The New York Times (2/9/14) had a great piece of reporting about how a phony think tank can turn dollars into political influence. Unfortunately, the piece also included the usual but-the-other-side-does-it-too routine, which is often media's way of deflecting accusations of bias. But it winds up being a bias of its own.
The subject was right-wing corporate PR provocateur Richard Berman, who has a shell nonprofit that exists to promote corporate causes like opposing a minimum wage increase. The group profiled in the Times, Employment Policies Institute, gets media play because they have the money to promote themselves. But, as Times reporter Eric Lipton shows, there's not really any such group. Donations to the "Institute" wind up being funneled to his PR business, which uses the money to make ads. No one actually works at the "Institute" at all; its office is his PR firm. (The "research director" of the "Institute," Michael Saltsman, is actually a vice president at the PR firm.)
Slam dunk, great investigation–except that the Times seems to want readers to think "both sides" do it:
The campaign illustrates how groups–conservative and liberal–are again working in opaque ways to shape hot-button political debates, like the one surrounding minimum wage, through organizations with benign-sounding names that can mask the intentions of their deep-pocketed patrons. They do it with the gloss of research, and play a critical and often underappreciated role in multilevel lobbying campaigns, backed by corporate lobbyists and labor unions, with a potential payoff that can be in the millions of dollars for the interests they represent.
Of course interest groups exist, and they publish research on topics they care about (and ones that their funders care about, too).
But is there an example of a similar operation on the left? Money going to a nonexistent organization in order to profit a PR company? That'd make the Times story even more explosive than it already is. But the best they can do is this:
The left has its own prominent groups, like the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute, whose donors include nearly 20 labor unions, and whose reports, with their own aura of objectivity, consistently conclude that raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. But none has played such a prominent and multifaceted role in recent months as the conservative Employment Policies Institute.
More to the point, neither of these groups are shell organizations that serve only to funnel money to a PR company. Both the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute have substantial staffs with serious credentials that do actual research. So it's not clear what they're doing in this article–other than to deflect charges of political bias away from the Times.
If the story is about a corporate front group that buys its way into the public debate, that seems like a story all by itself. No need to waste time falsely suggesting that other groups are running a similar game.