Despite media hype, Tennessee liberals benefit from out-of-state money

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Despite media hype, Tennessee liberals benefit from out-of-state money

Posted By Chris Butler On May 18, 2015 @ 4:00 am

Photo courtesy of Flickr

FAIR? Out-of-state money going to conservative causes might a big topic for the state’s largest newspapers.

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Reporters from Tennessee’s four largest newspapers used a slew of catch phrases in stories about out-of-state money influencing state politics.

Phrases such as: “Secret money,” “Corrupting influence” and “Frightened Republican lawmakers.”

The stories are the product of the Tennessee News Network, a collaboration of reporters from the Nashville Tennessean, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Knoxville News Sentinel. Those stories focus on money coming into Tennessee from conservative organizations, such as Americans For Prosperity [2], the American Legislative Exchange Council [2] and groups that favor school choice and school vouchers [3].

Former Chicago Times editor Alan D. Mutter, who follows and blogs [4]about the newspaper industry, said the decline of newspapers has led to such collaboration.

“Collaborative reporting is becoming increasingly commonplace,” Mutter said.

“The reason is that newspapers have experienced a catastrophic drop in their advertising revenues the last 10 years. To make a long story short, newsrooms have far fewer resources today than they did three, five or 10 years ago.”

But does that collaboration lead to a newspaper collective, in which all members speak in a single voice?

Other than a few passing references to the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO, the newspapers have yet to uncover stories about out-of-state money from liberal interests swaying politics in Tennessee.

Nashville media personality Steve Gill, who has monitored the state’s media outlets for years, senses a trend.

“It bothers the left-leaning newspapers now that conservatives have exercised a majority in the state Senate and the state House, and increasingly you are seeing a conservative agenda passed because, wow, the people of Tennessee elected conservatives,” Gill said.

“You’ve had left-of-center money play a huge role for a long time in this state. It’s the fact that results are coming and the left-wingers’ heads are exploding in the press.”

One article [2] quoted State Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, saying ALEC was “self-serving,” “very partisan,” and “extremist.”

Photo courtesy of Twitter

Jack McElroy

Other stories focus on how cash from other states has helped Tennessee conservatives fight for or against a number of things, including their successful effort earlier this year to kill expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

Tennessee Watchdog found one liberal interest group, known as the Heartland Accountability Project, that has tried to influence state politics — as recently as this year.

Last summer, various media outlets dwelled on groups affiliated with the Koch brothers and their seeming effort to influence judicial retention elections.

But the papers failed to report, as Tennessee Watchdog did [6], that groups affiliated with liberal billionaire George Soros made efforts to influence those elections.

Tennessean News Director Maria De Varenne was non-specific when asked Friday if her newspaper uncovered any evidence of Soros’ money coming into the state.

But De Varenne did talk about a favorite villain among the left.

“We did these stories because of the influence of the Koch brothers in a couple of previous elections and the examples cited of how much money was coming in to influence some particular legislation,” De Varenne said.

“The reporters felt like that was a topic that could be mined into a much greater enterprise.”

Knoxville News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy said political bias isn’t driving these stories.

“This is not a liberal agenda-driven series,” McElroy said.

De Varenne, meanwhile, said the editorial board of her newspaper endorsed Mitt Romney for president over Barack Hussein Obama in 2012.

“We always present both sides of the issue,” De Varenne said.

When the reporters work together they do so in an informal, loosely connected way, with no formal meetings or business arrangements, McElroy said.

“There has been an influx of out-of-state money in a lot of places, not just in Tennessee,” McElroy said when asked why the newspapers chose this story.

“There has been kind of a trend nationally, where organizations are finding that they’re able to influence national policy by working through the legislatures.”

Officials with the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Chattanooga Times Free Press did not return requests for comment.

The newspapers that are working together, with the exception of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, are owned by corporations based out-of-state.

McElroy and DeVarenne said they were unfamiliar with the Heartland Accountability Project. Heartland is registered in Virginia, according to the Virginia Corporation Commission website.

Earlier this year, Heartland ran a series of radio ads [7] pressuring State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, not to oppose Insure Tennessee, which was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed attempt to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

Photo courtesy William & Mary Law School

Liz Howard

The group has also campaigned for liberal causes in Oklahoma [9], according to one Tulsa television affiliate.

“If this group is in the same league as some of these organizations we’ve reported on then we ought to be aware of them as well,” McElroy said.

There is no registered PAC called Heartland Accountability Project that would require disclosure with the state of Tennessee. They’re an independent expenditure group running issue ads. They’re not a campaign outfit.

According to documents obtained from the Virginia Corporation Commission [10], Liz Howard, an attorney with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb, filed Heartland’s articles of incorporation.

According to the firm’s website [11], the firm has a specific interest in Democratic Party and other progressive causes and represents

A woman who answered the phone at the law firm Thursday said Howard was no longer at the firm. The same woman said someone at the firm would return Tennessee Watchdog’s request for information on Heartland — but no one called back.

As for Howard’s whereabouts, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, appointed her to work as deputy commissioner for that state’s Department of Elections [12], according to the state’s website.

Related: Republicans blast ‘most-traveled’ McAuliffe [13]

When reached at her office Thursday, Howard said she did not know what Heartland is; she later asked that Tennessee Watchdog send questions to her via email. According to an online biography [14], Howard previously worked for former Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and was the chief financial officer for the Tennessee Democratic Party.


As of Friday afternoon, Howard had not responded to our email.

Newspapers collaborate, in part, to survive. But they should stay careful, says Mutter.

“The only risk is that they like the idea of collaboration so much that they start sharing stories all the time and they stop competing to report,” Mutter said.

Contact Christopher Butler at [15] 

Follow Tennessee Watchdog and receive regular updates through Facebook [16] and Twitter [17]   

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URLs in this post:

[1] Image:

[2] Americans For Prosperity:

[3] groups that favor school choice and school vouchers:

[4] blogs :

[5] Image:

[6] as Tennessee Watchdog did:

[7] a series of radio ads:

[8] Image:

[9] The group has also campaigned for liberal causes in Oklahoma:

[10] According to documents obtained from the Virginia Corporation Commission:

[11] According to the firm’s website:

[12] Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, appointed her to work as deputy commissioner for that state’s Department of Elections:


[14] According to an online biography:


[16] Facebook:

[17] Twitter:!/TennWatchdog

[18] Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!:

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