Nonprofit ‘Investigative’ Journalism: A Distraction (and Worse)

As noted here, the recently released FCC report on the future of journalism has effectively put the kibosh on the “media reform” crowd’s dream of government intervention to “save journalism.”  Likely gone forever are such schemes as a federal tax credit for investigative journalism, or an AmeriCorps-like “Geek Corps for local democracy.”

But there’s another element of the “reformers’” agenda that is still alive and kicking, and that is the rise of so-called nonprofit journalism, i.e. the creation, as nonprofit organizations, of “investigative” journalism groups, like ProPublica, which research and write feature stories that are then peddled for publication (or publicity) to for-profit, and often mainstream, media companies like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.

At a time when so many news organizations, newspapers especially, are laying off reporters, concern about the future of journalism is neither wrong nor untimely, and when compared to the inherent evils in direct (or indirect) government funding of journalism, the nonprofits’ activities are orders of magnitude more benign.

This said, even a cursory review of this cottage industry reveals deep flaws that aren’t, in the main, even being discussed.  Two in particular stand out: (1) Virtually without exception these groups are funded by left-of-center individuals and foundations – funding that is reflected in the groups’ mission statements and/or in the material they publish; and (2) the nonprofit groups’ relationship with for-profit outlets reveals a business plan on the part of the former that relies utterly on the existence  of the latter, thereby vitiating claims that the nonprofit groups are any kind of “solution” to what ails the media.

A piece recently published in Politico shines some (unintended) light on the problem.  Titled “Liberal Journalism’s Fickle Godfather,” the article tasks PBS commentator Bill Moyers – who also heads a grant-giving foundation – for not staying long enough in financial support of some liberal nonprofit startups that subsequently folded.

In between quotes from disgruntled grant recipients dropped by Moyers’s foundation (the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy), the author of the piece recounts some recent history of such organizations, including a few survivors, and sums things up this way:

“Earlier this month, the FCC released the results of a year-long survey of this destruction and recommended that philanthropy play a bigger role in supporting journalism.  But so far, few foundations are set up to provide the ongoing support that journalism organizations really need.”

Well, okay, if Politico says so it must be true, right?  But there is this: Every nonprofit mentioned in the piece as doing “investigative journalism” derives virtually all of its financial support from liberal grant-giving foundations.

Take, for instance, the Center for Public Integrity, said by Politico to have “a diverse funding base.” In fact, the Center’s funding base is “diverse” only in the sense that there’s more than one contributor.  Otherwise, virtually every group shown (on Wikipedia) to be in support of the Center is a liberal grant-giving foundation.  Though not all of them give the same proportion of their funding to nonprofit journalism groups like the Center for Public Integrity, the media programs they do fund are resolutely left-of-center.

There is, one hastens to say, nothing intrinsically wrong with committing liberalism (of course there’s nothing right with it, either), but kidding aside, when the whole of the nonprofit journalism community is funded by such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, or the MacArthur Foundation, or the Tides Foundation, or the Knight, Ford, or Schumann foundations, and manned by the kind of people, and/or with the kind of mission, as at the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or the Center for Public Integrity, there is the risk (how to put this gently?) that the resultant investigations will be “one-sided.”

Of course this isn’t a problem for everybody, and certainly not for Politico, but it really is a problem – though not yet widely recognized as such – for the participating mainstream media.

About a year ago I was given the unpleasant task of participating on an ABA panel with the general manager of the newest kid on the block, the nonprofit investigative group called ProPublica.  Founded, chaired, and bankrolled by the billionaire and uber liberal Herbert Sandler, ProPublica’s editor is Paul Steiger, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, on whose watch the organization has won two Pulitzer prizes.

According to published reports, Mr. Steiger’s total compensation in 2009 was just under $600K, so it’s not clear if he joined ProPublica because he believes in its stated mission (“shining a light on the exploitation of the weak by the strong”), or for more pedestrian reasons, but whatever the case the point of conflict between me and ProPublica’s general manager back then was his argument that it was possible for journalists to separate their work and opinions from those of their employers.  The example the gentleman gave was of the management of The Wall Street Journal and its reporters.

As I subsequently wrote, this argument doesn’t compute because a for-profit media manager’s job (as at the WSJ) is to make money, not politics, whereas the investigative nonprofit manager’s job is just the opposite. Indeed, this argument is akin to the tired old nonsense, spouted for decades by certain editors, that the political affiliation of their reporters – even where, say, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine or ten to one – doesn’t color their journalistic product.  Of course it doesn’t.

So at a time when the perceived bias of the MSM is driving people en masse into the arms of such as Matt Drudge, Andrew Breitbart, and Glenn Beck (and how “progressive” is that?), the collaboration of mainstream media with the uniformly liberal nonprofit journalism groups threatens to hasten that emigration.  And as suggested at the beginning of this piece, even this isn’t the only problem with nonprofit journalism.

The other problem is that, unlike the ersatz “reforms” (of which nonprofit journalism is but one) promoted by such as the Knight Foundation, there are some real initiatives being undertaken by individuals and organizations – including media companies themselves – who have not given up on the MSM or for-profit journalism, and are trying very hard to find ways to compensate for the extraordinary loss of advertising that is at the root of the crisis in medialand.

Broadcasters, for instance, are hoping to adapt to the new realities through the development of such things as multicast digital channels and mobile DTV, while print companies, like The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, are rolling out online subscription pricing plans in an attempt to generate more revenue.

And they are not alone.  Other informed people, like certain members of the communications bar, are trying to lend a hand.  Take, for instance, the highly regarded media and First Amendment attorney Bruce Sanford, who has written and testified about prospective changes in copyright, ownership, and antitrust laws as would provide a more level playing field for the commercial mainstream media.

At the end of the day it’s this – the contrast between the hopes and plans of those who have not given up on the media versus those who have, and would now turn it into an industry reliant on the government, or nonprofit groups with an agenda – that frames the other problem with nonprofit journalism: It’s a time-consuming and expensive distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

Even if, as often seems to be the case, the real motive behind the promotion of nonprofit journalism is the rescue of the recently (or soon-to-be) unemployed, dressed up in the rhetoric of “saving the news,” it amounts to little more than a gesture in the larger scheme of things.

Even if it were a more ideologically even-handed enterprise, nonprofit investigative journalism is not now, and never will be, either a solution to the problems of, or an obviation of the need for, mainstream, professional, and for-profit media.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.