Thursday’s front-page story by New York Times investigative reporter Mike McIntire, “Odd Alliance: Business Lobby And Tea Party.” accused a Tea Party group, the Institute for Liberty, of pushing the agenda of Asia Pulp & Paper, an Indonesian corporation fighting U.S. tariffs.
Whatever the merits of this particular complaint, this sort of prominently placed, hostile investigation of a conservative-friendly group is a specialty of McIntire’s. In a front-page article from September 2010 he went after the group Americans for Job Security, one of a flurry of McIntire exposes on the eve of the 2010 Congressional election cycle on groups with Tea Party ties.
His colleague Michael Luo went further, writing stories about “anonymous donors” trying to help Republicans “buy an election” and hinting the IRS and the Federal Election Commission should take a look at some of the Republican-friendly groups. By contrast, similar stories on Democratic groups were sporadic and belated.
McIntire’s latest story was accompanied by a fanciful flow chart showing the alleged close links between the Institute for Liberty, Frontiers of Freedom, and various other free-market lobbying firms and activist groups, headlined, “A Hidden Lobby For Indonesian Paper?” In Times land, there are no coincidences and everything is connected, at least when it comes to conservative activism.
The Tea Party does not have a presence in Indonesia, where the term evokes cups of orange pekoe and sweet cakes rather than angry citizens in “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts.
But a Tea Party group in the United States, the Institute for Liberty, has vigorously defended the freedom of a giant Indonesian paper company to sell its wares to Americans without paying tariffs. The institute set up Web sites, published reports and organized a petition drive attacking American businesses, unions and environmentalists critical of the company, Asia Pulp & Paper.
Last fall, the institute’s president, Andrew Langer, had himself videotaped on Long Wharf in Boston holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence as he compared Washington’s proposed tariff on paper from Indonesia and China to Britain’s colonial trade policies in 1776.
Tariff-free Asian paper may seem an unlikely cause for a nonprofit Tea Party group. But it is in keeping with a succession of pro-business campaigns -- promoting commercial space flight, palm oil imports and genetically modified alfalfa -- that have occupied the Institute for Liberty’s recent agenda.
McIntire at least suggested the Tea Party itself is an ideologically principled movement, while possibly overstating things:
The Tea Party movement is as deeply skeptical of big business as it is of big government. Yet an examination of the Institute for Liberty shows how Washington’s influence industry has adapted itself to the Tea Party era. In a quietly arranged marriage of seemingly disparate interests, the institute and kindred groups are increasingly the bearers of corporate messages wrapped in populist Tea Party themes.
In a few instances, their corporate partners are known -- as with the billionaire Koch brothers’ support of Americans for Prosperity, one of the most visible advocacy groups. More often, though, their nonprofit tax status means they do not have to reveal who pays the bills.
Donor secrecy is not limited to right-wing groups, of course. McIntire later engaged in unfriendly labeling of free-market groups:
[Langer] said he had sometimes chosen issues suggested by colleagues from an earlier job, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group heavily financed by business interests. The two institutes are involved in a campaign advocating a realignment of NASA’s budget that would benefit commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs. The Institute of Liberty’s contribution was a Web page called “No Space Pork!”