Former ThinkProgress Blogger: I Quit Over White House Censorship
March 10, 2014 by Ben Bullard
A former blogger for ThinkProgress, the online mouthpiece for the far-left Center for American Progress policy outfit, revealed last week he quit in frustration after being repeatedly stonewalled by supervisors on how to approach topics the White House deemed sensitive.
Zaid Jilani joined ThinkProgress in 2009 to blog about national security issues, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that he faced insurmountable obstacles from within the CAP who wished to sell President Barack Obama’s narrative on the escalating U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Reacting to two separate incidents last week in which reporters for Russia Today faced consequences (or quit) after criticizing Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, Jilani posted a Tumblr blog entitled “How Working In Washington Taught Me We’re All A Little Like RT America.”
I’m writing this post to explain how working in Washington taught me we’re all a little bit like the good folks who work at RT America — struggling against editorial censors, doing our best to follow our conscience despite sometimes suffocating pressures from our publishers and sponsors.
When I started working at ThinkProgress at the Center for American Progress Action Fund in 2009, I did so because it was an awesome platform to do good journalism. I knew that I disagreed with CAP on a number of issues, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to write things too harshly critical of President Obama — which half of senior CAP staff had worked for or wanted to work for — or the Democratic Party, or CAP’s corporate sponsors in the “Business Alliance.”
One of the controversial topics that was very constrained in our writing at ThinkProgress in 2009 was Afghanistan. CAP had decided not to protest Obama’s surge, so most our writing on the topic was simply neutral — we weren’t supposed to take a strong stand. Given that I had just moved up from Georgia, and the American South has a much higher proportion of its population in the Armed Forces, I felt particularly strong that we should oppose the continuation of the war. The people who ran CAP didn’t really agree.
Flash forward a couple years, and the Democratic Party’s lawmakers in Congress were in open revolt over the Afghanistan policy. Our writing at ThinkProgress had opened up a lot on the issue, and I was writing really critical stuff. I worked with our art and design team at CAP to put together a chart showing that Obama’s supposed “withdrawal” plan from Afghanistan would leave more troops in the country than when he began his presidency.
The post was one of the most successful things I had ever written to that point. It was featured by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the Congressional Progressive Caucus used it in their briefings to criticize Obama’s plan. I felt great — like I was actually doing the right thing about Afghanistan for once at an institution that had remained quiet or supportive of Obama’s policy there, which in my view was accomplishing little but more bloodshed.
But then phone calls from the White House started pouring in, berating my bosses for being critical of Obama on this policy. Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes — speaking of a staffer who follows policy set by others for his career path — even made a post on the White House blog more or less attacking my chart by fudging the numbers and including both the Iraq and Afghan troop levels in a single chart to make it seem as if the surge never happened (the marvels of things you can do in Excel!).
Soon afterwards all of us ThinkProgress national security bloggers were called into a meeting with CAP senior staff and basically berated for opposing the Afghan war and creating daylight between us and Obama.
It got worse. Jilani eventually left his ThinkProgress gig, in part, he wrote, “for reasons of other censorship dealing with both corporate sponsors and that institution’s fealty to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).” He concludes by noting that every news outlet with which he’s since been affiliated has suffered under some degree of unspoken subjective slant or conflict of interest.
“[D]on’t judge those who work there [at RT], claiming they are just Kremlin Robots out to rebuild the Soviet Empire,” said Jilani. “They’re not that anymore than I was an Obamabot arguing for a long, pointless war in Afghanistan.”