JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Short (Well, Sort Of) Introduction To The Koch Brothers Influence In North Dakota

Sunday, Jan. 10 update:

As I predicted, look for much about Kevin Cramer in Rob Port’s Sunday columns in the Forum Communications’ newspapers. As I point out below, Rob owes much to Cramer’s communications director Jason Stverak. So it’s no surprise that Cramer is the hero of Rob’s first Forum column today. Expect a regular diet.

And while I have resisted critiquing Rob’s blog posts so far, I’ll quit that shit right now: This one is claptrap. Expect a regular diet.

Now, back to your regular Sunday activities. Here’s the original post, which you’ve likely already read.

When I read about the Forum Communications Company hiring Rob Port as a regular columnist earlier this week, I thought “Well, there’s another blogger success story, making his move into the mainstream media.”

For those of you not familiar with Rob Port, he’s the editor and owner of SayAnythingBlog, a conservative political website based in Minot, N.D. For the past few years, he’s also been the North Dakota reporter for a website called Watchdog.org, a spinoff of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Don’t let the word “Integrity” in the name fool you. The Franklin Center (that link has waaaaay more information) takes a whole bunch of money from people like David and Charles Koch, the infamous Koch brothers — the ones who have  committed to spending $900 million to elect conservative candidates this year — and funnels it to right-wing bloggers and independent newspapers in more than 40 states, including Rob Port. Its goal is to elect conservatives. They’ve been doing a pretty good job. Without much integrity.

This week, Port and the Forum Communications Company announced that he will begin writing a weekly column in the company’s four North Dakota daily newspapers. At the same time, he says he has left the employ of the Franklin Center.

Rob Port may have cut ties to the Franklin Institute, but he did get in one last trip to the 2015 staff retreat and Christmas Party in Old Town Alexandria, Va., in December. That’s Port with the beard and glasses back by the door. Photo credit: The Franklin Institute
Rob Port may have cut ties to the Franklin Institute, but he did get in one last trip to the 2015 staff retreat and Christmas Party in Old Town Alexandria, Va., in December. That’s Port with the beard and glasses back by the door. Photo credit: The Franklin Institute

I don’t know if there’s a connection. I didn’t ask when I talked to him last night. It doesn’t matter.

Over the past few years, Port has also been affiliated with radio talk show host Scott Hennen, frequently appearing as a guest political analyst on Hennens’s show and filling in as guest host. Last year, the Grand Forks Herald began reprinting some of his blog posts as a weekly column. Now, the rest of Forum Communications’ papers, in Fargo, Dickinson and Jamestown, will run them as well. I’m not sure if he’ll be in the Bismarck Tribune. The Tribune subscribes to and gets much of its content from the Forum News Service, and they’ve poached other columns that the Forum service runs in their papers. I hope Port keeps an eye out for that and makes sure he gets paid by them if they use his column. He’s also an on-air contributor to WDAY-AM 970 in Fargo from time to time.

Port was pretty excited about his new gig when he announced it on his website, saying It’s a big development for me, as you can imagine … I am happy ― nay ecstatic ― to get this opportunity. I hope you all stay with me for this ride. It’s going to be exciting.”

The Forum also ran an announcement:

“FARGO — Conservative blogger and North Dakota media personality Rob Port will become a regular voice in Forum Communications media outlets beginning this week. Port will contribute to a handful of Forum Communications newspapers as well as the company’s news websites and Fargo-based radio station, AM 970 WDAY. His focus will be on state politics and current events. Port has made a name for himself in North Dakota and beyond with his blog, sayanythingblog.com, which he started in 2003. In 2011, he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and won the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence.”

Hmmm. Americans For Prosperity. That’s the right-wing advocacy group founded and funded by the Koch brothers. David Koch, one of the brothers, chairs the foundation that provides the financial resources for the group and that spreads the money around to other right-wing organizations. As I mentioned earlier, that network plans to spend almost $900 million this year to elect conservatives. I guess, in right-wing circles, it would be quite an honor for Port to get an award from them. (More about the Sam Adams Alliance in a minute.)

Port’s done pretty well for a kid with little education and not much money in the bank when he launched his website in 2003. Running it as a sideline while he worked at a local hardware store, he caught the attention of right-wing media types early on, and, as he told me this week, “I quit my ‘day job’ to go to work for Scott Hennen as a full time blogger/radio guy.”

But then along came a fellow named Jason Stverak. You might remember Jason as the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party for the first six years of the 21st century. He left after his least successful campaign in 2006 (although still pretty successful, by national standards) and went to work on Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When that fizzled, in a really fortuitous move he hooked up with a conservative nonprofit organization called the Sam Adams Alliance, which was starting a project to encourage right-leaning activists and bloggers to get online and focus on local and state issues.

The Franklin Center’s portfolio of state affiliates. SayAnythingBlog is about a third of the way down the page on the right, even though Rob Port says the blog did not affiliate with The Franklin Center and did not receive any money from them. Semantics, I suppose.
The Franklin Center’s portfolio of state affiliates. SayAnythingBlog is about a third of the way down the page on the right, even though Rob Port says the blog did not affiliate with The Franklin Center and did not receive any money from them. Semantics, I suppose.

Out of that came the creation of The Franklin Center, where Stverak put together an impressive list of conservative media outlets, eventually spreading across more than 40 states. Including North Dakota.

Here in North Dakota, Stverak pushed some money in front of his old conservative buddy with a blog, Rob Port, and started paying him to be a regular contributor to the Franklin Center’s “Watchdog Network,” posting at least weekly on the Franklin Center’s webpage under the by-line “By Rob Port-Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau.”

He was prolific. He’s a hard-working guy. He posted more than 125 stories in 2015. The website now says “Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.” Port says he quit writing for Watchdog as of Dec,. 31. Here’s a link to his last couple of stories. He also told me he has parted company with Hennen.

So I suppose he’s taken a pay cut this year, writing for The Forum instead of the Franklin Center because Bill Marcil, owner of Forum Communications, has a lot of money, but not nearly as much as the Koch brothers and that huge network of fellow conservatives and their foundations.

The Franklin Center lives on, though. A little history. According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The Franklin Center has received money from leading conservative groups. In its first year (which I think was 2009), the Franklin Center had a $2.9 million budget, much of it from the libertarian Sam Adams Alliance.”

Now, the Sam Adams Alliance is one of a tangle of conservative organizations, all funded by 200 or 300 of the richest conservative families in America, which includes (with a few links for more interesting information) American Legislative Exchange CouncilAmericans for ProsperityThe Donors Trust, the State Policy NetworkAmerican Encore, the American Future FundAmericans for Responsible LeadershipFreedom PartnersAmerican Commitment,  … the list goes on and on. The Koch brothers have their fingers in all of them, either directly or indirectly. There’s a lot of information to be had by looking at some of those links. Thank you, Center for Media and Democracy.

To be honest, I am pretty much in awe of what Jason Stverak was able to do, by tapping into that vast money network. He had Rob Ports in 40 or more states. They spread the gospel according to Charles and David Koch. And more importantly, they helped elect Republicans. It’s sure worked here, although there is a friendly political climate here, and an opposition party, once called the Democratic-NPL Party, has pretty much disappeared.

I used the past tense there because Stverak also left the Franklin Institute last year to go to work as Rep. Kevin Cramer’s Communications director. So it will be understandable if Cramer gets good press in Port’s columns this year — Rob Port owes a big chunk of his success to Jason Stverak.

Stverak’s conservative connections could also help Cramer’s fundraising this year. (Sidebar — I’m curious about Stverak’s move. He took a hefty pay cut from his $150,000 a year job at the Franklin Center to take the Cramer job at less than $100,000. But that’s a story for another day.)

It’s important, I think, for readers of Port’s upcoming columns to know this background. It’s important for them to know that Koch brothers dollars were flowing into the state through Port’s work. Oh, there was no check arriving in Minot with Charles or David Koch’s name on the signature line, but be assured that the Franklin Center’s budget wouldn’t  work without Koch money finding its way there through that tangle of right-wing groups.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. The folks at Forum Communications are free to publish anything they want to in their papers. The Forum, The Herald, The Sun and The Press are their papers. We don’t have to read them if we don’t want to. And we don’t have to read everything in them if we do.

Jack Zaleski, editorial page editor of the Forum, told me not long ago that most of his readers “have little appetite” for political columnists. Mostly, columns like the one Port will be writing (and I suppose, the blogs I write) are just red meat for the true believers and contribute to blood pressure problems for those on the other side.

By the way, you’d probably be right if you guessed that hiring Rob Port is a way for The Forum to balance its new political commentary section just in time for the 2016 election. The recently hired Mike McFeely is drawing criticism from conservative readers of the Forum papers for his liberal slant on things political in North Dakota, in his weekly column on politics. “Hush, critics. We now give you (drum roll) Rob Port!”

It would be a little brash to say that the Koch brothers have now bought 20 or 30 column inches of space in North Dakota’s major daily papers each week, but it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, given that they’ve helped Rob Port obtain some writing credentials ― and buy groceries for the last few years ― through the Franklin Institute.

If you do a little online research, you’ll learn that the Koch brothers have been the top contributors to foundations called “Donors Trust” and “Donors Capital Fund.”  According to their Wikipedia pages, the two Foundations gave the Franklin Center $22 million in the years 2011-2013. Donors Trust has passed along more than $10 million to an organization called the State Policy Network. The State Policy Network then shuffles funds along to the Sam Adams Alliance. Remember them? They created the Franklin Center.

Incidentally, just because it is interesting, you should know that the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund have given more than $100 million to think tanks and activist groups skeptical of climate change. And through the State Policy Network, they also fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, the ultraconservative group of legislators and business interests that drafts and shares model state-level legislation. Ooh, my friend Rep. Mike Nathe, the North Dakota State co-chairman of ALEC, is not going to appreciate me including THAT in this blog. Not too relevant, but, again, interesting.

And finally, I want to share a couple more interesting things with you. There’s a great chart put together by the Center for Public Integrity that shows the connections between this tangle of conservative money groups. You can get a really good look at this tangled web by going here. Thank you to the Center for Public Integrity ― not to be confused with the Franklin Center  for Government and Public Integrity. This group has earned the word “Integrity” in its name. Just takes one click, and a glance will have you shaking your head in amazement.

And here is a list of some of the past and current recipients of the Franklin Center’s largesse, (according to the Franklin Institute’s own website) with links to their websites, in case you’re a real political wonk and want to look at what is going on in the conservative movement at the state level around the country.

Meanwhile, you can catch Port’s column in The Forum this Sunday. And probably the other Forum Communications Company’s papers as well. I hope he’s a little more knowledgeable than he was in this one, in which he speculates that Doug Burgum, a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage moderate, might get the Republican nomination for governor of North Dakota. Sheesh. Well, Doug’s going to have an announcement of some kind next week. We’ll see.

End  Note: I want to give a big shout out to the Center for Media and Democracy,which provided a lot of the information for this blog. Their website Source Watch has a lot of useful  information for tracking the big money that is running (and ruining) politics these days. Just makes you cringe to look at it. They also have a couple more very useful websites, PR Watch and ALECexposed. Check them out. If your eyes aren’t already glazed over.

One thought on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Short (Well, Sort Of) Introduction To The Koch Brothers Influence In North Dakota”

  • Thomas A. Davies January 7, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Wow, this is one of the most researched and well written articles I’ve read. If I tried something like this it would take me years. Good, no, Great Job, Jim Fuglie


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