Carolina Journal hides relationship between astroturf author, advocacy group and a source

A Carolina Journal article supposedly reporting of critics opposed to municipal broadband in North Carolina failed to reveal the relationship between an advocacy group, the author and a source.

I had been coming to appreciate the contribution of Carolina Journal to the state’s media mix. Despite its obvious political agendas, it still frequently manages to report on issues and legislation at the state level with a regularity and detail missing from local media.

Carolina Journal crossed a line this week when they engaged in some bad ol’ astrotrurfing, the practice of publishing what appears to be an authentic piece of journalism while masking who is really behind it. It is unethical.

In “Critics warn against plan to allow city-owned broadband systems“, author Johnny Kampis reports of reactions by “critics” to a push by the North Carolina League of Municipalities to make changes to state laws governing publicly owned broadband internet infrastructure.

We were not told that Kampis works for one of the two “critics” he cites in his article. Kampis quotes David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance as a critic of municipal broadband. Kampis is an investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation.

The foundation describes itself as supporting “smaller more accountable government.” According to the Louisville Business Journal it is “affiliated with the politically powerful Koch brothers,” known for their financial support of conservative causes and criticized for deploying fake grassroots movements in the service of corporate interests.

The facts of Kampis’ affiliations to this advocacy group or to a source he cites were not provided to the reader.

After getting an email from me, Carolina Journal added this note to the bottom of the article:

Johnny Kampis is an Alabama-based freelance writer who has worked for and written for the Taxpayer Protection Alliance along with many other publications.

Written for”? “Along with many other publications”? One wonders why Carolina Journal fudges here and will not describe Kampis as the Taxpayer Protection Alliance does on its About page:

“Johnny Kampis  is investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance and Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation.”

I was also curious why the Taxpayer Protection Alliance or the other organization from which a “critic” was cited were only named, and not described in some way. I asked:

“[The article] cites two “critics” and describes them only by their positions with their organizations but without describing those organizations, such as their purpose, their activities and their funding. Isn’t that information pertinent to the reader?”

Rick Henderson, editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal replied:

“We don’t cite the funding sources of various nonprofit organizations because it’s none of our business, nor is it anyone else’s.”

As troubling as it is that an editor thinks salient facts are nobody’s business, it is also apparent that principle goes out the window when Carolina Journal needs it to.

Here is how Carolina Journal described some groups in an article about North Carolina elections, published under Henderson’s watch as editor-in-chief:

“Alongside academic partners, the Electoral Integrity Project lists progressive funders, including the Open Society Foundation, created by billionaire political activist George Soros; the Sunlight Foundation, a group that purports to back political transparency but has attacked the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as “open[ing] the door to the unfettered, unregulated influx of money into elections;” and the Hewlett Foundation, which provides grants to left-leaning environmental and activist groups.”

Way, Dan, “Study comparing N.C. elections to North Korea’s called ‘bad science’.” Carolina Journal, January 9, 2017, accessed Feb. 28, 2019

Carolina Journal has no qualms about describing the funding and activities of organizations when it serves their agenda to do so.

Maybe Carolina Journal is sensitive to applying this kind of transparency to conservative organizations because it is itself a product of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank co-founded by Art Pope, a North Carolina business man and staunch conservative.

Regardless, Carolina Journal cannot lecture about ethics in journalism while ignoring the plank in its eye. Nor can it pretend it has ethical standards for reporting if those only apply when convenient. Not if it wants to maintain credibility.

Journalism with a point of view can be legitimate and informative, but not when it is done with deceit. Carolina Journal should recognize that it has an opportunity to get its advocacy out to a wider audience because it also fills an informational void. It will lose that audience however if it destroys its credibility by trying to hoodwink its readers.

Roch Smith, Jr. is a freelance website designer, writer and civically engaged citizen. In 2015, he was awarded fourth prize in a federally sponsored competition for ideas to advance the economy of Greensboro, North Carolina with a proposal for a municipally owned public WiFi network.