Media Campaigns and Their Sources: Dave Skinner on the Western Values Project

From Western Values Project website.

While looking at the Western Values Project following up on the E&E News story Steve Wilent mentioned here, I found this op-ed in the Sacramento Bee about the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

This campaign against reform of the conservation fund is cleverly disguised. The group behind the ads is called the Western Values Project, but it is a front group backed by the D.C.-based New Venture Fund, an organization that runs more than 100 similar projects and has received tens of millions of dollars from environmentalist interests.

And then I found this piece, from Dave Skinner of Montana, who has posted on this blog before.. an op-ed in the Flathead Beacon here.

“Do you think either of these experienced progressive public-relations workers would generate all those press releases and produce those ads for free?

Nope — so who really foots the bill and whose “Western majority” values are being voiced?

Well, we have to go back to 2013 when WVP issued its first press release, which reads (way at the bottom) that WVP “receives financial support from New Venture Fund.”

Again, readers, but not reporters, are forgiven if they’ve never heard of the Washington, DC-based New Venture, a “501(c)3 public charity [which] supports innovative public interest projects […]” NVF began in 2006 as the Arabella Legacy Fund, taking about $725,000 from Swiss eco-billionaire Hans Wyss for an “innovative” project called Responsible Trails America (RTA). RTA hired Greens to pose as off-road users on state trail funding committees, working to divert gas-tax money from motorized to non-motorized trails. That’s innovation!

From that small start, Arabella-nee-NVF has become massive. NVF’s 2015 funding, as shown on the most recent IRS “charity” tax return available, was $315.7 million bucks! From whom? Forget it, that’s not open to public inspection. To whom? Oh, the anti-gun Americans for Responsible Solutions ($1.013 million); Sierra Club Foundation ($515,000), hundreds of grants totaling $87 million, and not a dime of it political in any way. Majority western values, my eye!

There is nothing to be found about WVP, its budget, its purpose, anywhere in NVF’s records, nor on its web site, nor in any news stories.

Worse, while there’s a smallish number of “news” stories highlighting multiple “six-figure” advertising buys by WVP in multiple states the past few years — not one single “credentialed” journalist, left, right, or straight, from Montana or elsewhere, has ever caught on to WVP’s true nature.

Western Values Project is a dark-money front, buried deep inside the Russian-doll corporate structure of an unknown, yet multi-mega-dollar “charity” called the New Venture Fund. Probably, but instead, Montana’s TV media ran these ads during news prime time — grabbing big bucks while failing to spend a penny of their windfall on, yep, actual investigative news.”

If folks say “the Koch brothers do it too” that doesn’t really help IMHO. The problem to me is that you can’t interpolate the truth from two groups that are prone to using sophisticated media campaigns to make their case. They twist the facts and intentionally talk past each other. Or as Dave Skinner said in the comments to the Flathead op-ed “The real trouble is, both sides have gotten sophisticated enough at the funding kabuki that average Americans are people are getting the full mushroom treatment.”

18 thoughts on “Media Campaigns and Their Sources: Dave Skinner on the Western Values Project”

  1. I don’t buy the “both sides” argument, especially when one side is working for the public interest and the other side is lining the pocket of corporations and good ol’ boys who benefit from the status quo.

    • Whoa, 2nd, they are not working in my interest! They are working to further goals that I don’t know and might not agree with, with the end goals in mind of ….????? So isn’t the public interest what we determine via elected officials and public dialogue, not what unknown people in unknown groups sit around and determine and hyperbolize/lie to the public about?

      Again, you seem to think that “corporations” of “good old boys” are bad, but these are also corporations of other good old boys. Who knows, they might be funded by the Russians or the Saudis to stop our energy independence? I don’t think dark money is a good thing no matter who is wielding it.

      • Ever heard of externalities? Industries that can internalize the profits from exploiting public lands and use the proceeds to buy politicians who set policy (e.g. timber targets) are always going to have the upper hand against interests that are trying to defend public resources like clean water, carbon, biodiversity, and recreation. Values that cannot be internalized, nor profits diverted to buy politicians and set policy. Public values are always the underdog in our messed up system.

        • Regarding the phrase, “exploiting public lands”, they can take or leave whatever the Forest Service offers. I wouldn’t label that as exploitation. In the Sierra Nevada, the Forest Service only offers thinning, salvage and hazard tree logging. None of those ‘exploit’ the public lands. I quite doubt that the public now values USFS lands with 90% mortality in the pines. They become liabilities and sources of powerful GHG’s, unless we sequester both their carbon… and their value to humans.

        • I have heard about externalities from my economics courses.

          Why is oil and gas from public lands not a “public value”? This computer is running off electrons from public oil and gas (and coal). That’s of value to me.

          Why is timber from public land not a “”public value”? I’d rather any $ for the wood products I buy go to US folks who pay taxes and help support our public lands.

          Is drinking water from dams a public value? Are ski areas public values? They can all have negative environmental impacts.

          I don’t think our Colorado politicians are “bought” by an industry, but yes, they tend to like businesses, be it oil and gas, solar or wind, or marijuana, that provide jobs to their constituents. We wouldn’t say that they are “bought and paid for by the marijuana industry” but they are looking out for their constituents.

          Here’s a quote from D Dave Boren of Oklahoma..

          The energy industry, said Boren, “is overwhelmingly made up of independent producers that drill 90% of the wells in the U.S. They are the mom and pop outfits that run a handful of wells, the young entrepreneur seeking to expand his operation, or the regional company that employs hundreds or even thousands of people in communities across the nation….

          “Natural gas is without question the cleanest, most affordable American fuel we have,” Boren’s letter stated. “Thanks to new technologies, we can produce it in abundance if provided the access, but the benefits reach far beyond the tangible commodity. Its greatest contribution undoubtedly comes in the form of jobs — high-paying, stable, American jobs. Currently, millions of Americans are employed by the oil and gas industry, earning, on average, $45 an hour — over $93,000 a year — or double the national average estimate of jobs created by so-called ‘green investment.’

          “Moreover, the revenue you are impeding from oil and gas leasing is the largest contributor to the national treasury after income tax.

          • Picking nits:

            Sharon asks, “Why is oil and gas from public lands not a ‘public value’? This computer is running off electrons from public oil and gas (and coal). That’s of value to me. Why is timber from public land not a “”public value”? I’d rather any $ for the wood products I buy go to US folks who pay taxes and help support our public lands. Is drinking water from dams a public value? Are ski areas public values?”

            Being an old, retired economist I decided, just for fun, to look up “public value.” Public value tends to be a recently defined concept stemming largely from the work of Mark Moore, among others, some at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Here is a primer:

            I guess that to some extent there might be some derived public value attached to the various things Sharon identifies above. But that value is derived from the legitimacy and support of the overall working of the agencies of government—working in the public interest (another rather nebulous concept). My nit-picking exploration suggests that all the items Sharon mentions are better identified as “private goods” delivered from public sources.

            Or maybe I’m just ranting and raving, once again.

          • I agree and think that was 2L’s point. Back when I was an economist I think the terms were market goods (or benefits) and non-market goods, and the point here is that non-market goods can’t be sold and turned into money that can be used to buy influence to promote their production. Supporters of non-market goods can solicit donations, and they can vote, but the capitalist playing field we have is tilted in favor of things that produce profits (and the political field is tilted towards things that produce jobs).

          • I would argue that the media playing field is tilted toward what funders of media campaigns (rich people) think is important, whether market or nonmarket. Like Bears Ears, for example. The argument is that monument status yields more recreation which will yield more jobs.. that’s the story that is being told to the communities. So is this controversy about what kinds of people will make money, not that money won’t be made.

          • But the tilt is determined by how many rich people (and how much richness) think market or non-market goods are more important, and again there’s typically more money available on the commodity side. With Bears Ears you also have a marketable amenity interest in the form of a recreation commodity that allows the supporters to fight part of this battle on the traditional jobs turf of the mining companies. (Though as you’ve pointed out, recreational use isn’t necessarily the best thing for conservation.)

  2. Clearly, America isn’t ready for ‘progressive’ forest management. They aren’t educated enough to understand the science, as well as not being able to identify false claims and thinly-veiled lies. ( ie “Don’t let loggers have free reign in the Giant Sequoia National Monument” )

  3. Sharon opines, “If folks say “the Koch brothers do it too” that doesn’t really help IMHO. The problem to me is that you can’t interpolate the truth from two groups that are prone to using sophisticated media campaigns to make their case. They twist the facts and intentionally talk past each other.”

    I agree. So what do we do? In The Trouble With Reality (2017), Brooke Gladstone quotes sci fi author CK Dick (written forty years ago):

    … today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups…. I do no distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. …

    Gladstone asks, “What to do? Then says:

    If fake reality is the problem, the logical first step is to track it to its source, but that is a very short, very frustrating expedition, because fake reality begins at home. In your head. …

    Right there the trouble begins, because we all (individuals and groups) live in very different, socially constructed realities. And we are very, very threatened by attacks to our chosen realities—and therefore very resistant to any change we might make to our versions of truth and what we believe to be real.

    We desperately need to learn to talk with one another; not “to” one another; certainly not “at”one another. In the process we need to, among other things, call out fallacies of logic. In Demagoguery and Democracy (2017), Patricia Roberts-Miller labels one of these fallacies as the “fallacy of false equivalence,” and says, as one example:

    … One argues that “you did it too!” This fallacy is very common in demagoguery because of the underlying assumption that all policy issues can be settled by determining which group is better.

    Instead of just saying, You did it too!, maybe we need to look further and evaluate what each group is saying, why they are saying it, and at least what they may seek to gain by saying it.

  4. I just realized that in exploring the “why they are saying it, and what they may seek to gain by saying it”we need to be careful not to fall into a “motivism” trap: “the fallacy of rejecting someone’s argument on the basis that you assume they have bad motives, when their motives are irrelevant.” From Demagoguery and Democracy. Patricia Roberts-Miller. 2017.

  5. I agree Dave, I think we have to look at what they seek to gain.. so in this case if we were to have a conversation with the Bears Ears big monument people…

    I would say “if you want artifacts protected, why not donate to BLM law enforcement? Fund a think tank to look at different tech tools and approaches?”
    Then they would say “no we think attacking Trump is the best way to get the designation next Democratic administration and we want the designation instead because…”

    Then we could have a real conversation about what they want and different approaches including ones we all support. I think it’s about two things:
    (1) having a place where groups can talk things through.
    (2) trusting groups to do be honest and follow through.

    But I’ve found when things don’t add up, even in the FS, it’s usually about politics. It’s back to the difference between a trade dispute (adversarial, not giving info to the other side) and a mediation.

  6. “Industrial Logging Next to a Giant Sequoia Grove” is a headline that the Sierra Club might use, when paired up with this view.,-120.3328761,169m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en (link fixed)

    Yes, that is a plantation of Giant Sequoia trees, without any (current) environmental protections. However, at some point, there will be a need to thin some of those out, to keep the ‘leave trees’ healthy and strong.

    (I wonder if an eco-group would pay me for this idea)

  7. This same group is running ads in Arizona many times daily on all TV stations. My problem with their tactics, beyond the fact that his is dark money, is that the commercials play fast and loose with the facts. They are mostly unaccountable because their are so stealth and because the writers and producers of these commercials are nameless and concealed. In a culture that prizes transparency, these questionable organizations with their big-money contributors, prefer to be as opaque as possible We saw a big surge of these groups leading up to the midterm elections. No accountability and many false and misleading claims in all of their commercials. Even for a full-time researcher like myself, tracing their funding sources is nearly impossible. Many who control the content and infrastructure of the Internet agree with their positions, so any breadcrumbs that might lead back to the sources are cleansed and not indexed. If you take the millions of dark money contributions from just Tom Steyer and George Soros alone, you would find them funding dozens of these organizations. We need to pass laws that restrict the public’s access to the funders and motivation behind these groups. There has to be some accountability and vetting of the information they put out unchallenged.

  8. Thanks, Paul. I think the fundamental problem is that there is no place where individuals can go to hear both sides fairly so each “side” can be in its own bubble. That’s our own humble contribution here, at least for the info covered by The Smokey Wire.

    I do think that the terms “non- partisan” and “unbiased” are used pretty loosely!


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