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A Marriage Made in Madison
Merging with The Progressive, the Center for Media and Democracy burrows more deeply into the media world.

Two Wisconsin media institutions with a national reach are becoming one.

This week, The Progressive and the Center for Media and Democracy went public with a merger the two left-of-center non-profit corporations quietly consummated last month. It’s a combination that Lisa Graves, the CMD executive director who will now head the combined operation as president and publisher, says will help both win larger audiences while sharing resources.

Graves spoke with me Wednesday morning, just after news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to abolish federal limits on campaign donations – a ruling that she ascribed to “arrogant judges who are issuing these decisions that are corrupting our democracy.”

In light of that ruling, she says, the merger is more timely than ever.

“We need to join forces wherever we can to expose the corruption,” says Graves. “We are better situated to have a more powerful voice.”

The Progressive celebrated its 100th birthday five years ago. But the monthly founded by maverick Republican Bob LaFollete has been struggling of late, writes Judy Davidoff – who broke the news of the merger Tuesday afternoon on the website of the Madison weekly Isthmus.* Earlier this year The Progressive laid off five people, Davidoff reports.


Graves says the merger builds on the complementary strengths of the two organizations. The Progressive has “a tremendous legacy of fantastic writing” by staff as well as by notable outside contributors including Martin Luther King, Jr., the late historian of popular movements Howard Zinn, and latter-day lefty pundits such as Jim Hightower.

Meanwhile, CMD has in recent years forged a national reputation for its investigative advocacy. Probably its biggest splash came with its exposure of and campaign against the American Legislative Exchange Council. For decades and with little notice until CMD began dogging the group ALEC has brought legislators and corporate officials together to draft proposed state laws that benefit the interests of for-profit corporations, regardless of their impact on the public interest. When someone leaked a trove of ALEC documents, CMD got wide exposure for the group’s work that later fueled a campaign to force companies to drop their association with the group.

At The Progressive, “we have this incredible name and historic tradition of fighting the robber barons,” Ruth Conniff, the Progressive’s editor, told Davidoff, who is news editor at Isthmus. “And CMD is the premier operation fighting the modern robber barons. It’s exciting to marry the two. I think there will be a lot of symbiosis.”

Graves believes CMD’s “really strong newsroom and expertise in investigations” and its in-house graphics team can enhance The Progressive’s content as well as improve its balance sheet.

“I think we’re going to bring a lot of great original reporting into The Progressive in addition to the work already done by the tremendous writers they have on staff,” Graves says, while saving the magazine money “in significant ways.”

Initially, The Progressive’s publisher Matt Rothschild approached Graves about moving to the magazine as his possible successor. Intrigued by Rothschild’s invitation but torn by her own loyalty to CMD, she says, she mentioned the dilemma to a relative who suggested perhaps the two groups could combine. When she raised that with Rothschild, “Matt said he was thinking same thing,” she says.

The two organizations’ boards unanimously approved the merger in March. Last week, CMD quietly moved its staff into The Progressive’s offices on Madison’s East Main Street, five blocks from the state capitol building. CMD personnel have collaborated with The Progressive on content since last year and took a larger role in graphics and other publishing tasks for the magazine over the last couple of months. The July issue, which comes out in mid-June, will be the first completely produced under the new post-merger operation and will include a redesign, Graves says.

Activist John Stauber founded CMD in 1993 as a counterweight to corporate and government public relations and propaganda and perceived media complicity with the same. From the start, CMD has also made research and publishing part of its mission. The group issued reports and books Stauber wrote with his then-colleague, Sheldon Rampton, aimed at an array of targets. They attacked the use of sewage sludge to fertilize farmland; the commercial beef industry; and U.S. claims in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, including possible nuclear weapons. Those claims, which the Bush Administration used to justify the Iraq War begun in 2003, were ultimately discredited.


For much of the first decade of this century, CMD’s focus increasingly was on the media itself as an institution. Among its reports were several on the use by local TV stations of corporate “video news releases” inserted into their regular daily newscasts without disclosing their origins.

In 2009, Stauber stepped back and the CMD hired Graves (a non-practicing lawyer whose career had spanned working in the Clinton Justice Department and for various civil liberties organizaations). With her arrival, the Center’s output exploded.

Seeking a stronger government role in reshaping the health system, the group chastised federal lawmakers and the Obama administration for not taking a harder line against insurers and large corporate healthcare providers. It organized support for much stiffer regulations on Wall Street after the 2008 economic collapse. And it began dogging Gov. Scott Walker as he took office in 2011 and began swiftly implementing policies such as the early attack on public workers’ labor unions, Act 10.

As Graves sees it, work on those and other issues were in the spirit of CMD’s origins under Stauber. “The roots of CMD are deeply in investigative journalism,” she says. “We really returned back to those roots that John had sent down, and we’ve been working really hard for the last four years to break news and do research that transforms the conversation about these issues.”


Under Graves, CMD has worked closely with a number of publications, particularly the national left-of-center weekly The Nation, to leverage a wider audience for its investigative work. And it’s won some journalism awards of its own, including recognition from the Milwaukee Press Club. Adding The Progressive will give it yet another platform, Graves says, but she expects other media relationships to continue.

Meanwhile, the new consolidated non-profit is getting ready for a party next Wednesday, April 9 and bringing in Progressive contributor Hightower for the occasion. “He’s going to actually do a marriage ceremony, to marry the two organizations,” says Graves.

Hmmm.... with that Wisconsin constitutional amendment barring any marriages except those between a man and a woman, will that even be legal?

It does pose an interesting dilemma, Graves acknowledges with a laugh: “Well, we don’t even believe that corporations are people.”

*In addition to being a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine, I’m also on the Isthmus  masthead as a senior contributor. I wrote for the Madison weekly about CMD and its ALEC Exposed project in 2012.

 

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