Campus Progress reports on for-profit schools issue while coordinating with liberal coalition to push regs

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Campus Progress, an online magazine produced by liberal think tank the Center For American Progress, has been out front in its reporting on the for-profit schools issue, publishing a series of stories alleging conflicts of interest and disclosure problems among Democratic consultants working, or allegedly working, on the issue.

For instance, Campus Progress editor Kay Steiger recently published a piece denouncing Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, for publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal without disclosing that a lobbying firm From consults for has for-profit colleges as clients.

The article didn’t provide any evidence From consulted on the for-profit schools issue for Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a firm with over $27 million in revenues in 2010 and 171 clients.

Meanwhile, Campus Progress is also part of a coalition of liberal groups that include a wide array of unions and a dozen members of Congress lobbying the Obama administration for strict regulations of for-profit colleges.

The coalition includes the major teachers’ unions, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, several Hispanic groups including the National Council of La Raza and liberal lawmakers like independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Jan. 5, Campus Progress organized a conference call with the “Progressive Blog Community” to help liberal websites craft their message on the issue.

“We need your help to spread the word about the need for a strong regulation,” an e-mail announcing the conference call said.

On the call for Campus Progress was David Halperin, its director who has penned several pieces for Campus Progress questioning the ethics of for-profit college advocates like Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton.

The dual hats worn by Halperin – reporter and activist – are a revealing tale about the rise of blogs and other media hosted by ideological organizations whose ultimate purpose is to push legislative proposals, not to pursue truth independently from political strategy.

The issue is increasingly important because of the traction that certain articles published by the Center for American Progress, Campus Progress’s parent organization, have gained.

For instance, in the heat of the midterm campaigns, Think Progress, a blog hosted by the Center for American Progress, alleged the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was using foreign funds for its campaign activities, which is illegal.

The charge became a rallying party for the Democratic party, including President Obama. Think Progress’s reporting was treated with great deference by many outlets, like Politico, but the New York Times dismissed the allegation after reporting out the story.

For some of Campus Progress’s journalistic targets, the organization’s dual role, which is far less known than its high-profile reporting, can be angering.

“You can’t pretend to be unbiased when you’re actually an advocate,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens and Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) who found herself in Steiger’s crosshairs upon agreeing to take a job with Davis. “I find it outrageous and, in fact, unethical,” Sloan said.

“Our operation has both an advocacy arm and a magazine that we run on our website,” said Halperin. “Whenever we write about this issue we strive to disclose that we are also doing advocacy work on it. I think it’s in most of the pieces that we’ve done.”

A Nov. 19 piece by Steiger questioning the timing of Sloan’s hiring by Davis, saying it was “interesting,” did not provide evidence it was anything more than a coincidence. That article does not disclose Campus Progress’s advocacy work.

A Dec. 14 piece which mentioned Sloan’s hiring by Davis in passing did include disclosure.

But most articles don’t. Of 16 items, only four included the disclosure according to a review late Monday.

Sloan said Campus Progress’s advocacy rule wasn’t clear to her.

“If she had told me Campus Progress was part of an advocacy coalition I would have handled the request completely differently. I treated them like they were any other reporter,” Sloan said.

“She should look at that for six years we’ve been doing advocacy,” said Halperin about Sloan’s remarks.

Campus Progress Action, a sister “brand” of Campus Progress, hosts a website, “Students Over Banks,” that includes a letter written by the liberal coalition of which Campus Progress is a part.

But the site, and the existence of the coalition, are not clearly available on many of the articles published by Campus Progress.

“It’s so dishonest. It’s so disingenuous, it’s got to be against any sort of journalistic ethics,” said Sloan.

Steiger has also faced repeated complaints from her subjects about her either not offering her subjects opportunity to comment or providing little time to respond. “She gave me 51 minutes to respond to a negative article about me,” said Sloan. Steiger did not reply to a request for comment emailed to her Monday.

“Sometimes we do a reported piece as many publications do that has both reporting and commentary…but we don’t hide where we stand. And if we’re writing about the same issue that we’re working on as advocates, we try to disclose that,” said Halperin.

Employees of Campus Progress are actually employees of the Center for American Progress and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the former of which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and the later a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, each of which faces different rules for what types of activities it can engage in.

The employees of the two organizations are the same, but depending on what type of activity they are engaging in, they are paid by the organization for which that activity is allowed, Halperin said.

Halperin said about the conference call he partook in, “We talked about the substance of the issue. It was a fairly short call. We just talked about how we think that the regulations ought to be implemented. Why they affect the will of Congress in passing legislation that has this gainful employment requirement.”

Halperin said Steiger does not actively work with the advocacy coalition.

“No. I mean sometimes we’ll just compare notes on what’s going on. But for the most part her job is to just run the magazine,” he said.

Full text of email invite from Campus Progress:

TO: Progressive Blog Community

DATE: January 5, 2010

RE: Please join us on a conference call tomorrow (Thursday) to learn about the need to fight for a strong “gainful employment” regulation to protect students and taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse in career education programs

On behalf of a broad coalition of organizations that advocate for students, consumers, civil rights and college access, we invite you to join us on a conference call on Thursday, January 6 at 4:00 PM Eastern / 1:00 PM Pacific, to discuss the need for the Obama Administration to issue a strong final “gainful employment” regulation. Strong, effective regulation is urgently needed to protect students and taxpayers from career education programs that are preying on low-income students and veterans, leaving too many with debts they can’t repay and credentials they can’t use while taxpayers foot the bill.

The Obama administration plans to issue a final gainful employment regulation in early 2011, but it is under tremendous pressure from the for-profit college industry and its lobbyists, including Lanny Davis, to weaken the draft regulation which was published in late July. The last thing we need now is another Wall Street-backed industry continuing to take taxpayer money and offering little, if anything, in return.

As our economy struggles to recover, more Americans than ever are hoping that education and training will help them get and keep a decent job. Thousands of career education programs at public, non-profit, and for-profit colleges across the country offer to fulfill that hope, with federal student aid to cover the costs if needed. To qualify for federal funding, federal law requires these programs to “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The for-profit college industry has launched a multi-million dollar lobbying and advertising campaign against proposed regulations that would enforce this important law.

The evidence shows that such a rule is urgently needed. In just the last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an undercover investigation which revealed fraudulent or deceptive practices at all of the 15 for-profit colleges visited, and state attorneys general are investigating, subpoenaing, and suing for-profit colleges for fraudulent, unfair or deceptive practices. Widespread fraud and abuse have been reported in outlets ranging from the New York Times, ABC News, and Bloomberg/Businessweek and the Huffington Post to the Sacramento Bee, Denver Post, St. Petersburg Times, Tulsa World, and WFAA-TV in Dallas. Common problems include deception and outright lies about program costs, job placement rates, and likely earnings after graduation. Some schools have gone as far as recruiting at homeless shelters; advising prospective students to lie on their federal financial aid forms; and using fake employers to beef up their job placement numbers.

We need your help to spread the word about the need for a strong regulation. On Thursday’s call, our panel, including Pauline Abernathy from The Institute for College Access & Success and David Halperin from the Center for American Progress / Campus Progress, will provide all the background you need to be able to write about this critical issue. To RSVP, please send an email to Katie Andriulli at Campus Progress, [redacted]. We will send you additional background material and the call-in information prior to the call.

Coalition Members

Many leading student, civil rights, consumer and college access organizations have sent letters supporting stronger regulation of career education programs. Some of these and other key organizations are listed below. Clicking on the name of an organization will take you to a statement signed by that group.

Comments submitted on Program Integrity Issues, including Incentive Compensation

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

American Federation of Teachers

The Center for Law and Social Policy

Consumer Federation of California

Los Angeles Legal Aid

National Association for Career Admission Counseling

National Consumer Law Center

The Institute for College Access & Success

United States Student Association/U.S. PIRG

Comments submitted on Gainful Employment

Organizations

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers

American Association of University Professors

American Association of University Women

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 3299

American Federation of Teachers

American Medical Student Association

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

California Coalition for Civil Rights

Campaign for College Affordability

Campus Progress

Center for Community Change

The Center for Law and Social Policy

The Coalition of Labor Union Women

Consumer Action

Consumer Federation of America

Council for Opportunity in Education

Crittenton Women’s Union

CUNY Faculty Senate

Dēmos: A Network for Ideas & Action

Florida State College at Jacksonville

The Greenlining Institute

The Institute for College Access & Success

Jobs for the Future

Labor Council for Latin American Advancement

League of United Latin American Citizens

Legal Momentum (formerly The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund)

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Milwaukee Area Technical CC

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

National Consumer Law Center

National Consumers League

National Council of La Raza

National Organization for Women

National Education Association

Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project

New York State United Teachers

NYPIRG

Pride at Work

Public Advocates Inc.

Rainbow PUSH Coalition

Student Senate for California Community Colleges

United States Hispanic Leadership Institute

UNCF

United States Student Association

U.S. PIRG

Young Invincibles

Members of Congress

U.S. Representative Judy Chu

U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva

U.S. Representative Betty McCollum

U.S. Representative Gwen Moore

U.S. Representative Patrick Murphy

U.S. Representative Mike Quigley

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin

U.S. Senator Russell Feingold

U.S. Senator Al Franken

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg

U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders

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