and CAP Action’s blog ThinkProgress, CAP’s directors and funders — who include left-wing hedge fund titan George Soros — attempt to move national policy debates ever leftward.
Founded by the well-connected John Podesta, who was the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Obama’s Presidential Transition director— the CAP empire was intended to serve as a counterweight to the conservative Heritage Foundation. However, credible allegations of anti-Semitism, reporting errors by ThinkProgress bloggers, and the alignment between both groups’ views and those of their donors, have hindered its rise to prominence.
According to Podesta, who served as president until 2012, CAP was founded in 2003 “to provide long-term leadership and support to the progressive movement.” CAP Action, now run by former one-term Democratic Representative Tom Perriello, is officially an “independent non-partisan education and advocacy organization.”
CAP officials, including Podesta, were deeply involved in the transition to President Obama’s administration in 2008-09. TIME characterized the involvement: “President-elect Obama has effectively contracted out the management of his own government’s formation to [John] Podesta.” POLITICO characterized the interrelationship between the transition team and CAP as “historically unique.”
In a feature article on the expansion of ThinkProgress, POLITICO illustrated how the site differs from a mainstream news organization. POLITICO reported:
ThinkProgress [… is] hardly just another media organization. […] Further, CAP Action Fund openly runs political advocacy campaigns, and plays a central role in the Democratic Party’s infrastructure, and the new reporting staff down the hall isn’t exactly walled off from that message machine, nor does it necessarily keep its distance from liberal groups organizing advocacy campaigns targeting conservatives.
CAP and ThinkProgress are well-funded: CAP alone raked in $36.5 million in 2010, the latest year for which tax records are available. CAP Action, which runs ThinkProgress, brought in over $9 million to fund its operations.
That money comes from a wide array of left-leaning ideological and big corporate interests. Although CAP and CAP Action exercise their legal rights as organizations structured under Sections 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code and do not disclose their donors, some donations can be identified through other required filings with the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor.
CAP receives money from multibillionaire hedge fund manager George Soros through two of his nonprofit groups, the Foundation to Support Open Society and the Open Society Institute. From 2005 through 2010, the two organizations gave CAP over $5.4 million. CAP receives money from other liberal-leaning foundations, including the Tides Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the foundation of Progressive Insurance chairman Peter B. Lewis.
Some of the organizations’ donations have been highly questionable. For example, Bermuda-based Atlantic Philanthropies donated $1.5 million to the CAP Action Fund, which operates ThinkProgress in 2010. (Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory.) United States-based foundations are forbidden by tax law from donating to organizations incorporated under Section 501(c)(4)—such as CAP Action—but as POLITICO reports, no such restrictions apply to foreign grant-makers.
This didn’t stop a ThinkProgress reporter from attempting to rescue flagging Democratic candidates with an “October Surprise” in 2010 by claiming that the United States Chamber of Commerce, a business association backing Republicans in that election, was using foreign funds to influence elections. He speculated that the Chamber’s activity might violate FEC regulations. *The New York Times *investigated the allegations and found no evidence the Chamber did anything illegal, noting, “The piece detailed the [C]hamber’s overseas memberships, but it provided no evidence that the money generated overseas had been used in United States campaigns.”
Labor unions are also major sources of funding for the Center and especially ThinkProgress. According to unions’ required filings to the Department of Labor, since 2009 unions have donated over $2.2 million to the two organizations. Unsurprisingly, The Center and ThinkProgress have provided fawning coverage of unions and endorsed policies the unions support, like the “card check” legislation and the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Additionally, the former Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Anna Burger, was named to the CAP Action board of directors in 2010. The SEIU has been one of the largest union supporters of CAP and its affiliates, with over $600,000 in total contributions.
Unions aren’t the only groups that benefit from contributions with mutually interested advocacy support. CAP and ThinkProgress have also faced scrutiny for their silence toward retail giant Wal-Mart, uncommon in progressive circles. Both the liberal newsmagazine The Nation and the conservative Weekly Standard have reported that Wal-Mart had donated to CAP, and CAP touted Wal-Mart as a partner in the healthcare reform debate. (The Washington Free Beacon estimated the donations at over $500,000 over a ten-year period, citing a Wal-Mart webpage that is no longer active.) Wal-Mart, which had been singled out for an employer mandate in some states, was a strong advocate of a national mandate on employers much smaller than the multibillion-dollar corporation.
ThinkProgress Staff Accused of Anti-Semitism
ThinkProgress was embroiled in a controversy in late 2011-early 2012 over language its bloggers used to characterize the United States’ relations with Israel. The controversy began with a report by Ben Smith, then of POLITICO, on dissension within the liberal ranks on the issue of what to do about a possible Israeli-Iranian conflict. Smith quoted a CAP analyst writing at a ThinkProgress sub-site, Middle East Progress, comparing Israel’s Gaza policy to “segregation in the American south.” Unnamed ThinkProgress officials were reported as saying that the Center’s goal was to open political space to President Obama’s left; CAP denied the reports.
The policy firestorm stirred by the article led ThinkProgress bloggers to cross the line between legitimate criticism of the policies of the governments of Israel and the United States into anti-Semitism. Then-ThinkProgress blogger Zaid Jilani wrote on Twitter: “So DC ‘liberals’ are going to spend a lot of time defending Obama against the charge that he’s not supportive enough of Israeli apartheid.” The American Jewish Committee (AJC) responded, telling The Jerusalem Post that “References to Israeli ‘apartheid’ or ‘Israel-firsters’ are so false and hateful they reveal an ugly bias no serious policy center can countenance.” Jilani left ThinkProgress within the month, according to the Post.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a usually left-leaning watchdog against anti-Semitism, also objected to the appropriateness of some ThinkProgress staffers’ comments. It warned against characterizing Americans who supported closer alignment with Israel as “Israel-Firsters.” ADL recognized a ThinkProgress blogger who had done so for apologizing for his misdeed. Additionally, the ADL called “troubling […] an accusation in a blog that the Israel lobby was marching America to war against Iran as it did with regard to Iraq.”
Egregious Reporting Errors
ThinkProgress has published a series of weakly supported, when not outright false, hatchet-jobs on opponents of CAP and Democratic policies. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, ThinkProgress published an allegation that 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain had plagiarized a Navy admiral in one of his speeches, only to retract the story within 24 hours. (McCain had used the disputed fragment in a speech before the admiral did, and the text was available on McCain’s Senate website.) POLITICO reporter Michael Calderone characterized the blog’s decision to publish the allegations without requesting comment from the McCain camp or accessing McCain’s publicly available Senate speech text as “remarkable.”
A different ThinkProgress blogger alleged that David Koch—a benefactor of free-market causes and former Libertarian Party nominee for Vice President—had resigned from the “NIH cancer board” under pressure from Greenpeace after using his position to block the listing of formaldehyde as a carcinogen. As conservative blog Powerline.com details, almost none of that is true. Koch was appointed to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 2004, and his term expired in 2010. The board on which Koch served has no authority over the listing of carcinogens. ThinkProgress was forced to retract the claim that Mr. Koch resigned under Greenpeace pressure.