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Emerald, seemingly, never understood the whole OSPIRG thing

The Emerald ran a correction in its print edition today on three errors in its Friday article on OSPIRG. Since it didn’t run online, I’ll reproduce the full text here so we’re on the same page before I go on talking about it.

Because of a reporter’s error, an article in Friday’s Emerald (“Ospirg on a mission to regain favor on campus”) misstated the year of a tax return it referenced. The 2009 tax return listed a $30,811 salary for a health care advocate. The article misstated a transaction between OSPIRG and Environment Oregon and Oregonians for Health. OSPIRG granted $1,633,289 to Environment Oregon and Oregonians for Health. The organization’s tax advocate was contacted before the story’s publication. OSPIRG uses the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of lobbying to maintain their 501(c)(3) tax status, which differs from the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition provided by the Emerald. (emphasis mine)

This last sentence I found distressing for two reasons. The first is that the correction implies that those at the Emerald don’t understand why the ASUO decided to strip Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group’s funding in the first place.

The fact that Oregon Student PIRG is a 501(c)(3) organization means it can receive public funds but not lobby, by the “IRS definition,” which is a false construct by the Emerald, but more on that later. Oregon Student PIRG shares its offices and much of its staff with another organization, Oregon State PIRG. Oregon State PIRG is a 501(c)(4) organization, meaning it cannot receive public funds but can lobby. Its money comes from private donors and its budget dwarfs Oregon Student PIRG’s. Oregon State PIRG and Oregon Student PIRG have the same executive director, David Rosenfeld, although he maintains that he answers to a student board of directors while he is working for Oregon Student PIRG.

The ASUO has refused to fund the student PIRG, basically, because the distinction between it and Oregon State PIRG was too murky for their liking, because Rosenfeld could never prove his running of the student PIRG wasn’t driven by the interests of the state PIRG.

That’s why OSPIRG had its funding taken away. To read a lengthy article arguing, in effect, against OSPIRG’s funding, go here. I’m not necessarily saying I care one way or another about OSPIRG’s funding. I’m just saying the Emerald produced 1,700-word centerpiece article, a propos of not a hell of a lot, about OSPIRG without actually understanding the most important aspect of the OSPIRG issue.

That’s neither here nor there, though. Tax codes are a difficult thing to understand, and I can’t explicitly remember whether I understood that distinction when I was reporting either. I certainly never stated it as explicitly as I did up there.

But the Emerald compounded it with that correction. The Merriam-Webster definition for lobbying and the IRS definition for lobbying are the same. To lobby, by both definitions, is to promote the passage of legislation. A 501(c)(3) organization is legally barred from doing this. Oregon Student PIRG, legally, cannot lobby, merely push issues, not legislation. So saying Oregon Student PIRG lobbies is libelous unless the Emerald can prove it lobbies, considering that repeating the error in snarky fashion almost certainly satisfies the “actual malice” test for libel. And saying it follows the Merriam-Webster definition is a second act of libel. So that’s dicey.

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