Senior writer and investigative reporter, Huffington Post; Cato Media Fellow
Radley Balko's transformation into a crusading journalist exposing police abuse is a relatively recent turn in his career, most of which has been spent climbing up the Republican Party’s think-tank network. Balko began his career working the phones for a major GOP campus recruitment outfit, before moving to the Koch brothers' Cato Institute and Reason magazine, where Balko lobbied for Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and mass-privatization, and lobbied against affirmative action and "the nanny state." In 2011, Balko was hired by the Huffington Post, while keeping his sinecure in the Cato Institute. In his new role, Balko focuses on the militarization of police, a continuation of a Cato Institute project he began in 2005. Balko blames America's high incarceration rate on too much democracy, and has called for privatizing America's jury system and criminal labs.
The recovered history of Radley Balko
- After getting a B.A. from the University of Indiana in 1997, Balko worked for the Leadership Institute—a Republican Party recruitment organization—as its “Campus Journalism Coordinator.” The Leadership Institute describes itself as “the premier training ground for tomorrow's conservative leaders,” whose goal is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders" through its numerous "journalism seminars." The Leadership Institute’s alumni include Karl Rove, Rove’s fake White House press pool “reporter” Jeff Gannon, convicted criminal James O’Keefe, and major GOP figures including Grover Norquist, Christian Right leader Ralph Reed, and Sen. Mitch McConnell.
- At the Leadership Institute, Balko “marketed and recruited college journalists for LI’s two-day seminars” according to his online resume. A Los Angeles Times article on a Leadership Institute-sponsored journalism seminar at a North Carolina college said it "bore little resemblance to a traditional journalism class" teaching students "how to start their own conservative newspapers and opinion journals. And how to pick fights with lefty bogeymen on the faculty and in student government." The LI seminar grads' ultimate goal: "to alter the basic makeup of the nation's professional news outlets."
- In 1998, Balko ran an astroturf training course for anti-Clinton activists during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, training young right-wing activists how to use the Internet to fundraise and organize fake grassroots campaigns.
- In 2001, Balko worked at the Kochs’ Cato Institute as both "managing editor of www.cato.org" and "marketing manager for the Cato Institute." His duties included “forging corporate and association partnerships,” as well as marketing “Cato’s studies, forums, conferences, scholars and publications.” (Cato Institute was founded as the "Charles Koch Foundation.")
- In 2001, Balko was given a regular column for FoxNews.com, where he consistently attacked government regulations and praised free-markets, boosted for Big Tobacco and the health insurance industry and wrote pieces with headlines like “Greed Makes the World Go ‘Round.” One of Balko's favorite topics from 2001 through 2008: privatizing social security. [ 1 ]
- In a 2001 column for Fox, Balko pushed for Social Security privatization just as the Bush Administration, led by advisors from the Cato Institute, geared up for a major Social Security privatization campaign. Balko called Social Security "little more than a tax on laborers" and said that privatizing it would "benefit the poor" and "also benefit African-Americans." [ 2 ] [ 3 ] [ 4 ]
- In a 2003 blog post headlined "Fisking Tom Tomorrow," Balko described Social Security as "a fraud and a lie, a ponzi scheme that would be illegal if ever attempted in the private sector." [ 5 ] In 2008, as the financial markets crashed and millions of Americans saw their private retirement savings accounts disappear, Balko was still pushing for privatizing Social Security. "You think the stock market is risky? The federal government currently has obligations it will never be able to keep," Balko wrote in a column headlined “Social Security Still Needs To Be Privatized."
- In 2002, Balko quoted and cited the white supremacist, anti-immigrant American Renaissance magazine in a blog post accusing Jesse Jackson of "stirring up racial animosity" and extorting money from major US corporations. Balko wrote, "Read a detailed account of Jackson’s corporate shakedowns ... here, from a group called Common Sense Club." The Common Sense Club website Balko linked to described itself in its About page: "The mission of the CommonSenseClub.com is to expand the readership of American Renaissance." Balko linked to and quoted two paragraphs from the March 2001 issue of American Renaissance's "Extra!" section, which begins with the attack on Jesse Jackson, then claims "young black men are particularly murderous" and "immigrants continue to bring tuberculosis," praised an "excellent and comprehensive" racial eugenics book by Arthur Jensen, and claimed that the happiest Americans are whites who live in the whitest regions of the country. [ 6 ]
- Balko denounced affirmative action on several occasions, claiming it turns whites into racists by promoting unqualified African-Americans. In 2003, Balko blamed the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at the New York Times on affirmative action: "Nearly everything about the Blair case came about because of affirmative action," Balko declared, ignoring overwhelming examples of white reporters caught in plagiarism scandals (Stephen Glass, Jack Kelley, Mike Barnicle, Stephen Ambrose, etc.). Balko wrote that he opposes affirmative action in public universities, but favors allowing private universities, like the whites-only Bob Jones University, to continue discriminating based on race.
- Radley Balko has worked as an undisclosed lobbyist for Big Tobacco. [ 7 ] In 2004, Balko wrote that proposed cigarette tax hikes would fund Hezbollah terrorists and threaten American national security. In 2005, Balko testified before the District of Columbia City Council against a proposed smoking ban in the capital’s restaurants and bars, arguing that smoking bans were a conspiracy by “healthists” to "trample on a business owner's property rights.” Balko warned: “I'd urge the D.C. city council to resist this tide of tyrannical healthism.” Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
- In 2005, Balko set up "Morgan Spurlock Watch," a website attacking Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me and defending the fast food industry and Big Agro. Balko attacked Super Size Me as a "scam." Balko explained why he set up the anti-Spurlock website: "[Spurlock is] consumed by a loathing of business and capitalism -- to the point of refusing to allow accuracy to get in the way of making his point. And I think someone needs to hold him accountable."
- Balko's pro-fast food industry PR repeatedly cited and relied on propaganda published by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) — a front-group for the restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industries created by notorious PR man Rick Berman, whom 60 Minutes called "Dr. Evil." Balko quoted "evidence" from Berman's CCF on numerous occasions, even recommending the CCF's propaganda to his readers. [ 8 ]
- In late 2005, Balko began “advocating” for a Mississippi death row inmate named Cory Maye. At the same time, Mississippi lawmakers began considering “Stand Your Ground” legislation written by ALEC. The death row conviction of Cory Maye posed a threat to “Stand Your Ground” because he had plead not guilty, arguing “self-defense,” and lost. Balko took up Cory Maye’s cause at the same time that the powerful DC law firm Covington & Burling — Eric Holder’s law firm — announced it was taking on Cory Maye’s case “pro bono.” [ 9 ]
- Covington succeeded in overturning Cory Maye’s conviction, thus protecting Mississippi’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Balko has taken nearly all the credit for saving Maye’s life, which he's exploited to bolster his credibility with progressives and to negate all the years he spent advocating for toxic corporate interests. [ 10 ] [ 11 ]
- Balko’s employer, the Cato Institute, has been a leading proponent and defender of “Stand Your Ground” laws; another Koch lobby outfit, ALEC, is responsible for writing the “Stand Your Ground” model legislation passed in Mississippi. Balko himself has personally defended “Stand Your Ground” and “self-defense” laws, most recently in the Trayvon Martin murder case.
- Balko was criticized for keeping silent in the the first weeks after Trayvon Martin's murder in early 2012. Balko finally broke his silence by offering a catalog of excuses, including "I’m working on a number of other projects"; "I also do occasionally enjoy doing things that aren’t work-related"; "And again, I have other things going on."
- Since breaking his silence, Balko took positions that confused and angered Trayvon supporters who assumed Balko shared their progressive views. Among other things, Balko repeatedly asserted that George Zimmerman had not committed a crime, and Balko falsely claimed that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law was "irrelevant" to Zimmerman's not guilty verdict—a claim Balko was later forced to retract on Twitter. [ 12 ] [ 13 ]
- Balko supports privatizing juries, privatizing criminal labs, and blames America’s high incarceration rate on too much democracy.
- Balko claimed that guns save lives, citing a flawed Cato Institute study claiming that guns were used to defend homes in at least 5,000 incidents between 2003 and 2011.
- In Febrary 2011, during the Koch-backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's attack on public sector unions, Balko published a long defense of the Kochs: "But though I've never met either of the Koch brothers, I suspect that like most libertarians, they'd rather avoid the unseemly world of politics as often as possible, where winning generally means forcing other people to bend to your will. . . . They seem more interested in contributing to voluntary, civil society, by promoting ideas (yes, through think tanks and magazines like Reason), the arts, research, and by fighting particularly pernicious laws like the PATRIOT Act through the courts instead of through contributions to generally spineless politicians."
- In 2012, after being hired by the Huffington Post as "senior writer" and "investigative reporter," Balko published a three-part series defending Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, otherwise known as "hillbilly heroin," as well as the painkiller industry. Purdue Pharma's Oxycontin played a leading role in fueling an explosion of prescription opiod addiction cases and a 400-percent increase in overdose deaths since the late 1990s.
- As Purdue raked in billions, it faced a stream of investigations and lawsuits over its deceptive and aggressive marketing tactics, and its role in the overdose epidemic, which claimed thousands of lives in poor regions of the Appalachians and the South. Ralph Nader's Public Citizen described Purdue's business model as "death dealing." But Balko painted the company as a victim of the government's War on Drugs, and tried to discredit evidence and studies showing the devastating effects of Oxycontin and other painkillers. Nowhere in this three-part series, which was promoted with great fanfare by the Huffington Post, did Balko mention that the company's top executives had already pled guilty to criminal fraud, and were forced to pay $630 million in fines for fraudulent mislabeling, misleading doctors and consumers about the dangers of Oxycontin. The executives were also barred for 20 years from doing business with Medicare or any other government healthcare programs. [ 14 ]
- Balko's defense of Purdue was published just weeks before a major joint investigation by the Washington Post, ProPublica the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and other regional newspapers exposed Purdue Pharma's role funding fake-medical research front groups, including groups positively cited by Balko in his Huffington Post series. Their investigation led to Senate hearings, and the shuttering of some of the biggest Oxycontin front groups. Balko never retracted or corrected his misleading HuffPo defense of Oxycontin.
- In July 2013, Balko published his first book: "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces." The book is a follow-up to Balko's 2006 report for the Cato Institute, "The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America." Cato Institute still sells the report in its bookstore and hosts an interactive map, "Botched Paramilitary Police Raids," edited by Balko and based on his research.
- Balko also made appearances on Fox News Live’s Gen-X roundtable TV program “Youngbloods.” [↩]
- That same year, in 2001, the Washington Post reported, "The Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, has spent about $3 million in the past six years to run a virtual war room to promote Social Security privatization....Two members of Bush's Social Security commission, Sam Beard and former representative Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.), are on a Cato privatization panel, and Cato staff members have been assigned to the Bush commission." [↩]
- Balko also promoted Cato's "Social Security Calculator." [↩]
- The Cato Institute's "Project on Social Security Choice" was headed by a former Pinochet minister, Jose Piñera. [↩]
- In his 2003 "Fisking Tom Tomorrow" post, Balko also called on Bush to privatize America's forests and highways, defended school vouchers and home schooling. [↩]
- According to Southern Poverty Law Center, American Renaissance magazine is run by a white nationalist "think tank" called New Century Foundation, and "regularly feature[s] proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black racists." [↩]
- The Cato Institute's major donors have included Philip Morris, British-American Tobacco, and RJ Reynolds; secret tobacco industry documents leaked in the late 1990s revealed the Cato Institute's role as a "National Ally" of the tobacco lobby.) [↩]
- As with Balko's attacks against Super Size Me, Berman's "Center for Consumer Freedom" repeatedly attacked Supersize Me, calling it "Supersize Spin," a "Sick Reality TV Show," and a "Supersized Con Job." [↩]
- The AP reported on the political significance of Maye's conviction not long after Covington & Burling took on his case: "Radley Balko, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington and a biweekly columnist for FoxNews.com, has taken up Maye's cause. . . . The case is all the more relevant now, as lawmakers consider measures that would broaden the right for citizens to kill intruders." [↩]
- On his Huffington Post bio page, Balko is credited with freeing Maye: "His reporting on the Cory Maye case, in which Maye mistakenly killed a police officer in a mistaken drug raid, helped Maye get off death row and win a new trial. Maye was finally released in July 2011." [↩]
- Balko's employer, Cato Institute, also pumped up his supposed role in saving Maye. [↩]
- "I’m not yet convinced [Zimmerman] committed a crime," Balko wrote nearly 2 months after Trayvon Martin was killed. [↩]
- At first denying Stand Your Ground played role in Zimmerman's acquittal, he then was forced to correct himself: "Very well. Then I will concede...SYG was "a factor" in the jury deliberations," Balko tweeted on July 15, 2013. [↩]
- Balko used Cato Institute's research in his articles, without disclosing the fact that he was still connected to the thinktank at the time his series was published. [↩]