Over a sizable Katherine Gregg article on page A4 of today’s Providence Journal hovers the headline, “GOP-led group questions ‘objectivity’ of bridge toll study.” The “GOP-led group” is the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity (for which this writer is research director), and the press release at issue drew on the Center’s experience with REMI economic modeling.
The Center met with economic modeling company in 2013 to compare REMI with the RI-STAMP model from the Beacon Hill Institute, which the Center was using to make predictions about the effect of eliminating the state’s sales tax. During that conversation, representatives from REMI stated that government spending is “more locally impactful” than private-sector spending, with one going so far as to suggest that doubling the sales tax would likely have a positive economic effect. (More on this later today.)
In making this a partisan issue, the Providence Journal is arguably covering for Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo. After all, economic questions are complicated enough that transforming the debate into little more than a partisan spat can ensure that the public tunes out and politicians can simply dismiss opposing views. Especially in this case, where opposition to Raimondo’s toll-and-borrow infrastructure plan is most likely to come from her fellow Democrats in the General Assembly, painting opposition as Republican is clearly helpful to Raimondo’s cause.
More importantly, the Providence Journal is building a bit of a partisan pattern in this regard. For an August 12 story about a study that the Brookings Institution is conducting of the Rhode Island economy, the Journal used the benign headline, “Think tank to conduct $1.3M economic study.” Reporter Jennifer Bogdan lists the groups and individuals funding the study, but she doesn’t mention that they are all political donors to Raimondo, including the Rhode Island Foundation via its director Neil Steinberg. With the exception of a $250 donation to Donald Carcieri in 2002, Steinberg’s $9,025 in political donations have gone exclusively to Democrats. The other Brookings backers have similar records.
Bogdan also allows Brookings Policy Director Mark Muro get away with saying merely that “Governor Raimondo’s administration has been made aware of the study.” Emails readily available via open records requests prove that the administration’s relationship with the think tank is much closer than Bogdan’s passive-voice statement would imply. In May, the governor attended and spoke to the Brookings Board of Trustees meeting, after which Brookings Director of Special Initiatives Ellen Ochs emailed Raimondo’s office to say that she’s “a superstar.”
In the weeks leading up to announcement of the study, the communications show that the governor’s office coordinated the announcement with Brookings, including a review of each other’s press release. An original version of the press release from the governor’s office includes a subhead presenting the study in terms of Raimondo’s “Engag[ing] Brookings to Identify Key Opportunities for Rhode Island’s Future Economic Growth.”
The emails also include references to other work that Brookings has done elsewhere. As with REMI, there can be little doubt that the governor knows exactly what sorts of ideological assumptions and conclusions the study will prove to contain. Inquisitive journalists might question whether the governor’s studies are really objective, open-ended investigations that might force her to rethink her approach to economic development or are simply expensive political cover meant to reinforce her pre-determined conclusions.
In short, when it comes to Governor Raimondo, her big-money backers, and progressive think tanks, Providence Journal reportage takes a see-no-connection approach. When it comes to government outsiders, like the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, that are attempting to ensure that Rhode Islanders aren’t played by their government, no connection is too tenuous to transform into a headline.
There is simply no truth to the assertion that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is led by the GOP. That is a lie. (If the same Republican board members of the Center were also on a board for a local charity putting together a food drive, one wonders whether the Providence Journal headline would be “GOP-led group works to feed the poor.”)
At the same time, the Brookings study and those funding it expose an elite inner circle stretching from Washington, D.C., through New York City, to the governor’s office, working to manipulate the public and transform Rhode Island to match a political and ideological vision.
Readers of the Providence Journal should consider the possibility that the inner circle encompasses Fountain St., too.