National Commentary

Local TV Station’s ALEC Takedown

nfbenton-mugThe Wolf Blitzers, Chuck Todds and their ilk of the world should take notice: real investigative journalism still exists and can not only do powerful work to expose deception in politics, but to put to shame the neutered drivel that passes for so much of what constitutes “news” these days.

The Washington, D.C.-based Media Matters for America posted onto the social media a clip from a news show aired last week by the Atlanta TV station WXIA, Channel 11, that blew the lid off the utter deception and corruption surrounding an organization known as ALEC (the so-called “American Legislative Exchange Council”) as it held a secretive national conference in Savannah.

ALEC was established in 1973 by hard-core right wing activists to “advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public,” according to ALEC’s website.

It is set up as a 501c3 non profit to pay for legislators, mostly at the state level, to attend off-the-record “educational” conferences in plush resort hotels where they are set across from high-powered lobbyists from various industrial groups and effectively be given a heavy-handed pitch to sponsor bills on industry’s behalf, predominantly anti-environmental legislation that challenges prevailing views of global climate change. But meetings also advocates reducing corporate regulation and taxation, combating immigration reform, tightening voter registration rules, weakening labor unions and promoting gun rights.

ALEC came under considerable public scrutiny in 2011 and 2012 which led a number of legislators and corporations to disassociate from it, but it remains a powerful influence that specializes in crafting model legislation – including forms where legislators need only fill in the blanks of their own names – which, according to accounts, leads to around 200 such model bills becoming law every year.

Media Matters, one of the nation’s most important watchdog efforts against the excesses of right-wing news organizations, entitled its report on the WXIA investigative journalism job, “Local TV Station Airs Incredible ALEC Takedown.”

As the reporters from WXIA learned, the meetings of this group such as the one in Savannah in mid-May, are off limits to journalists. In fact, four off-duty law enforcement officers were hired to keep reporters and other undesirables out, and to forcibly escort them from the hotel if they resisted.

The WXIA reporters took out a room in the hotel so they claimed a right to be in the hallway in front of the private ALEC meeting. They came the night before and sidled up to persons in the hotel bar with cameras rolling to engage in casual conversation, where they established that numbers of them were there are lobbyists for industry, and not as legislators or a general public.

They filmed the four-man uniformed security team ordering them out of the hotel, notwithstanding their registration there (“We’ll take care of that,” one officer said, while another reminded his colleagues to “don’t say nothing” while the TV station’s cameras were rolling). Filming included an attempt at an interview with ALEC’s media relations director, who was uncooperative, closed-mouthed and who quickly summoned the officers to kick out the reporters.

So, while the existence of ALEC has been a known entity to political professionals for years, the WXIA investigative report was an eye-opener to tens of thousands of citizens in the Atlanta area, and reaction has been predictable, and sense of disbelief and outrage.

It is sad to consider this news report in the context of so much that gets on the news every day. It reported a case of egregious denial by a private organization of the public’s right to know what elected officials are doing.

It stands in stark contrast to the on-the-record comments of Chuck Todd, the new anchor of “Meet the Press,” that journalists dare not challenge what public officials say in interviews for fear that officials would simply refuse to be interviewed in the future.

This betrays a level of media pandering that has allowed lying and deception to become the norm in politics. In short, such media contribute to the problem, not correct it.

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