A document the National Education Association filed with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2011 indicates that the teachers union donated $100,000 to Media Matters For America nearly two years ago, describing it as a payment for “public relations costs.” In the months that followed, Media Matters’ online coverage of teachers unions increased, focusing largely on attacking the Fox News Channel and other media outlets it considers “conservative” in nature.
The $100,000 payment was first documented in “Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind,” a book by Citadel international politics professor Mallory Factor published on August 21.
“[T]o ensure that NEA’s agenda makes its way in the media,” Factor wrote, “NEA has given $100,000 to Media Matters, the George Soros-funded liberal ‘charitable organization’ dedicated to targeting mythical right-wing media bias.” (RELATED — Book: Obamacare law designed to unionize 21 million health care workers)
The data is from the Labor Department’s LM-2 form, a disclosure required whenever a union disburses $5,000 or more to an outside entity. In one such 2011 filing, the NEA reported paying Media Matters $100,000 and referred to it as a “political organization.” (RELATED: Complete coverage of Media Matters For America)
Complicating matters for the teachers union is the fact that the same report categorized the $100,000 payment as a “union administration” cost instead of as a political expenditure.
Two more labor unions also reported in 2011 that they had made contributions to Media Matters: The AFL-CIO gave $10,000 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gave $5,000. Both categorized their respective donations as “political activities.”
The NEA’s choice to call its much larger payment a “union administration” cost leaves open the possibility that it could charge the expense to non-members — known as “agency fee payers” — who are nonetheless covered by the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
NEA spokesman Steven Grant told TheDC that “the Media Matters support is not reported as chargeable for agency fee purposes.” But his union’s non-member fee payers have not yet seen the legally required statement of expenses covering the 2010-2011 school year.
That paperwork is due during the 2012-2013 year, said National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation staff attorney Milton Chappell, and it shouldn’t include the Media Matters contribution. “The United States Supreme Court has held that both political and public relations expenses are nonchargeable to nonmembers,” Chappell said.
Grant told TheDC via email that “the National Education Association (NEA) supports Media Matters for America and its work to monitor, analyze, and correct misinformation and misleading coverage of public education and other issues important to NEA members.”
He did not answer when asked if any other nonprofit organizations provide his union with public relations services in exchange for financial support. He also declined to state what specific services Media Matters has provided to the NEA in exchange for the $100,000 first disclosed in “Shadowbosses.”
Likewise, Media Matters For America spokeswoman Jess Levin did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether MMFA performs “public relations” services for other labor unions. TheDC had also asked Levin to describe what public relations services her organization provided to the NEA.
A careful reading of Media Matters’ website, however, suggests the NEA got a significant bang for its buck. Since the date of the $100,000 payment, the liberal messaging group has published 41 separate articles online referring to the NEA and other teachers unions, each one staking out a position that’s favorable to organized labor and critical of a media outlet whose commentators disagree.
Almost universally, that media outlet has been the Fox News Channel. Of those 41 articles, 29 directly attacked Fox News or the name of a Fox host or contributor in their headlines. Many others attack Fox and its personnel more generally.
The first such example from early 2011, countered then-Fox News host Glenn Beck by directly quoting NEA talking points about teacher tenure. Media Matters later excoriated Fox News contributor Dick Morris for promoting National School Choice Week. It also slammed “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy in reaction to a July 2011 on-screen interview “about the National Education Association’s recent decision to charge members an additional $10 fee.”
The fee, according to a Fox News on-screen graphic, could help re-elect President Barack Obama. While Media Matters complained that Fox was suggesting the NEA would illegally spend money on a candidate, it did not address the possibility that the group would direct the money toward super PACs and other campaign message groups that operate at arm’s length from the Obama campaign itself.
In May 2011, Media Matters claimed the Fox News Channel “routinely finds any excuse to attack teachers, public schools and teachers’ unions.” In December of that year, the group alleged that “Fox, in general, hates public school teachers.”
Other articles reported that Fox News was on a “union-busting crusade”; that its legal correspondent “smear[ed] unions”; and that it “falsely suggest[ed] NEA members’ dues will fund [President Barack] Obama’s re-election campaign.”
The nonprofit Center for Union Facts provides government data on its website showing that the NEA has made more than $55.8 million in political contributions, through political action committees and so-called “Section 527″ political committees. Approximately 71.8 percent of those funds supported Democratic candidates.
Union Facts executive director Richard Berman said the “public relations” payment from a teachers union to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is an “example of creative accounting that the labor unions have taken to a high art form in order to evade or avoid the law.” The Center, another 501(c)(3) group, says Center for Union Facts is funded by foundations, private businesses and union members.
Don Loos, senior adviser to National Right to Work president Mark Mix and a former Office of Labor-Management Standards staffer himself, said he found it “interesting” that Media Matters is, “according to its customers, a political organization that provides public relations” services.
Loos also told TheDC that the NEA “has been a political organization for decades.”
He’s not the first one to suggest that.
Robert H. Chanin, the NEA general counsel who retired from the job in 2009, told Education Week during the 2000 election season that his union’s political and organizing missions were tightly intertwined.
“So you tell me how I can possibly separate NEA’s collective bargaining efforts from politics,” Chanin said. “You just can’t. It’s all politics.”