Are Tom Steyer and the Center for American Progress (CAP) Responsible for the Death of ThinkProgress?

Are Tom Steyer and the Center for American Progress (CAP) Responsible for the Death of ThinkProgress?

America’s liberal political readership took a blow this week with the official demise of ThinkProgress. The content shingle was founded in 2005, per its’ still-existent website, as “an editorially independent project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund [CAP]…evolved from a small rapid response blog to a newsroom of reporters and editors covering the intersections of politics, policy, and social justice.”

Site leadership cited the typical digital media vortex of declining ad revenue, sustained operational losses and an inability to find a solid buyer with a turnaround plan as the reasons for ThinkProgress’ ultimate failure. However, differing opinions and plenty of controversy surround the defeat of an aggressive, important editorial voice for liberal populism.

Sam Stein of Daily Beast has been following the story since earlier this year, when reporters began to write about ThinkProgress in earnest as a ticking time bomb plagued by editorial tensions. In mid-June, Stein observed:

“Complicating matters further…has been internal tension over some high-profile stories. Chief among them was a piece ThinkProgress posted in April on [Bernie] Sanders’ personal wealth…The senator responded to that piece (and accompanying video) with a highly publicized letter lacerating CAP for accepting corporate donations and suggesting that ThinkProgress was doing the bidding of those donors.”

The responses to TP’s work on the part of registered and allied Democrats tended to reflect the ideological divides of the party in microcosm. Sanders’ attack of the site’s funding sources were a continuation of his larger rhetoric on the public evils corporatization visits on the body politic. Yet modern communications require money – specially the budget required to drive eyeballs to a website, and pay the creatives who develop the content. Finding a balance between good, disinterested work and sustainability is the Herculean task of every 21st Century newsroom.

At the same time, moderate Democrats who took a more pragmatic approach to compromise in service of a perceived greater good were frequently the targets of ThinkProgress’ reporting. Consider this blistering June 19 piece from writer Ian Millhiser, a response to Democratic 2020 frontrunner Joe Biden’s braggadocio about working well with institutional racists in order to pass legislation, during his long career in the Senate:

“It takes two people to have a conversation, and it takes two parties to decide that the opposition is not the enemy. The ‘civility’ that Biden pines for it a relic of a different age with different ideological divides and different approaches to partisanship. It’s not coming back, no matter how good Joe Biden is at glad-handing.”

Still other voices point to the uneasy relationship between CAP and the fledgling ThinkProgress as the real source of the website’s problems. For example, while everyone agrees that TP was drowning in budgetary red ink, not everyone concurs that the Center for American Progress Action Fund had done all it could to help. Again, from Sam Stein:

“[Records] showed ThinkProgress facing a $3-million delta between revenues and expenses in 2019, of which $350,000 had come via a shortfall in ad revenue.

Privately, staffers and some alumni argued that, with some budget reductions, CAP could continue funding operations through the reallocation of donor dollars…there has been ample suspicion as to why CAP officials have been so alarmed over the current state of financial distress when the site has lived in this limbo for virtually its entire existence.”

Now-unemployed TP writers like Rebekah Entralgo Fernandez single out one very specific CAP board member for conspicuous consumption of the website’s dwindling funding resources. In a recent Twitter thread, she argued that billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer’s doomed 2020 Presidential campaign could have “funded TP for a decade.” Steyer reportedly spent upwards of $8.7 million just on Facebook ads alone, money that could have kept the site running for the foreseeable future.

In a further act of alleged cynicism, Steyer’s staff is accused by Fernandez of recruiting the very same content experts he helped send to the employment line, for positions on his ill-fated campaign team. In short, according to some of TP’s stranded talent, Steyer spent millions on a vanity presidential run rather than help ThinkProgress remain solvent. Self-interest ahead of employees and the public at a time when publishing a strong, well-funded counter-narrative to the “fake news” of Fox’s alternate reality is more critical than ever.

Can ThinkProgress be resurrected? Seems unlikely, with leadership reporting the breakdown of some 20 conversations with prospective buyers. What’s abundantly clear is that the site’s progressive writers and contributors can’t count on Tom Steyer or the rest of the CAP board to put matching dollars to professed idealism, and that they never could.

Becky Sarwate

Becky is an award-winning journalist, Op-Ed columnist and blogger. On March 29, 2018 her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.