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It was a rainy spring Friday afternoon, and Lisa Graves was feeling a little loopy.
The day before she'd been in Washington, D.C., part of a coalition rallying outside the offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council protesting the conservative organization's role in passing Florida's Stand Your Ground law, now in the spotlight after the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.
Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, had been up since well before her 5 a.m. flight back to Madison. But she was cheerful. "I'll sleep later," she says with a shrug and a smile.
In her absence, says Mary Bottari, the center's deputy director, the office had been as busy as ever, and then some. "We published seven articles today," Bottari says, settling into a worn chair in Graves' office. "We usually don't put on such a heavy load."
But with an explosion of interest in connections between ALEC and the National Rifle Association, "we wanted to get up a resources piece pointing people in the right direction, we wanted to get up all the ALEC gun bills, we wanted to get up fact sheets that we had made, we wanted to get up new video that we had uncovered about the NRA, so there's a lot of new stuff on our site."
Just another day at the center - but also a snapshot of just how the activist group has ramped up its profile.
For most of its two-decade history, the Center for Media and Democracy was a behind-the-scenes progressive group. Founder John Stauber with writer Sheldon Rampton focused on corporate and government spin and produced polemical books that attacked government and corporate propaganda tactics.
They and the organization's tiny staff delved into the intersection of corporate interests, government policy, propaganda and the media, then started a website that exposed the corporate agendas driving innocuously named groups and think tanks - all while operating largely unnoticed except by other media activists on the left.
In the last three years, the center, still operating from its decidedly downscale second-floor offices off University Avenue, has emerged as a progressive powerhouse.
Its staffers are regular guests for MSNBC hosts like Ed Schultz and Chris Hayes. An interview for a future Bill Moyers piece is in the can.
The group has been demonized by Wall Street Journal editorial writers and right-wing bloggers. It's even winning journalism prizes.
You can credit a change in leadership, the battle over health care reform and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for the group's evolution. The Internet also played a role, enabling new voices to emerge from across the political spectrum.
But perhaps most important was the center's highest-profile campaign of all - targeting, in a joint project with The Nation, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization twice as old and with more than seven times the annual revenue that it has.
"It's good to see them getting attention for the kind of work they do," Mike McCabe, director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, says. "Because they've been doing it a long time, and they've done some great stuff. They just haven't been noticed as much until the work they started doing on ALEC."
When John Stauber founded the Center for Media and Democracy in 1993, he never imagined it would become what it is today. Indeed, even under his 16-year tenure as its director, he says, "it went way beyond its original vision."
Stauber worked in the late 1980s and early '90s for the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based activist group fighting the use of genetic engineering in agriculture. "My job was organizing farmers and consumers opposed to Monsanto's bovine growth hormone."
Early on, it was clear to him that the chemical manufacturer was "colluding" with the federal Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to promote BGH. Public-relations documents he uncovered from a federal Freedom of Information Act request confirmed as much, Stauber says.
"One reason citizen reformers were often unsuccessful is that they were up against not just lobbyists, and not just politicians given large campaign contributions, but very sophisticated public-relations tactics," Stauber says. "I realized there was no watchdog group looking at the seamy side of public affairs and public relations."
So he started one.
"Its primary purpose was to investigate and expose the nefarious world of corporate and government propaganda," Stauber says. He kicked in his own money, gathered a board of directors, and solicited grants to pay ongoing expenses.
"We look for funding with no strings attached that lets us do the work we want to do," Stauber says. From the start, he insisted that funds come only from foundations and individuals - not for-profit companies or labor unions.
The center was born in an old-media world. Its earliest work consisted of short-form reports as well as books by Stauber with Sheldon Rampton - volumes like Toxic Sludge Is Good for You (1995), a jaded assessment of corporate public-relations campaigns, and Mad Cow U.S.A. (1997).
Mad Cow suggested the fatal brain disease then breaking out in Europe could migrate to the U.S. Some found the book alarming, but it garnered respectful reviews from the Journal of the American Medical Association and Chemical & Engineering News.
The book came out as Oprah Winfrey went on trial in Texas for breaking that state's "food disparagement" law because of her show with former cattleman-turned-vegan Howard Lyman about hazards in mass-market beef. Yet despite the obvious news peg, "the book was ignored by the mainstream media, and even most left and alternative publications failed to review it," Stauber lamented in a 2003 article published at AlterNet.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq prompted another book, Weapons of Mass Deception, which made The New York Times bestseller list. And with the rise of the web, the center launched in 2002 its signature resource: the wiki SourceWatch, which provides background information on individuals and organizations that get cited as experts on events or issues. The Center for Union Facts, for instance, is identified as "a secretive front group for individuals and industries opposed to union activities."
Among the group's shorter reports were three on the widespread use in local TV news shows of corporate "video news releases," or VNRs - brief, professionally produced spots anchored by a polished "correspondent" that purport to be about some topic of general interest, but prominently mention products of the company that secretly commissioned them.
Using VNRs without disclosing their source violates Federal Communications Commission rules requiring stations to identify all commercial sponsors. But when CMD researcher Diane Farsetta reviewed archives of local news broadcasts from across the country, she found many stations didn't follow that rule. The center and the media reform group Free Press filed FCC complaints in 2006 and 2007; last year the agency fined two stations $4,000 each.
Washington politics also helped shape the group's direction. In May 2009 Stauber was introduced to Wendell Potter, a retired public-relations executive for Cigna, the health insurance giant. Potter had helped the industry beat back the Clinton administration's health reform measure in the 1990s, and he later helped lead the industry campaign to discredit Michael Moore's 2007 documentary Sicko, which promoted universal health care.
But Potter had come to regret his work. What he's called his "road to Damascus moment" was his visit to a weekend medical clinic in his rural Virginia hometown, where volunteer doctors treated teeming numbers of patients who couldn't afford health care any other way. Potter retired from Cigna and took up a new mission - blowing the whistle on a system he'd spent 20 years defending. Health reform advocates in Washington and a journalist friend pointed him to the Center for Media and Democracy.
Stauber commissioned a background check. Back when he had organized against BGH, a Monsanto PR operative spied on him by posing as an activist. "We vetted Wendell quite carefully," he says. "He's the real deal."
Now the center's senior fellow for health care, Potter has become its primary spokesman against spin - from both the Obama administration and the insurance industry - on what would become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
In testimony before Congress and in scores of articles and media appearances, Potter criticized the bill's deference to private insurance and called for reviving the "public option": a Medicare-like alternative to the private health insurance market for consumers.
At the same time he punctured insurance industry fear-mongering about the bill. Since the act's passage, and especially in the face of the recent Supreme Court arguments over its constitutionality, Potter has defended the law's promise of medical coverage for nearly everyone.
"In 16 years of being a watchdog of corporate spin and government propaganda, we'd never had anyone do the turnabout" that Potter did, Stauber says. "The propagandists are the least likely to do what Wendell did. He was just a guy who came to the realization that he was on the wrong side of an important debate."
Stauber decided in 2008 that he and the center would benefit from a change, and he urged the board to look for a new executive director. The national search drew 60 applicants.
Lisa Graves came on board in the summer of 2009. Graves was a non-practicing lawyer in Washington who had moved between jobs in the government and nonprofit policy groups. She staffed the Senate Judiciary Committee and worked in the Clinton Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno. She also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties group founded in the 1970s to watchdog the CIA and FBI.
Fighting reauthorization of the Patriot Act and telecom companies that were snooping on customers' cell phone traffic, "I saw the Constitution getting rolled by these corporate lobbyists," Graves says. "When I saw the posting for this job I just knew it was the job for me."
Returning to Wisconsin was something of a homecoming, Graves says. A Colorado native, she had followed her then-boyfriend - now her husband - to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, graduating in 1991. She got her law degree at Cornell University, clerked at two La Crosse law firms and interned in the local district attorney's office.
Mary Bottari, a longtime trade activist with Ralph Nader's Public Citizen organization, also joined the center in 2009.
"I really wanted to work on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street financial reform bill, educating the public and finding ways of engaging the public," she says. "They were being left out of the conversation."
But Public Citizen didn't have the resources to support that work. And Bottari, who was living in Madison and commuting to the nation's capital, wanted something closer to home. At the center she created the group's Real Economy Project and its Bankster USA campaign to push financial industry re-regulation. These efforts, she says, helped strengthen the Dodd-Frank bill.
Bottari sees a natural fit between that sort of hands-on activism and the center's original mission. "It's a media and democracy issue because nobody was telling people about what was going on," she says of the financial regulation bill, which was signed into law in June 2010. "The geniuses of Wall Street, these wizards of finance, would come into Congress and just bamboozle people."
Bottari pretty much expected what followed after Scott Walker won the governor's race in the fall of 2010 and Republicans assumed control of both houses in the Legislature. "We knew there was going to be an austerity crisis, and we knew that right-wing forces were going to come hell for leather on every agenda item that they could possibly relate to the crisis," Bottari says.
With Act 10, the bill stripping public employees of most collective bargaining rights that sparked massive protests at the Capitol, "we realized it was all ending up here - in our laps."
That's when Graves made a decision. "She said, 'Okay, the entire staff is working on this, and only this, until I say otherwise.'" It was, Bottari says, a good call.
"What was happening wasn't just happening in Wisconsin," says Graves. "People were commenting on how this is starting to happen in other states." Common bills related to voter ID and union rights pointed to what looked like a common source of influence.
Then on March 15, 2011, UW-Madison historian William Cronon published on his blog an analysis suggesting that source was ALEC. The headline summed it up: "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)."
It's not like ALEC was unknown. Cronon's post had cited the center's SourceWatch entry on ALEC and its role in giving corporate insiders an inside track in shaping legislation.
Still, Cronon's essay got national attention - partly because the Republican Party of Wisconsin responded with an open records request of his emails. Up to that point, Graves and Bottari say, most of their attention had focused on the industrialists and right-wing bankrollers David and Charles Koch, already convenient symbols for the wealthy interests suspected of driving Walker's agenda. "Then it turns out that Koch Industries was a longtime member of ALEC," Graves says.
The center expanded its research beyond the Kochs to examine ALEC's fingerprints on GOP legislation making its way briskly through the Legislature to Walker's desk. Then, in April, a whistleblower contacted both Graves and The Nation.
The center already had a personal connection to the New York muckraking weekly. Bottari is married to John Nichols, the prolific Capital Times opinion writer and Nation Washington correspondent. The magazine and the center joined forces to produce a special section in the magazine and website they called "ALEC Exposed."
The documents that fell into the center's lap showed in greater detail than ever before how much the new laws being passed in GOP-controlled statehouses around the country owed to the model bills that ALEC had crafted. They also outlined the corporate influence on those bills, indicating that corporate personnel didn't just offer feedback on the legislation, they voted on its content.
"ALEC Exposed" landed with a splash, and in the months that followed, the center found new ways to push the story. Then came Trayvon Martin's shooting in Sanford, Fla. When the unarmed African American teen was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, police for weeks declined to file charges. They cited Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which legal analysts say hobbles attempts to prosecute someone who claims self-defense when killing another person.
In their ALEC model-legislation database, center researchers found the template for Stand Your Ground. The National Rifle Association, Bottari and Graves note, belongs to ALEC.
It's tempting to think connecting ALEC to Stand Your Ground is an overreach - inflated just because the center is now on a crusade to heighten its anti-ALEC brand.
No, says Graves. That tie was completely unexpected, even to her, until researchers found it in the ALEC document dump.
"The stunning thing is when I looked at those bills, I was astonished at the depth and breadth and reach and duration of its agenda," says Graves. "It hit every major issue in American life. Domestic policy, trade policy - it covered the whole set of major issues that we've been debating about for several years. It was like the tent lifted and you could see the whole elephant." She pauses, then chooses another symbolic creature. "Actually, it was a big octopus."
The national attention that "ALEC Exposed" drew, especially after the Trayvon Martin case, helped fuel a campaign by another organization, Color of Change, to pressure consumer companies to drop their ALEC membership. More than a dozen have so far - companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble.
Others have piled on. Last month Common Cause filed a complaint with the IRS challenging ALEC's nonprofit status and accusing it of essentially being a covert lobby. ALEC, for its part, insists that its practices are within the letter of the law, that it's nonpartisan and educational in nature and nothing more. (A spokeswoman for the group, after initially indicating that someone would answer questions from Isthmus, didn't respond to follow-up inquiries.)
The project has won the center some journalism awards from the Park Center for Independent Media and the Sidney Hillman foundation. It is also a finalist in investigative reporting in the Milwaukee Press Club's annual contest.
The center's staff has risen to 16, including employees, freelancers and paid interns - more than double the number when Graves joined. Output is way up, too. "We have 1,000% more writing and a lot more research," Bottari says.
The organization is just hitting its stride, says Graves. Look for a lot more to come: on dangerous weedkillers, on the national security state and, yes, even more on ALEC.
Although very different from the center of 19 years ago, Graves says, its current work continues the group's legacy of original research and public education.
Then, it was in book form. Today, it's on the web.
"We're returning to those roots," she says, "in a different media environment."