DALLAS — In his recent article “Code Pink Stages Mini Protest at ALEC National Conference,” Breitbart.com’s California correspondent Jon Fleischman fabricates an encounter with an activist, erases a full day of anti-corporate protest, and makes a major source of corporate corruption in American state politics seem like a benign force for social good — all in just 250 words.
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has helped corporations and rich private investors pass conservative legislation for over 40 years. The legislation is written by the corporations, then passed by conservative state legislators selected and groomed by the group. The group has faced increasing criticism and protest in recent years, especially since the 2011 publication of the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALECexposed.org, a site with hundreds of these model bills and a partial membership list of the organization. Several corporate members have dropped out of the group under this pressure.
Among other policies, ALEC lobbies for the privatization of education and police and undermines laws that encourage the use of renewable energy. It also crafted the Stand Your Ground legislation that may have contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman.
Fleischman describes seeing a small group of protesters led by CODEPINK Dallas outside the cowboy-themed restaurant Eddie Deen’s Ranch, where ALEC held a kick-off dinner on the first night of its 41st national conference. Since the article features a photo of the group from inside the restaurant’s property, it’s clear that Fleischman was present on the night of July 30, 2014. But the rest departs significantly from reality.
“This article is full of errors. Big surprise!” CODEPINK Dallas’ Danna Miller Pyke said when MintPress News first brought the article to her attention — a sentiment shared by many news consumers in reference to the accuracy of Breitbart’s many published works. Many people first became aware of the site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart, from his distribution of the dishonestly edited undercover videos that destroyed the community advocacy network ACORN in 2009. Others may remember Breitbart’s infamous rape-themed Occupy rants from the days before his death in 2012. His site’s reputation for honesty hasn’t improved since then.
But digging deeper into how and why the site carries these lies can instruct us how the right-wing spin machine works to minimize those who oppose it. Though Fleischman once told the Los Angeles Times that reporting on his homepage, Flash Report, was “fair and biased,” his handling of the CODEPINK protesters has been both biased and unfair.
In his article on the ALEC protest at Eddie Deen’s Ranch, Fleischman recounts an encounter he allegedly had with an anonymous protester:
While elected officials dined on tri-tip and chicken, some taking photos on a cow brought in for the occasion, the protesters were screaming “corporate whores” and holding up signs that said, “Democracy not Corporatocracy” and “Round Up Alec and Run ‘Em Out Of Town.”
When I approached one of the Code Pink members to see if they had a comment for Breitbart News Network, the response was screamed at me, “Breitbart is part of the corporate machine! You suck!” She then went back to screaming at the top of her lungs towards the steady stream of conference attendees headed into the BBQ joint.
This encounter never happened. A MintPress reporter was present for the entire protest at Eddie Deen’s Ranch. Organized by CODEPINK Dallas, they called it “The Showdown at the Ranch.” Dressed in pink Western wear and carrying banners and toy handcuffs, the idea was to show ALEC members that they were a criminal influence corrupting American politics — and to show the people of Dallas, too. An airplane circled downtown that evening, trailing a banner warning residents against the presence of ALEC in their midst.
While MintPress remembers a man matching Fleischman’s description taking photographs of the group on a smartphone, at no point did he or any other individual approach the group and identify themselves as a representative of Breitbart.com or any other conservative news outlet. To verify our recollections, MintPress spoke with two additional members of CODEPINK Dallas — Kit Jones and Leslie Harris — as well as Roy “Train Wreck” Sudduth, an independent videographer who recorded the entire protest.
After checking his footage, Sudduth confirmed, “My review didn’t show a conversation. I remember the photos being taken.”
Pyke added, “I don’t believe that happened, either. We would have noticed.”
Pyke reinforced the notion that while Fleischman spoke only with an ALEC member and not a member of CODEPINK Dallas, “He purports to know our complaints without talking with us about them.”
Further, the group was approachable — CODEPINK Dallas members held conversations of varying lengths with members of the ALEC delegation. Fleischman’s own photo shows a man in a dark suit conversing with the group — a man who identified himself as a Republican state lawmaker. He had a conversation lasting about 15 minutes with a member of CODEPINK before exchanging contact information with her.
Fleischman also erases a busy day of active free speech when he describes the Showdown group as “thus far … the only protester presence.” Protests had actually kicked off earlier that day when hundreds of activists, including many union members, rallied at the Hilton Anatole (ALEC’s home for the week) in an event called “Don’t Mess With Texas, ALEC.” After the rally, a similar sized group listened to the “Stand Up to ALEC” panel discussion at the nearby Community Brewery, featuring guests such as Jim Hightower, Connor Gibson of Greenpeace and Shahid Buttar from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Even though he’d missed these events, a social media search or some old-fashioned journalistic fact-checking would have set him straight.
More spinning than grousing
Worse than lying about his attempt to speak with activists is how Fleischman turns ALEC into a benign, even beneficial influence on American politics. The spin begins from the very first sentence:
This week the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a national organization made up of conservative state legislators from around the country, is holding its annual convention in Dallas, Texas.
To hear Fleischman describe it, ALEC is the same as any other political caucus where legislators meet to discuss the future of public policy. But a key difference is that ALEC’s legislators are picked by the organization’s other members — corporations and private investors — for their willingness to introduce ALEC’s selected legislation.
Some of these conferences have drawn massive protest crowds from the ideological left, grousing about ALEC’s pro-market bent, and objecting to active participation in the group by large corporate sponsors.
Now Fleischman tries to mention corporate involvement in passing, as if it were only peripheral. In fact, late last year the Guardian revealed that these legislators are expected to swear a loyalty oath to the organization, which includes the Koch brothers among its sponsors. ALEC’s lack of transparency has also been criticized; reporters like Truthout’s Candice Bernd are routinely refused access to the conferences despite meeting the group’s stated media guidelines. And far from “grousing” about a “pro-market bent,” diverse groups from constitutional rights pundits to the Alliance for Retired Americans have made specific and clear objections to the way its policy of profits-over-people is written into law nationwide.
State Senator Joel Anderson, who is Chairman for ALEC in California, reacted to the protesters by saying, “Hey, this is a free country. We’re here to discuss policies to foster economic prosperity for everyone in America, even those folks yelling at us.”
Kit Jones from CODEPINK Dallas calls Anderson’s statement “total bullshit.”
“They’re not working for us, they’re not working for economic prosperity for everyone. They’re working for economic prosperity for themselves: the corporations and their lackeys, their hired guns, which would be the legislators,” Jones explained.
As an example, Jones highlighted Missouri’s ALEC-inspired “Right to Farm” amendment that pits large-scale corporate agriculture against small farmers and the environment. As of this writing, the hotly contested bill passed by less than half a percent of voters and may be subject to recount.
A nonpartisan movement
Fleischman’s article attempts to place ALEC and the protests against it within the traditional partisan political narrative. He depicts sensible, logical conservatives enjoying a bit of R&R while a pocket of the activist left loudly and senselessly rails against them.
MintPress asked Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, about whether fighting ALEC’s influence was about the right versus the left or a larger issue of democracy. Buttar stressed the threat to democracy was larger than that posed by ALEC alone, but went on to say, “My real interest is in building a voice for ‘We The People’to force the institutions to respect our rights. And you’re absolutely right, anyone should care about these issues.”
On some issues, like surveillance, he said the Libertarian and Tea Party Republicans are “more activated.”
“The anti-ALEC crowd was all Democrats,” he said, “but quite frankly, that crowd can’t get anything done. It never has. The best they can do is get into office elected officials that then betray them at every opportunity.”
“Without a movement to ensure the accountability of the electoral gains, without a movement to force the conversation about the needs of ‘We The People’ beyond what the policy sphere is currently addressing, without the movement to force change, there won’t be any,” Buttar concluded.