- Anti-capitalist, anti-corporate organization
- Seeks to expose right-wing “public relations spin and propaganda”
Established in 1983, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) aims to strengthe[n] participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda — focusing largely on what it views as the transgressions of political conservatives. Another CMD objective is to assist liberal and leftist “grassroots citizen activism that promotes public health, economic justice, ecological sustainability and human rights.” Toward these ends, CMD produces articles and blog posts on the political, social, and economic issues of the day.
In CMD’s view, capitalism generally, and corporations in particular, are the principal root causes of societal ills in the U.S. and abroad. The Capital Research Center, which rates the ideological leanings of nonprofit organizations, places CMD near the extreme far left of the spectrum. The website ActivistCash, which provides “information about the funding source[s] of radical anti-consumer organizations and activists,” characterizes CMD as “a counterculture public relations effort disguised as an independent media organization.”
Members of the CMD Board of Directors include: Joseph Mendelson, a former Director of Friends of the Earth and co-founder of the environmental organization Center for Food Safety; Anna Lappe, co-founder of the social justice organization Small Planet Institute and a former W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellow; David Meritt, former Executive Director of the Citizens Utility Board (a Wisconsin consumer advocacy group that opposes utility rate increases); Inger Stole, an assistant professor at the Institute of Communications Research; and Jan Miyasaki, an Asian American Studies professor at the University of Wisconsin.
The most notable CMD Board member is Ellen Braune, whose leftist affiliations are extensive and longstanding. She currently serves as Vice President of Communications at the Ms. Foundation for Women, and was formerly a Senior Vice President at Fenton Communications and a Communications Director for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Part of the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council, CISPES was established in America in 1980 by high-ranking members of the Salvadoran Communist Party and Cuban intelligence to support El Salvador’s murderous guerrilla bands and to influence American public opinion through protests and one-sided disinformation.
CMD was founded by the leftist writer and environmental activist John Stauber, who continues to serve as the Center’s Executive Director. Stauber began his activism in high school when he organized anti-Vietnam War protests and early Earth Day events. The co-author (with SourceWatch founder Sheldon Rampton) of six books, Stauber created the now-defunct website Vote2StopBush.org. He is also an unpaid advisor to several organizations, including the Action Coalition for Media Education, the Center for Food Safety, the Liberty Tree Foundation, the Media Education Foundation, and the Organic Consumers Association.
The aforementioned Sheldon Rampton currently serves as CMD’s Research Director. A graduate of Princeton University, Rampton was formerly an outreach coordinator for the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua, a group established in 1984 to oppose President Reagan’s efforts to stop the spread of Communism in Central America, and currently dedicated to promoting a leftist vision of “social justice in Nicaragua through alternative models of development and activism.”
An April 2001 commentary in the liberal publication Village Voice said of Rampton and Stauber: “These guys come from the far side of liberal.”
According to ActivistCash, “Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber operate … from the presumption that any communication issued from a corporate headquarters must be viewed with a jaundiced eye. … [T]hey recently referred to corporate PR as a propaganda industry, misleading citizens and manipulating minds in the service of special interests. Ironically, Rampton and Stauber have elected to dip into the deep pockets of multi-million-dollar foundations with special interest agendas of their own. Their books Mad Cow U.S.A. and _Toxic Sludge Is Good For You _were produced and promoted using grant monies from the Foundation for Deep Ecology ($25,000) and the Educational Foundation of America ($20,000), among others. Along with the more recent Trust Us, We’re Experts, these books are scare-mongering tales about a corporate culture out of control, and each implies that the public needs rescuing. … If someone in a shirt and tie dares make a profit (especially if food or chemicals are involved), Rampton and Stauber are bound to have a problem with it. Unless, of course, that food is vegetarian, organic, certified fair-trade, shade-grown, biodynamic, or biotech-free — in which case, the sky’s the limit!”
In his 2005 article, “Strategy for Progressives: Where Do We Go from Here?,” Stauber lauded the violent 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle and the anti-Iraq War protests of 2003, though all these events were replete with political propaganda, which CMD professes to disdain. The fact that the propaganda was of a leftist nature made it acceptable to Stauber, who in the same article praised Moveon.org as a “brilliant and effective internet-based activist group.”
CMD sponsors the following projects:
- PR Watch Quarterly: “investigates and exposes how the public relations industry and other professional propagandists manipulate public information, perceptions and opinion on behalf of governments and special interests”
- Spin of the Day: “offers web-based daily reporting on public relations, propaganda and media spin”
- SourceWatch: an Internet-based “encyclopedia of people, issues and groups shaping the public agenda”
In addition to these projects, CMD has established an in-house Resource Center that “answers inquiries from journalists and other members of the public seeking to understand the forces and influences behind current issues.”
The Center also provides skills training sessions designed ” to share best practices and success stories with citizen journalists and activist groups, through workshops and CMD’s publications.” These publications include the three previously cited Rampton-Stabuer books, as well as their other three: The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq; Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq; and Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America Into a One-Party State.
CMD officials make frequent media appearances to spread their message. In recent years, they have given interviews to such outlets as Air America Radio, Al Jazeera, AlterNet, The American Prospect, CommonDreams, Democracy Now!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Mother Jones, The Nation, The New York Times, and TomPaine.com.
The Center has collaborated with other leftist organizations on a number of projects and campaigns. For example:
- CMD and Adbusters co-endorsed the 2001 “National Ad Slam Contest” (a project of the Ralph Nader-founded Commercial Alert), which awarded money to schools that barred advertisers from their premises.
- CMD joined the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Humane Farming Association in filing two lawsuits against the federal government in 1999. Alleging that existing federal protections did not adequately protect the American public from Mad Cow Disease, the plaintiffs demanded changes to meat-processing and labeling regulations.
- CMD is a member of the Foodspeak coalition organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which seeks to give far greater legal latitude to critics who publicly condemn the food industry’s allegedly unsafe practices. Other members of Foodspeak include Alliance for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Environmental Working Group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
- At the height of the U.S. mad-cow scare, CMD’s John Stauber shared a press-conference dais with the Environmental Working Group‘s Ken Cook, warning journalists that a “crisis” threatened America’s meat supply. The event was organized by Environmental Media Services, the now-defunct media arm of Fenton Communications.
- CMD is a member organization of the anti-technology Turning Point Project, whose Board member Joe Mendelson also sits on CMD’s Board.
Over the years, CMD has harshly criticized conservative organizations that accepted money from donor-advised funds, which are intermediaries — such as foundations or financial institutions — that funnel contributions from donors to their intended beneficiaries while keeping the donors’ identities secret. Though this practice is legal, CMD has characterized it as ethically shady — and limited mainly to conservatives. In November 2013, in fact, the Center launched a national campaign to reveal the identities of anonymous contributors to conservative groups.
But in early December of that year, media reports revealed that in 2011, CMD had received $520,000 — 60% of its $864,740 total revenues for the year — from the Schwab Charitable Fund, which is a donor-advised fund. And neither CMD’s tax returns or its website made any mention of Schwab.
CMD has received financial backing from the Bauman Family Foundation, the CarEth Foundation, the Carolyn Foundation, the Cold Mountain Foundation, the Deer Creek Foundation, the DJB Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, Ettinger Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Funding Exchange, the Grodzins Fund, the Harold K. Hochschild Foundation, the Leo J. & Celia Carlin Fund, the Litowitz Foundation, the Marisla Foundation, the Mostyn Foundation, the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Park Foundation, Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Stern Family Fund, the Threshold Foundation, the Turner Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, and the Winslow Foundation.