By BEN SMITH
Impressed by the effectiveness of the liberal Center for American Progress, a group of conservative journalists and operatives are preparing to engage in their own sincerest form of flattery — launching an advocacy group with a similar name and mission but very different target.
Part assault on CAP and part homage, the Center for American Freedom’s goal is to wage a well-funded assault on the Obama White House and the liberal domination of partisan online media.
Based in Washington, it will have an annual budget of “several million dollars,” according to its chairman, Michael Goldfarb, and will house a new conservative online news outlet, the Washington Free Beacon, edited by former Weekly Standard writer Matthew Continetti. It will also include a campaign-style war room led by two former chiefs of the Republican National Committee’s vaunted research operation, and a media-monitoring shop that aims to do to MSNBC what Media Matters has done to Fox News.
“This is a fairly modest start-up that really hopes to combat the Center for American Progress and create something that in the not-so-distant future can be competitive,” said Goldfarb, 31, a former Weekly Standard writer who is now a partner in the lobbying firm Orion Strategies, where his clients include Charles and David Koch — liberal bugaboos and dominant funders of a range of conservative causes and politicians.
A spokesman for Koch Industries said the company had no connection, financial or otherwise, to the new Center for American Freedom. But the group’s birth is the latest chapter of an ongoing battle the Kochs and other wealthy conservatives have been engaged in for a generation. It was their money and encouragement that helped build a vital conserative infrastructure in the 1970s that CAP was somewhat belatedly founded to counter three decades later.
But while conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation remain important sources of conservative policy and strategy, they have struggled to mix it up in the new online media sphere. CAF’s founding marks a recognition of the success of the Democratic online infrastructure and its spectrum of successful partisan media operations, which have blended journalistic values of speed and accuracy with ideological and partisan goals to great impact.
“It’s very impressive what they’ve done,” Goldfarb said. “Obviously, I think they’re misguided and they have some horrible policy views and they’ve done some things I wouldn’t do, but the premise of it is extremely impressive.”
A test run for CAF, Goldfarb said, was the Emergency Committee for Israel, which he also advised, and which waged a relentless guerrilla media campaign against the efforts of J Street — a national membership organization with a sizable Washington staff — to create a liberal counterweight in American Middle East policy.
“That showed that you can have a less well-funded organization but you can present a pretty devastating asymmetric counterweight to something much larger and more established on the other side if you go about it in an effective way,” Goldfarb said.
Another model may be Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe, a tiny group with similar leadership — Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Goldfarb’s mentor, is on the board of all three groups. The Center for American Freedom’s president, Aaron Harison, 30, was the executive director of Keep America Safe, which ran a 2009 campaign against Obama administration lawyers who had represented alleged terrorists before joining the administration. It labeled them “The Al Qaeda Seven.”
The real inspiration for the Center for American Freedom, though, is the Center for American Progress — the new group’s mission statement, for instance, appears at points to be literally copied and pasted from CAP’s, with the word “freedom” substituted for “progress” — as well as other unabashedly liberal websites.
“Our models are the Center for American Progress /Think Progress, TPM, and Huffington Post politics,” Continetti said in an email.“These outlets have been at the cutting edge of ideological journalism for years, and it is time for the right to emulate their success.”
Continetti, 30, is the author most recently of a sympathetic account of Sarah Palin’s career, “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star.” He’s not, however a pure partisan, and is also known for a slashing long-form take-down of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He and Goldfarb said the Beacon had been promised editorial independence.
And Continetti has already hired a staff on a scale that will make an immediate impact on the Washington media scene.
They include Bill Gertz, a veteran Washington Times defense national security writer, and the Washington Jewish Week’s Adam Kredo, a well-sourced beat reporter with a reputation for neutrality. The Beacon has also poached Andrew Stiles from National Review online; CJ Ciaramella from The Daily Caller; Patrick Howley from the American Spectator; and Sonny Bunch, a former Weekly Standard and Washington Times writer now at the lobbying and corporate public relations firm Berman & Co.
The Beacon won’t cover the Republican presidential campaign currently consuming much of the nation’s media attention, Goldfarb said.
“We want to break news, we want to do investigative reporting, and that’s a big reason why we’re investing so heavily in the research component of this thing,” he said. “I suspect most of the press is going to be pretty suspicious of this. I think they should have been more suspicious of places like the Center for Public Integrity and Pro Publica” — new, independent, not-for-profit media organizations — “but this has become a new and legitimate model and we’re hoping to create something on the right that will hopefully challenge those organizations on the left.”
“If we break news and our work is of quality, people will necessarily have to treat it as legitimate,” he said.
The group is currently structured as a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, Goldfarb said, mimicking CAP’s more combative media and research arm. the Center for American Progress Action Fund; it may add a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, like CAP , for less overtly partisan work, he said.
Goldfarb said he’s borrowing another position from the liberal think tank, which was founded in 2003 to buttress the Democratic opposition to a Republican president.
Like CAP, his group won’t disclose its donors. CAP has justified that stance by saying that, unlike the anonymously financed campaign groups it criticizes for secrecy, it doesn’t run TV ads.
“We’ve really modeled ourselves on the CAP Action Fund, which has set a rather arbitrary position, but it’s a position we’ll adhere to, which is that as long as you’re not engaged in paid media, there really shouldn’t be an issue as to transparency and who’s funding it,” he said.
The group’s new offices, at 1600 K St., have at their physical heart a campaign-style war room and wall of televisions, where Drew Florio, who ran Meg Whitman’s campaign war room when she ran for governor of California and did opposition research for Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign, will lead a team of junior staffers. The research department, meanwhile, is led by Tim Killeen, a former acting RNC research director; former RNC research director Shawn Reinschmidt is a consultant to the group.
And like the Center for American Progress, which had its start opposing the policies of President George W. Bush, the new operation will be defined by its opposition to the White House, its leaders said.
“Our original reporting and commentary will hold the left to the same standards to which ThinkProgress, TPM and Huffington Post hold the right. Liberals in journalism excel at portraying the GOP and conservatives as hypocritical self-dealers and lunatics,” said Continetti. “But it is only the activist press’s ideological and partisan biases which prevent it from seeing the Obama administration, Democrats in Congress and the broader progressive movement through exactly the same lens.”
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