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ThinkProgress Was Always Doomed

Independent journalism fits uncomfortably with mainstream think tank politics.

Ethan Miller/Getty

The site ThinkProgress, long a stalwart among left-leaning news organizations, was shuttered last week by its owner, the Center for American Progress (CAP), who laid off the remaining members of the staff that hadn’t been absorbed into the larger company. The site’s closure, however, was brief. Days later, CAP announced that ThinkProgress would continue publishing material by its in-house think tank staff at a new version of the site—becoming, in essence, an institutional blog. It was quickly pointed out to CAP’s top brass that this amounted to firing the entire unionized staff and running the site with scabs, and so the plan was canceled.

These events were consistent with CAP’s funding model. For the most part, our donor class is simply indifferent to journalism. Go ahead and try to get some rich liberals interested in funding a left-wing media project that isn’t directly tied to one of their other pet issues (gun violence, or criminal justice reform, say). If the effect of good journalism can’t be quantified in the language of nonprofit “impact”—less “our reporting got this person off death row,” more “our collective body of work influenced the way a lot of people thought about politics and power”—these funders can’t see the point. (This indifference is distinct from the impulse that leads men like Jeff Bezos to buy a newspaper, or Pierre Omidyar to start a media company: There’s a bit more glory in being the owner, and not a mere institutional supporter.) And big political donors interested in a “media play” simply want vulgar propaganda (see: Brock, David).

These tendencies have only been reinforced in the Trump era. The chief goal of one sort of person who donates to organizations like CAP is to bring about the downfall of Donald Trump. If you’ve been taking your money to CAP with that outcome in mind, what happens when you examine the work CAP is doing with that money and discover some independent journalism that cannot be perceived as devoted solely, on a full-time basis, to the task of ousting Trump? Given the fact that you, like most of these donors, are old, hidebound, and have the attention span—on a good day—of a mayfly, you might tire of funding something that’s not yielding the instant gratification you crave. (Indeed, you might tire of funding various things that could help the cause of making the country more just and small-d democratic and simply run for president yourself, after your expensive campaign to impeach the president with cable news ads fails to achieve the desired effect.)

ThinkProgress was not shuttered because it loses money. It certainly did lose money—political journalism is not exactly a cash cow!—but it was not a business of any kind: It was an arm of an extremely well-funded nonprofit think tank. If the Center for American Progress, as an institution, was interested in sponsoring journalism, CAP would’ve sponsored it. CAP isn’t, and here we are.

ThinkProgress was notable for its editorial independence from its think tank parent (which its editorial union had enshrined in their contract), and for how often that editorial independence got the site in trouble with its think tank parent, which on a few occasions led that parent to violate the spirit of that editorial independence.

It was always odd for a mainstream liberal think tank to have an independent journalism arm—“independent thought” is the last thing the people and institutions who fund think tanks are paying for—but you have to remember that in the Bush years, everyone thought independent journalism was politically useful to the Democratic Party, and would remain so indefinitely. Regardless of why anyone believed that, it has turned out instead that truly independent liberal journalism can be something of an annoyance for certain institutional actors within the Democratic Party. They really couldn’t have known, at the time, that their little bloggers would go on to do things like offer criticism of the Israeli government or pepper Hillary Clinton with questions about Iraq.

In that light, you can almost see the shuttering of ThinkProgress—and the attempt to relaunch a neutered version—as a skirmish in the battle being fought over many of the other institutions that collectively make up what we imprecisely call “The Democratic Party.” It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the independent media arm of the Center for American Progress was deemed inessential around the same time that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee codified (and hardened) its policy of blackballing vendors who work for primary challengers, around the same time that the head of the Democratic National Committee went to the mat to prevent presidential candidates from participating in a climate debate, and so on and so on. Certain forces are reasserting control and freezing out the insurgents and rabble-rousers in advance of a critical election year. This is the last, best chance to effect Trump’s removal, and those who command these institutions can no longer abide the heretics they once tolerated.

And this is why the dream of a left-leaning media ecosystem as heavily subsidized as the American right’s propaganda machine will never come to fruition. Members of the right-leaning press have no expectation of editorial independence from bosses or donors, and little interest in working at places with high standards of accuracy or intellectual rigor. Talented left-leaning reporters, editors, and columnists expect (or demand) editorial independence and high standards. Their donors and nonprofits are interested in neither.

This is why Erick Erickson—whose former bosses used to literally sell his endorsement, who left the site he founded because he belatedly noticed its owners were scamming its readers (only to see them fire all its remaining Trump critics), whose new site did not make money, who lost a lucrative Fox contract for criticizing Trump, and who’s only ever been as employable as he is useful to wealthy interests—mocks the shuttering of ThinkProgress while simultaneously complaining that some of its employees will go on to the mainstream press. Liberal and left media is always at the mercy of the free market, but conservatives—true believers in authority and hierarchies, after all—are more directly at the mercy of their masters.

The ThinkProgress experiment failed. “Liberal” institutions dependent on corporate money, political donors, and mainstream foundation support will only ever sponsor useful journalism by accident. Alas, none of us get to be Benny Johnsons of the left, eternally buoyed in an endless sea of money from rich suckers.