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How journalist Judd Legum holds corporations like AT&T accountable

If you’ve followed CREDO’s story for any amount of time, you know that we aspire to be an ethical company that exists to make the world a better place, from our commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility to the millions in donations to progressive causes over the last 35 years.

Other corporations, like Fox News, AT&T, Exxon, Koch Industries — not so much. 

Over the last few years, journalist Judd Legum has been holding the feet of bad corporate actors to the fire with tenacious research and reporting, uncovering shady donations to right-wing politicians working to subvert democracy and undermine our progressive values.

Legum’s work has been invaluable for shining a light on Big Telecom companies like AT&T who claim publicly to be responsible corporate citizens, then privately fund anti-LGBTQ or white supremacist politicians. So, we were lucky to have the opportunity to chat with him recently about corporate accountability, his work as a journalist and his newsletter Popular Information.

If the name Judd Legum sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Many CREDO members may remember Legum as the founder and editor of the popular progressive blog ThinkProgress. During the 2008 presidential race, he served as the research director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Today, Legum is the author of Popular Information, a daily political newsletter that shares its name from a quote by James Madison and gets to the heart of Legum’s work:

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” 

His research and investigative work have been cited widely — many with real-world effects. Just one example: His March 3 piece uncovering donations by major corporations, including Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta, and AT&T, to Georgia politicians supporting racist voter suppression bills resulted in a rapid response advocacy campaign by a coalition of voting rights activists (including CREDO grantees NAACP and Black Voters Matter).

We also should mention that Legum’s corporate accountability work appears frequently on this blog, regularly highlighting the malfeasance of Big Telecom and uncovering AT&T’s donations to anti-LGBTQ politicians, Florida and Georgia lawmakers supporting voter suppression, Texas lawmakers supporting voter suppression, and insurrectionist members of Congress who enabled Trump’s deadly riot on the Capitol.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity and does not imply endorsement by Judd Legum.

CREDO: You’ve uncovered a lot of stories missed by big media outlets, some of them sitting in plain sight (or in FEC reports) that later made big waves in the mainstream media. Why are many traditional reporters not connecting the dots, say between advertisers and Fox News, or corporations buying influence with their right-wing beneficiaries?

JUDD LEGUM: I think part of the reason why so many people miss these stories is because it’s just the way things are done in Washington, D.C and in American politics. The reason why we were the first to do a story about which corporations donated to the members of Congress that voted to overturn the election is that most people were like, “Oh, of course those corporations donated to Kevin McCarthy and Mo Brooks and all the other people who voted to overturn the election. That’s what corporations do.” 

But as it turns out, when you do the work to identify these corporations, the people who do business with these companies are very interested in how they operate — and the corporations themselves are very sensitive to how their customers feel about them. So while [not reporting on these donations] may be the way things are done in Washington, we’re still going to get the information out to people, and that’s important.

CREDO: So it’s “conventional wisdom,” really, among the traditional media that, “of course, these corporations donate to politicians,” so it’s not a story.

JUDD LEGUM: Right. For a long time, corporations rested on the fact that they give to both parties, so one cancels out the other. But that’s not always the case. If you give $100,000 to one party that is voting to overturn a democratic election, and then you give $100,000 to lawmakers voting not to overturn the election, that doesn’t cancel each other out. That’s a big story. 

And the same goes for voting rights. It’s not enough to divide up your contributions to people who support the right to vote and to people who try to make it extremely difficult to vote — especially if you’re a company that says, publicly, that you support voting rights and wrap yourselves in the legacy of John Lewis and other civil rights heroes.

CREDO: You’ve been reporting on corporate bad actors and calling out companies for their hypocrisy for a while now — whether it’s a company saying publicly that they support LGBTQ rights or Black Lives Matter or voting rights, then they’re quietly donating to Republican lawmakers — sometimes substantial amounts — who completely oppose those values, when they think no one is looking. Recently, you uncovered some companies who promised to stop donations to insurrectionist politicians, then when the dust settled, they opened their wallets to lawmakers who still continue to spread Trump’s Big Lie.

Why do you think these companies keep doing it, even though they know people like you are paying such close attention? 

JUDD LEGUM: There’s an infrastructure built into these corporations that’s based on, effectively, purchasing access to politicians. Part of the toolkit in a “government relations” department is not only trading access based on relationships, but it’s also donating money so that you get your phone calls returned. There’s certainly some people within these companies who are pushing to reform the way they do business [with regards to political donations], but there are others who believe that if Republicans get back into power in 2022, they need to restart these donations, even after what happened on Jan. 6, and get back to business as usual.

CREDO: In the last few years, it feels like people are paying more attention to how corporations act in the political space. Do you feel like you’ve been seeing a heightened expectation from consumers for companies to uphold their values?

JUDD LEGUM: I think that’s absolutely right. Consumer behavior is changing and companies are trying to respond. That’s why you see so many companies taking public stances on social issues. After George Floyd’s murder, you saw all those companies express their support on social media for the Black Lives Matter movement — because a lot of people [who support Black lives] didn’t want to be associated with companies that didn’t.

The problem is that these companies haven’t taken the next step — which is how you spend your money with those expressed values. So there’s still a gap. Part of what we saw after Jan. 6, and what I think we’ll see in the future, is a response to enhanced expectations by consumers.

CREDO: At CREDO, we’re particularly interested in how you’ve really held AT&T to account for their donations that support right-wing causes and politicians — they are kind of the antithesis to what CREDO stands for. To you, what makes these actions by AT&T particularly egregious?

JUDD LEGUM: Well, they are a very large contributor, even among large corporations. They are usually at the top of any list for contributions made to any politicians. If they aren’t on top, they are near the top.

The other thing that really stuck out to me about AT&T is how the company really leaned in hard into civil rights and into the legacy of civil rights leaders. There was a video that was posted by AT&T on YouTube where they recreated John Lewis’ march on Selma, which is fine. And to be fair to the company, Black AT&T employees were involved in that video, so I don’t fault them for it.

But, once you do that, you can’t [donate to politicians who support voter suppression.] For example, AT&T may be the #2 donor in Texas with regards to contributions to the sponsors of voter suppression legislation, but when asked, the CEO issued a statement essentially saying that [voting laws] weren’t their area of expertise

So that’s why AT&T ends up in a lot of our stories; I go where the data takes me. Frequently, it takes me to AT&T.

CREDO: Last question: What’s some advice you can give to CREDO customers and other progressives who want to make sure that they aren’t spending their money with companies that donate to Republicans and right-wing causes and instead try to be vigilant and do business with companies that share their values? 

JUDD LEGUM: Well, they can subscribe to my newsletter, Popular Information, because that is one thing that I try to cover. But I also think that making your voice heard really can drive a lot of corporate behavior. So if you’re going to change your service, I would let the company know why you’re making the switch. You’d be surprised how a relatively few number of people can raise the eyebrows of a large company and get attention. 

We’d like to thank Judd Legum for this great interview and all the work he’s doing to hold companies accountable, especially when they support the politicians and causes that don’t align with our values as CREDO members. We encourage you to sign up and subscribe to his newsletter, Popular Information, for daily or weekly analysis, insight and research. We’ll be sure to feature his work on our blog again.