‘Kushnick sees conspiracy where we see collaboration’
COMMENTARY | October 10, 2007
Matt Bennett, executive director of the New Millenium Research Council, requested equal space to respond to Bruce Kushnick’s commentary, “Corporate-funded research designed to influence public policy.” Here is Mr. Bennett’s response.
By Matt Bennett
Bruce Kushnick’s Oct. 1, 2007 commentary to the Nieman Watchdog makes numerous incendiary claims regarding corporate funded research influencing public policy. Many aspersions were lobbed against the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), which I serve as Executive Director. While the NMRC was singled out, Mr. Kushnick also took aim at some of the largest and most respected think tanks and scholars in America. In this regard, the NMRC is in good company. In his article, Mr. Kushnick appears to firmly believe that he alone has a monopoly on truth, especially when it comes to the telecommunications industry. His steadfast conclusion that all think tanks and scholars that write about this field are somehow unduly influenced by evil monied interests is an unfounded attack based upon his personal disagreements and not any impartial facts.
As a research group, the NMRC is a firm believer that anyone, anywhere has the right to raise legitimate questions on a given topic. However, Mr. Kushnick’s unsubstantiated accusations crossed the line from raising legitimate questions to quite intentionally smearing credible individual and organizational reputations.
Nowhere in Mr. Kushnick’s diatribe against the NMRC and other institutions does he challenge on the merits positions taken by these organizations. Rather, he questions their motivations, without presenting data supporting his thesis of pay-for-play, and concludes that they all must be corrupt. In Mr. Kushnick’s view of the think tank world, non-disclosure of any funding decision equates to complicity in some corporate-scholar mind control scheme. Mr. Kushnick’s own TeleTruth group apparently does not abide by the principles he sets forth for others--nowhere on his website is there any disclosure of funders or supporters. According to the TeleTruth website, “We are for-profit, because the non-profit status no longer indicates any independence or even working in the public interest.” This statement indicts all non-profits, even venerated institutions such as the American Red Cross and the United Way.
Surprisingly, Mr. Kushnick’s statements in his article also contradict his previous comments on non-profits receiving funding from companies. In an April 25, 2005 letter to FCC Chairman Martin, Kushnick wrote, “TeleTruth has no problem with non-profits taking donations from large corporations.” To reconcile this statement with his recent article, perhaps it should be amended to read that TeleTruth has no problem with non-profits who agree with Bruce Kushnick taking donations.
Argument Without Fact, Accusation Without Merit
Using derogatory terms like “stink tanks,” Mr. Kushnick repeatedly smears respected institutions and scholars through innuendo, and lists entities he thinks are bought and paid for because of their association with the NMRC. His premise is that NMRC experts, and half of the think tanks in Washington, D.C., are in some diabolical way gophers of telephone and cable companies. Many of Mr. Kushnick’s accusations resemble Rube Goldberg schemes and defy logic, but it is important to set the record straight on a number of his claims.
Mr. Kushnick’s sees conspiracy where we see collaboration. Developing and maintaining relationships with other think tanks, as the NMRC does – all having produced top-notch research for decades, is important to further intellectual thought and contribute to the melting pot of policy debate. It is not the evil cabal that Mr. Kushnick seems to so fear.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kushnick’s commentary goes further, claiming that these collaborations result in anti-competitive, anti-consumer policies. Again, these conclusions are not backed-up with impartial facts or data. Mr. Kushnick’s central argument is based on his view of who is pure and who is not.
As has been made clear time and time again, the NMRC is a research project of Issue Dynamics, Inc. (IDI), a 20 year-old Washington, D.C. public affairs firm. This relationship has been and is clearly stated on both the NMRC and IDI websites. [Click here for a client list from the IDI Web site.]
The NMRC works to bring attention to some of the most important telecom policy debates in America. It has repeatedly bridged the divide between partisan politics to assemble thought leaders to advance key policy debates.
As Mr. Kushnick quotes from the NMRC website, “Over its 8 year history, the NMRC has worked with more than 100 scholars and experts from across the country. The NMRC is proud to have partnered with leading thinkers from the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Harvard University, and UC Berkeley, among many other nationally renowned think tanks, universities, and organizations.” Such collaborations have enabled the NMRC and its contributing experts to be featured in leading newspapers and media outlets in the United States, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Business Week, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Washington Times, the Dallas Morning News, and Congressional Quarterly, among others.
To the question of think tanks and financial disclosure, the NMRC is not a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Since its inception it has held a consistent policy of not disclosing individual funders from the full range of supporters. This decision was made not to hide identities; rather, to prevent the erroneous conclusion that any one contributor had more weight than another. IDI, the parent organization of the NMRC, does disclose its funders.
They Don’t Like Wi-Fi, They Must Be Evil
Much of Mr. Kushnick’s criticism of the NMRC stems from a 2005 compendium author report examining proposed municipal Wi-Fi projects. The report, featuring six leading telecommunications experts (none of which received any compensation for their writing), was published at the early stages of the debate on this topic, when national interest in citywide networks was emerging. Philadelphia, PA was leading the charge to install and manage its own network, and other cities were anxious to follow suit. Up to this point in time there had been no critical assessment of the proposed Wi-Fi plans.
Identifying this topic as a key area for deliberation, the NMRC provided expert opinion from across the country. Viewpoints provided additional data for cities to consider before embarking on an untested experiment, one with potentially important consequences for municipal finances and taxpayer dollars. These respected experts offered their opinions because they thought it critical to infuse the public debate with additional perspectives. They did not make statements because they were paid to do so. Rather, they spoke out because they believed in what they said.
Following the NMRC report’s release, many muni Wi-Fi supporters took aim at the NMRC. Rather than engage in a constructive dialogue on the merits of the arguments, they resorted to name calling. Mr. Kushnick, and Mr. Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Network News, were two of the leading critics. After weeks of insulting the NMRC, Mr. Fleishman did offer some compliment to the report. On May 4, 2005, he wrote, "I can’t argue that the report did anything but bring so much attention to the issue that the efforts by incumbents to lobby municipal broadband out of existence were hampered—and that a remarkably amount of discussion ensued all of which has meant a better informed citizenry."
Despite Mr. Fleishman’s acknowledgement that the NMRC report contributed to the public debate, the culmination of attacks resulted in one respected organization to question the merits of the NMRC, without making any inquiries of the NMRC or its contributing authors. Even Mr. Fleishman later thought the negativity against the NMRC had gone too far, stating in a March 28, 2006 blog post, “I’ve notified Common Cause that they are slightly unfair to NMRC, even though I used that group as a punching bag myself. NMRC discloses its relationship to Issue Dynamics, a public relations firm that has telecom and cable clients, on its About page."
Now, more than two years after the NMRC report on municipal Wi-Fi was published, Mr. Kushnick feels compelled to again wheel out these baseless criticisms. This despite the fact that the public record is now beginning to validate the NMRC authors concerns about taxpayer funded municipal Wi-Fi. The NMRC report has proven amazingly prescient. Recently, major articles in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today documented the failure of many municipal Wi-Fi projects for the reasons enumerated in the NMRC report. As the Journal states in a September 26, 2007 article, “However, many cities with wireless networks say that there’s been little demand for their premium services and that technology issues have limited the network’s reach. Moreover, while businesses were willing to invest in advertising on these single-city networks, they complain about very little return on their investment.”
Mr. Fleishman admits the failure of these networks in the September 20, 2007 USA Today article, “‘All these big city projects were doomed to failure because they were too complicated.’”
A Proposed Witch Hunt
When the topic shifts to net neutrality, Mr. Kushnick believes equally that the NMRC and its contributing scholars have full control over the government agencies that craft telecom policy. Mr. Kushnick, when dissecting a Federal Trade Commission report on net neutrality that he disagrees with, finds that scholars and think tanks he condemned were quoted more often than organizations that share his views. Mr. Kushnick weighs policy positions not on their merits, but how many times they are quoted.
To counter this perceived imbalance in quotations and curb the nefarious influence of think tanks, Mr. Kushnick outlines four recommendations. His remedies are draconian and again presented without merit. Mr. Kushnick’s proposals calling on the IRS and Congress to launch investigations into think tank behavior would result in a witch hunt conducted by the government. Such misguided intrusions would not yield greater transparency of funding sources, rather quash valuable independent thought generated by think tanks and academics.
A wide array of Americans and organizations contribute in different ways to think tanks, ranging from one-time donations to multi-year endowments. As 501(c)(3) non-profits, think tanks disclose donations on IRS Form 990 in accordance with federal law. Most importantly, contributors have a variety of reasons for giving. No doubt, at times organizations are paid to say things, and on other occasions organizations are paid because a contributor likes what they are saying. There is a huge difference between these statements that Mr. Kushnick needs to acknowledge. In fact, all the difference in the world lies in that causal chain.
Everyone’s Voice Should Be Heard
The NMRC is proud of its record and research. Mr. Kushnick is entitled to disagree with the policy positions taken by NMRC contributing scholars. But it is long past time to end the mudslinging and name calling. Mr. Kushnick’s ongoing diatribes against organizations and scholars who do not share his views do not advance the critical policy debates that are so worthy of his time and energy. The NMRC will continue working with scholars and experts from all background and viewpoints to offer important perspectives on key issues.
[See Bruce Kushnick's response below]
Bruce Kushnick Responds
- Editor, Watchdog Project
10/12/2007, 05:18 PM
First, I would like to thank Harvard's Nieman Watchdog for posting the New Millennium Research Council's (NMRC) response. This allows the readers to make up their own mind as to the commentary I've been writing, as well as my critics' points of view.
New Millennium Research council would like everyone to believe that they have been harmed and that in some way my comments have been not been truthful or are without merit. They claim I'm also harming various other institutions by making a simple observation:
New Millennium and those quoted in the article are funded in part by large corporations, specifically, AT&T and Verizon. NMRC et al writes research and/or does PR and lobbying that is directly beneficial to Verizon and AT&T and yet, in most cases, they do not reveal their funding source unless it is revealed by a 3rd party. And, as I pointed out, these same people are also influencing regulatory agencies, including the FTC and Department of Justice, who quote these groups and experts without ever revealing that they are funded by the phone companies.
I've suggested that this is deceptive and is being done on a coordinated effort to deceive the public in policy-making situations. Also, the problem is widespread and has become common practice in America's regulatory and political affairs, biasing decisions toward large corporate interests.
In short, I'll stick by my original assessment: New Millennium is just one of the groups that claim that they are working for the pubic, but who are really nothing more than a flashy, heavily funded DC-based PR and lobbying firm, creating dubious data and who works for clients that they do not want revealed to the public because the public might actually object and question their announcements.
Let me go though NMRC Matt Bennett's comments in detail, with facts,
1) NMRC response: "Since its inception it has held a consistent policy of not disclosing individual funders from the full range of supporters. This decision was made not to hide identities; rather, to prevent the erroneous conclusion that any one contributor had more weight than another.
Teletruth: NMRC still refuses to reveal their funding sources when asked, and points to a page of "Issue Dynamics", which does list AT&T, Verizon among others. Who are the clients of New Millennium as opposed to Issue Dynamics? Who's paying the bills for NMRC's work? How much money do they receive?
2) NMRC claims it is not a non-profit: "To the question of think tanks and financial disclosure, the NMRC is not a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization."
Really? Archive.org's "way back" machine has an NMRC homepage from 2001. NMRC claimed it was a non-profit, stating "The New Millennium Research Council (NMRC) is a non-profit research organization intended to foster telecom and technology policy research focused on developing workable, real-world solutions to the issues facing policymakers." When did the status change? Please send us the IRS 990's of the years NMRC was a non-profit.
Thus, NMRC is a company for hire, doing their clients bidding. It has no public interest aspect as Issue Dynamics has a long history of working with Verizon et al and doing campaigns designed for their clients' needs. If that is not true, then NMRC should open their books for the public to see.
3) NMRC questions Teletruth's funding sources: "Mr. Kushnick's own TeleTruth group apparently does not abide by the principles he sets forth for others--nowhere on his website is there any disclosure of funders or supporters."
Thanks for asking: Teletruth's funding sources? We're broke and have no major funding sources. Over the last 5 years it can be said that Verizon, AT&T and other phone companies have funded Teletruth. At the core of Teletruth is a forensic telecom auditing firm and a market research firm and we have acted as experts in a number of cases including 2 successful class-action suits getting millions of dollars back, as well as refunds for mistakes and overcharging small businesses. Teletruth also received a grant to work with UCAN from the California Consumer Protection Fund and we received some money from the sale of ebooks. Our web site was donated by
Bwaynet and all legal assistance in our numerous FCC filings has been done pro-bono. In short, Teletruth loses money to help the public interest. Teletruth will be glad to open our books if NMRC will do the same. Or, we would be glad to sit down with your organization to help Teletruth raise money. (NOTE: Harvard Nieman does not pay for our commentary.)
4) NMRC wrote: "His steadfast conclusion that all think tanks and scholars that write about this field are somehow unduly influenced by evil monied interests is an unfounded attack based upon his personal disagreements and not any impartial facts."
The article lists organizations or companies who have received money, in many cases for 'testimony" on behalf of AT&T or Verizon, and in every case the outcome of these think tanks and scholars has been to support the phone companies' interests. As a former well-paid Senior Telecom Analyst for over a decade to AT&T,
Verizon, et al (1982-1993), I can say categorically 'Do not bite the hand that feeds you" is the rule. Research that does not represent the client's interests will not be tolerated.
5) NMRC wrote: "Unfortunately, Mr. Kushnick's commentary goes further, claiming that these collaborations result in anti-competitive, anti-consumer policies. Again, these conclusions are not backed-up with impartial facts or data. Mr. Kushnick's central argument is based on his view of who is pure and who is not."
Case Study of Deceptive Practices by Issue Dynamics:
This is embarrassing on multiple levels. Let me present facts to show the collusion and conspiracy, as it is not hard to demonstrate. Let's first go to Issue Dynamics, known as one of the Bell companies' major skunkworks providers.
According to numerous sources, including the Washington Post, Issue Dynamics helped the Gray Panthers get $100,000 to pay for a full page advertisement to complain about MCI. The funding source was Verizon. Then, Issue Dynamics (and others), created a fake rally outside the court house during the MCI-Worldcom trial, making so much noise that the judge (I paraphrase) said, "there's lots of people who care about the harms MCI has done." Then, Verizon bought MCI after a barrage of Verizon and SBC anti-competitive campaigns were run which was designed to get the FCC to remove the rules that required Verizon to open its networks to competitors.
Issue Dynamics was so proud of this work that it has it as a success story on its web site. Now that's Chutzpah.
This wasn't done to 'make' customers whole. This was a put-on job by Verizon so it could eventually buy it for pennies on the dollar.
The Washington Post article also points out that Issue Dynamics also got "the National Association of the Deaf, the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Association of People with Disabilities to support a bill pushed by the local telephone companies to relax rules that require them to share their high-speed networks with rivals."
Most, if not all of the groups are also funded via Verizon or AT&T and are co-opted as they appear numerous times in various Issue Dynamics campaigns.
6) NMRC: "Argument Without Fact, Accusation Without Merit---Mr. Kushnick’s sees conspiracy where we see collaboration."
Here's conspiracy not 'collaboration'. One has only to look at the campaigns run surrounding the Bells' wish to get rid of local cable franchising and the work done by New Millennium and the 'cabal'.
How all of this works is still a bit of a mystery but it seems that a cabal creates a series of campaigns and get groups all funded by AT&T or Verizon to discuss why a statewide (or federal) cable franchise plan needs to be implemented, replacing the local authorities. Add to this an 'astroturf' group, Consumers for Cable Choice, (and TV4US), making sure that this group's memberships are also comprised of co-opted groups almost all of whom get money from Verizon or AT&T. Have most of them cover over the fact that they are getting this money, and then put out a similar position that supports AT&T and Verizon's position. And in order to prove the point,
create multiple voices of 'research' that can be quoted as the reason why removing local cable franchising is a good idea.
NMRC did a wire service: "Experts: Lack of Cable/Video Competition Costs U.S. Consumers $22 Million A Day, Also Means Loss of Choices...Panel Finds That Cable/Video Franchise Reform is Key to Lowering Prices." It quotes American Consumer Institute, USIIA, Consumers for Cable Choice, and the Phoenix Center--- All groups funded by Verizon and/or AT&T. [Click here for link.]
"The experts (panel) concluded that further delay in cable/video franchise reform could cost consumers and communities $8.2 billion in the first year and $35 billion over five years."
Who paid for the releases? Who paid for the research? --- AT&T and Verizon ultimately? If the Phoenix Center, Consumers for Cable Choice, American Consumer Institute and USIIA are all getting funds from the telcos, and NMRC is coordinating the efforts, also paid for by Verizon and AT&T, and the groups who sign onto the campaigns are mostly co-opted groups (or unknowing that these campaigns are funded by the same companies trying to change the laws), where is the 'independence'?
I doubt that one morning all of these experts and groups woke up and decided to work together to get rid of local cable franchising. Consumers for Cable Choice was created specifically to deceive the public into thinking that there was a groundswell of consumer interest. These have been serious campaigns, done with truckloads of money, lobbyists, mailings to everyone in the state, TV and radio advertisements, papering the state legislatures, hearings where the astroturf and co-opted groups outnumber anyone else, as we described in a previous Harvard Nieman New Jersey story. None of those who testified who were funded by AT&T or Verizon explained in front of the state commission or the state legislature who was funding their organization, even though they were lobbying to change laws in favor of the phone companies. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of how the game is played.
More to the point. Not once did any of the research reference basic facts about cable/fiber deployments. As previously told, Verizon and AT&T had made state-by-state commitments to rewire the states with a fiber-optic wire to the home.
In New Jersey, they collected billions and are supposed to have 100% of the state finished by 2010 with 45mbps service in both directions and ubiquitous deployment, not to mention open to ALL competitors. This is not FiOS, which is not open to competitors, not ubiquitous, and doesn't handle 45mbps in both directions, much less is inexpensive as the original plans claimed it would be.
And yet, not once did any of these 'experts' explain that about $2000 per household was already collected in the majority of the US, and that if the phone companies had done the rewiring they had been paid to do, America wouldn't be 15th in the world in broadband. --- Or, to use their own data, because the phone companies failed to deploy, it cost America's consumer about $82 billion over a 10 year period because competition didn't lower cable prices.
The methodology used in these studies is also embarrassing. The survey was based on asking 'pointed' questions to get the required response. The survey found: "93% believe that cable TV competition is good for consumers, with only 4% disagreeing and 3% unsure." Who doesn't want competition? The question should have been --- "Which do you want - cable competition or a refund check for $2000?" I believe 95% would want their money back.
The outcome of this cabal is that Verizon and AT&T went state-to-state using Consumers for Cable Choice, TV4US, backed by the data provided by these experts and it worked --- laws were changed in multiple states instead of investigations into deceptive practices, nor did they ask for an investigation into previous commitments.
Many of the 'experts' claim that these new laws will help with investment because now the companies have less obligations. The truth is that customers have, in fact, paid for these networks with higher phone rates and tax perks. This point is never made by these experts.
7) New Millennium Research Council is a for-profit group to help its clients.
This used to be on the NMRC site:
" IDI enlists NMRC for promotional services and scholar support for economic report for client.
"Issue Dynamics worked with the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC) to provide support and exposure for release of a seminal economic study by an economic think tank. This included recruitment of academic and industry experts to provide commentary, and generating earned media pick-up in key national trade journals and major newspapers...."--- "IDI was able to provide the client with immediate support to finalize the report, host an event and generate significant earned media. ...The study was also cited by two Democratic presidential candidates as a way to reenergize the U.S. economy."
NMRC would like to hide behind the 'we don't reveal our funders'. But this is different. They are a for-hire group to co-ordinate the efforts of their paying clients. This is not simply about philosophic differences. This is about NMRC getting paid by AT&T and Verizon to control and manipulate the agenda, without revealing the funding.
8) NMRC: "Such collaborations have enabled the NMRC and its contributing experts to be featured in leading newspapers and media outlets in the United States, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Business Week, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the Washington Times, the Dallas Morning News, and Congressional Quarterly, among others.”
Teletruth: It's easy to fool reporters into thinking you're working for some 'public interest' when you refuse to disclose, in detail, your funding sources and hard questions are not asked. Next time they should ask "Who funds your group?"
9) NMRC: "To counter this perceived imbalance in quotations and curb the nefarious influence of think tanks, Mr. Kushnick outlines four recommendations. His remedies are draconian and again presented without merit. Mr. Kushnick's proposals calling on the IRS and Congress to launch investigations into think tank behavior would result in a witch hunt conducted by the government. Such misguided intrusions would not yield greater transparency of funding sources, rather quash valuable independent
thought generated by think tanks and academics."
Teletruth: Draconian? We simply asked that before someone speaks in front of a government agency, they identify who is funding them. And we asked to investigate those groups who are really consulting firms and are being paid by their clients but are not paying their fair share of taxes. Only those who have something to hide would consider this a witch hunt.
10)NMRC: Surprisingly, Mr. Kushnick's statements in his article also contradict his previous comments on non-profits receiving funding from companies. In an April 25, 2005 letter to FCC Chairman Martin, Kushnick wrote, "TeleTruth has no problem with non-profits taking donations from large corporations."
Teletruth: This is funny: I have no problem with anyone taking large sums of money from corporations if they are NOT then lobbying for the corporations. But more embarrassing, I remember that letter. I warned Chairman Martin that another astroturf group tied to Issue Dynamics called "Keep USF Fair Coalition”, which had multiple non-profits who were either co-opted or astroturf groups -- all funded by either AT&T or Verizon --- was trying to influence the commission. In fact, one of the groups, Alliance For Public Technology, is run out of Issue Dynamics' offices, and its board representative on the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee was Daniel B.
Phythyon, APT's Public Policy Director-General Counsel who was also Senior Vice President, Law and Policy of the Bell companies' main lobbying arm, the United States Telecom Association.(USTA). Thanks for reminding me.
In conclusion: Unless you reveal your funding sources before you speak to the press or regulatory agency, etc., I consider what you do to be deceptive. You are attempting to look like "consumers advocates" working in the public interest, but alas at the end of the day, Issue Dynamics and New Millennium are simply part of the stink-tanks, skunkworks, astroturf cabal that has become so prevalent in current regulatory and political arenas and it is taken as business as usual. It is not OK. NMRC and others have stolen the public interest for corporate use and it has harmed the economy and it has harmed customers.
As pointed out, had the groups in question actually called for investigations into the failed fiber optic deployments by AT&T and Verizon, America would not be 15th in broadband, our economy would not have lost about $6 trillion in economic growth or charged over $2000 per household. And America would not have paid $82 billion in higher cable fees because AT&T and Verizon didn't show up.
There's plenty of data, facts and other inconvenient truths about the harms corporate control has had over America's economic growth and services that we will continue to present.
Teletruth stands ready to debate your organization on the issues, as long as you reveal who's funding the statement and positions you take.
PS: Matt, I found your bio. You worked for Alliance for Public Technology, funded by AT&T and Verizon and part of Issue Dynamics before NMRC, and before that Alliance for Community Media. What happened? Issue Dynamics offered you more money?
The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.