In late July, Ohio state senator and ALEC board member Bill Seitz did a number of interviews laughing off the notion of ALEC's secrecy, telling newspaper and radio that the organization is transparent and just like any other professional association. With these assurances, I headed to New Orleans for ALEC's 38th annual conference. Surely as a member of the fourth estate, the good folks at ALEC would value my investigative efforts and grant me access to their back room dealings.
Boy, was I wrong.
After filling out my registration form to receive press credentials, I was told by an alarmed ALEC intern to wait while she fetched her boss. The look on her face made me think that perhaps she had heard of the Center for Media and Democracy and our new project ALECexposed.org. A very stern-looking gentleman arrived and told me my application would be denied on the grounds that CMD was an "advocacy organization." I asked him for a written explanation, and he handed me ALEC's media policy, which bears no mention of "advocacy organizations." Instead, news outlets funded by a "think tank, political party, lobbying organization, trade association or corporation" are forbidden from registering. CMD complies with ALEC's criteria even though most media outlets (owned by major corporations) do not.
Discouraged by the dismissal, but not defeated, I headed to the Marriott hotel lobby to do some writing and ALEC sightseeing. I was greeted by there by an ALEC-contracted security guard and told to leave. I left, a bit miffed. A quick phone call later in the day to Marriott management confirmed that by sitting in the lobby filing a story, I had not violated any of the hotel's rules, and would be welcome back in the lobby the next day.
The next morning I sat down once again in the Marriott lobby, where I decided to start tweeting the names of some of the ALEC corporate lobbyists and members present. Apparently tweets like "Some legislators have 'New Member' ribbons attached to their name tags. Makes it easier for the corporations to track them down" drew the attention of ALEC's communications team. A senior staffer raced toward me, asked if I was Eric Carlson, and then screamed, "That's him!" (See the offensive tweets here).
Security guards swarmed to where I was standing, demanding again that I leave the hotel or "face arrest." I escaped before they could follow through on their other promise of taking my picture for their permanent records. My only comfort? Al Jazeera English was also denied credentials on the grounds that ALEC was not an "international" conference — even though numerous international politicians were addressing the ALEC conference in rooms chock-full of global corporations.
The hypocrisy of ALEC's media policy is astonishing. Not only are the vast majority of news organizations owned by major media corporations (perhaps with the exception of Al Jazeera), but the majority of ALEC's conference events and even speakers are sponsored by Fortune 500 firms and trade associations. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was sponsored by big PhRMA. Dick Armey by Visa. I am not kidding.
While ALEC might not like independent media outlets like ours, they do love big media conglomerates and avidly promote big media's agenda with bills that pre-empt public broadband and resolutions against Net neutrality. It is no wonder that Time Warner invited ALEC legislators and corporate lobbyists to a swank dinner Thursday at Emeril's Delmonico.
But I decided to explore rumors of a smoke-filled back room on Bourbon Street sponsored by ALEC board member RJ Reynolds. ALEC has long been a front for Big Tobacco — Wisconsin state Sen. Alberta Darling, an ALEC member, introduced an ALEC tax break for moist tobacco products right into the Wisconsin budget bill this year. While I was disappointed not to see Darling in New Orleans at the big smoke, I did see Wisconsin Health Committee Chair Leah Vukmir. Maybe she was doing research on the effect of secondhand smoke? I just wish I had gotten a cigar before being kicked out. At least Madison Rep. Mark Pocan was given that courtesy before being put out on the street by young ALEC acolytes.
Eric Carlson is a reporter and researcher/writer for the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy. He is studying journalism and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a University Writing Fellow and writes for the Badger Herald.