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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Bullhorn Journal Exposes Inconvenient Truths on Paul Gessing, Rio Grande Foundation

All is not as it seems concerning Paul Gessing and his now rather infamous Rio Grande Foundation (RGF) -- the extreme right-wing "group" that constantly has its proposals featured in the Albuquerque Journal, as well as in other local media coverage. Whenever topics like the economy, state budget or taxes are discussed, Gessing or one of the other "spokespersons" connected in one way or another with the RGF have apparently become the go-to source for commentary on local media like public radio KUNM and KRQE News 13. Op-eds by Gessing and others in the RGF circle are often featured in the Journal -- many times without having the writers identified as RGF representatives. (See post on Clearly New Mexico.)

In other words, the outfit is given a lot of credibility and respect in our local political dialogue, whether or not it is deserving. The way in which much of the media has treated the RGF suggests the organization represents the views of a big chunk of our populace -- or at least a hefty membership list -- and that Gessing is a recognized national commentator on economic matters. Now it's been revealed that, in essence, the RGF may be nothing more than a shell organization created to publicize and push the kind of right-wing ideas that please its corporate donors, and that Gessing -- in some ways at least --may not really be who he pretends to be.

Gessing Caught Fudging?
Over at the Bullhorn Journal, Chris Dudley has been on a quest to find out who constitutes the "membership" of the RGF, and what credentials are held by its leader. He lays out a series of communications he's had with Paul Gessing, who serves as President of the RFG, which reveal that Gessing may have been less than honest about at least some of his experience.

For instance, Gessing has long claimed publicly that he has written "articles" for U.S. News and World Report, a national news magazine. Inconveniently, it now appears that the claim may be completely bogus. Dudley contacted the magazine to ask about Gessing's claim, and received this response:

“We have looked into this and we do not have any record of Paul J. Gessing writing any articles for us."

Oops. Gessing also claims that he has published "articles" in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. However, Dudley counters that he has found no evidence to support these claims either:

At this writing I have not heard from the Wall Street Journal’s or the Washington Post’s archivists regarding Gessing’s claims to have ‘written articles’ for those newspapers. But I have searched the archives and I suspect that, at best, Gessing has written Op-Ed pieces or Letters to the Editor, a far cry from ‘articles’.

In an open letter on his blog, Dudley had this to say about Paul J. Gessing:

Dear Media and my fellow New Mexicans, you have been astroturfed!

He has in effect used claims of having been published nationally to gain publishing credits locally; deceptive yet self-fulfilling.

I gave Gessing several opportunities to provide proof of authorship of something, anything, in the national outlets he claims. He replied, “I simply don’t have the time or desire to go into all of my files,” to find clips, or dates of publication or titles of articles or any proof whatever to avoid charges of deceptive practices by the Rio Grande Foundation and Paul J. Gessing.

RGF Membership and Funding
Dudley goes on to write about the conclusion he's reached about the makeup or "membership" of the RGF:

Gessing’s 990-EZ for the Rio Grande Foundation’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status (broken down in earlier posts) shows that they receive Zero, zip, nada dollars from membership dues. This despite the fact that they have an open call for dues paying members on their website. Here’s the screen grab for The 9 Club, one of the funding regimes for RGF (see blog post for image).

So how many people actually make up the organization (other than staff)?

Considering the weight Gessing and his ideas are given on New Mexico media outlets, one would expect that the Rio Grande Foundation had a large base of organized, local members. However, after repeatedly begging (in rather unrecoited fashion) for Gessing to publish the number of New Mexico members in the RGF, I am forced to say that only eight New Mexicans can be said to belong to the Rio Grande Foundation.

Eight members. Eight. Not 24 or even 16 members. But eight.

... In gross terms, Gessing’s organizational membership is .0004 percent of the population of New Mexico. Just think, you and seven pals can start a foundation and get on tv based on 3.98208064 × 10-6 community support.

Given all that, where does the RGF get its generous funding?

Astroturfing is when huge corporate interests start up local sounding fake ‘grass-roots’ organizations that use the massive amounts of money (Rio Grand Foundation spent almost a half million dollars last year) to sway public opinion in favor of corporate dominance of our public institutions. [emphasis added]

As best as I can figure the Rio Grande Foundation derives less than ten percent of it’s income from local sources (basically two donors), with the rest mostly coming from prominent right wing corporate and corporate backed non-profits and foundations like The Donor’s Capital Fund, Wal-Mart, and etc.

Dudley provides a list of RGF donors:

Of the roughly 250,000 RGF took in this year most was from out of state right-wing organizations. Here’s the list:

Donor’s Capital Fund, of Virginia, $122,500
State Policy Network, of Virginia, $30,000
Roe Foundation, of South Carolina, $15,000
Wal-Mart, of Arizona, $10,000
Atlas Foundation, of DC, $10,000

There were also two large New Mexico donors, both from Albuquerque;
Jeff Van Dyke, $12,000
Chris Baum, $5,540

So… if my math’s correct, that’s under nine percent of major donations from the state of New Mexico.

The other, roughly $53,300, monies that RGF took in are not delineated but let’s make a safe bet and guess that not much of that is from NM either (remember, no new membership dues were paid to RGF in 2009).

As Dudley says, that's classic astroturfing.

RGF Budget Recommendations
Dudley says he got interested in Gessing and the RGF after reading a letter submitted by the RGF to Susana Martinez, New Mexico's Republican governor-elect, proposing ways in which to close the $450 million budget hole in New Mexico. The proposed plan has gotten a lot of ink in the local media -- I guess because reporters are incredibly impressed with the eight people who comprise the RGF -- or something.

This despite the fact that most of the RGF proposals are, shall we say, not very consistent with common sense or political realities. These include stopping the payment of the prevailing wage on public works projects, dismantling the Rail Runner and all its feeder routes (I wonder why Gessing et al. don't suggest that our road and sewer systems should pay for themselves), abolishing state support for the film industry, cutting by half the number of higher education branches and more than doubling (!) college tuition.

RGH Staffing
How about the staff of the RGF?

What’s more interesting is the ’staff’ of RGF, a litany of rightwing ‘think tank’ economists from the coasts, a New Mexico Cardiologist, a website designer and ... wait for it ...

A New Mexican who, “has 25 years of progressively increasing experience in corporate communications, public affairs, and business development.” I don’t have any idea what that means either, but, if I get an answer I’ll let you know.

Calling All "Reporters"
Isn't it time that straight-up "reporters" probe a little more deeply into who and what the Rio Grande Foundation really is, what they are up to and why? Why is all this money flowing into our state to fund their activities and their support for allegedly "nonpartisan" vehicles like the New Mexico Watchdog blog and Capitol Report -- both of which employ the services of the same reporter? It's getting to be a regular syndicate here in terms of RGF-related mouthpieces and media outlets and yet I haven't seen one mainstream "news" outfit dig down and examine the group's makeup, the money that funds them or the fact that their "nonpartisan" messaging is sometimes anything but.

Dearth of Outlets to Challenge Right-Wing
With the New Mexico Independent gone except for one part-time blogger, it sure looks to me that most of the on-the-ground coverage out of the New Mexico Legislature will be coming from none other than RGF-related sources. Expect everything they put out to be supportive of right-wing ideology, legislation and lawmakers, not to mention our incoming Republican governor. Much of the news we'll be getting from Santa Fe during the session will be filtered through the right-wing prism of the Rio Grande Foundation -- and their corporate and right-wing extremist supporters. 

Unfortunately, the situation in New Mexico is not an anomaly. Right-wing interests have long been building up and funding powerful think tanks and online vehicles nationwide to carry their messaging, as well as the notorious right-wing talk radio and Fox News echo chambers. They will be pumping out their attacks on Democratic positions and politicos nonstop as legislatures meet, the 2012 election nears and redistricting is set to take place in every state. They'll get lots of funding and supportive TV and radio ads from both named and unnamed moneyed interests of the kind that were unleashed with the shameful Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Count on the Rio Grande Foundation's efforts to be a big part of that.

Lack of Progressive Support
What messaging and news sources will be available to fight back on our side with the facts we need to get out there to counter the right-wing onslaught? Your guess is as good as mine. I don't see much that exists now or is on the horizon. If nothing changes, we'll be fighting the good fight with one hand (or is it both hands?) tied behind our backs.

One bright spot has been the formation of We Are New Mexico, which is reportedly planning to expand its activities, but we need way more resources directed at getting the progressive message out there as we deal with serious economic, environmental, educational, health care and equality challenges. Where are you, supporters of progressive and Democratic values?

Why aren't our supporters here in New Mexico and nationwide helping to build think tanks, groom spokespersons and candidates and support blogs and other kinds of news and opinion outlets that can challenge the ideology-fueled right-wing machinery? It sometimes seems like our side is still operating like it's 1999. It's no wonder we're losing so many battles in the public eye. If the voting public doesn't get the facts or hear any persuasive arguments supporting our positions, how will we ever generate the support we need to succeed?

December 1, 2010 at 02:56 PM in Corporatism, Economy, Populism, Journalism, Media, NM Legislature 2011, Right Wing | Permalink


Where are all the Democrats with money? They need to donate some for communication and think tank efforts instead of giving so much to big environmental organizations that accomplish next to nothing.

Posted by: James | Dec 1, 2010 6:20:40 PM

I think the general problem is that methodology for communicating to the public is informed by experience from past years and decades, and generally isn't innovative or forward looking. That isn't just a progressive condition, but a human one.

However, the state of the art needs a bit of acceleration. Funding would help. Of course, special interest politics tends to be easier.

But even without funding, some effort to think more deeply about what is really going on could have an impact. A legitimate think tank effort.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Dec 1, 2010 9:36:33 PM

Let me guess that this information will not make it to the august pages of the largest statewide rag.

I hope it will get broader coverage in other places.

Thank goodness for the net.

Posted by: bg | Dec 2, 2010 7:53:02 AM

There is the mentality that having the most money automatically makes a point of view the correct one. It a point of view is obviously correct and popular if it has the money to back it up. Facts have a liberal bias and facts be damned.
I didn't think it possible but our political climate is degenerating even farther. Hard times have not furthered the cause of truth, fairness or justice. Perhaps we liberals had the notion that if things could just get bad enough then we would have the momentum for real change. Then, just when we think it could not get worse, it does. No, the common people that do not see this blog will never understand that the RGF is no voice for the "people". No one will know that the RGF does not serve the "people".

Posted by: qofdisks | Dec 2, 2010 9:23:35 AM

Yes, the problem is, how can Democrats get our message out when most of the megaphones that are the most powerful and wide-reaching are owned by corporate interests or wealthy right wingers. Our opponents are very organized and well funded. We are neither.

Posted by: barb | Dec 2, 2010 9:31:37 AM