Signs of institutional meltdown are everywhere apparent. Wall Street and Detroit are obvious examples, as are the states of New York and California. But nowhere is the collapse of standards and credibility more alarming than among journalists and their profession.
Evidence of journalism’s implosion is seen not only in the declining readership and viewership of the MSM, and in public opinion polls, but also in the recent antics of journalists themselves and of those grant-giving foundations that support journalism programs.
A lamentably good example of the latter was provided last week by the Knight Foundation — the largest provider of funding for such programs at universities and nonprofit organizations — and by the Associated Press.
In a release dated June 15, the AP announced that it was launching a project “to distribute watchdog and investigative journalism from nonprofit organizations to its 1,500 member newspapers.” Two days earlier, the Knight Foundation announced a new $15-million program of grants to several investigative news organizations. Among them are two that the AP plans to include in its distribution, the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.
These two announcements herald the birth of what would have been unthinkable in better times, the spectacle of an established news organization like AP accepting and distributing handouts from third parties.
Such an arrangement is, and would be, objectionable even if the “investigative news” organizations in question possessed the qualities of balance and objectivity. But these don’t, and you don’t need to be an investigative reporter to figure that out.
Take, for example, the best funded of them, ProPublica. From their own website comes this revealing statement about their mission: “Our work,” they say, “focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’ We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”
What this suggests, of course, is that ProPublica is likely to have little or no interest in some of the worst aspects of public policy in the USA. Things like the disastrous dependency on government, forged after decades of welfare programs, in America’s inner-city neighborhoods. Or like the ruinous role played by public employees and their unions on state and municipal finance. Or the impact on the cost and provision of health care by ambulance-chasing trial lawyers.
Just by their mission statement it’s clear that ProPublica’s heart wouldn’t be in doing these kinds of stories. But that’s not the only evidence of the organization’s unfitness for the role being given it by the AP. There’s also the small matter of its founder and largest benefactor.
Billionaire Herbert Sandler and his wife, Marion (they’re always mentioned together because of the role each played in the founding of Golden West Financial), have painted, through their contributions to Democratic and leftist organizations like the Center for American Progress and Acorn, an unmistakable ideological profile, leavened with a fair amount of hypocrisy.
As Jack Shafer of Slate put it, in a piece published shortly after the Sandlers founded ProPublica in 2007: “What do the Sandlers want for their millions? Perhaps to return us to the days of the partisan press … ProPublica’s Web site vows that its investigations will be conducted in a ‘non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality.’ But philanthropists, especially those who earned the fortune they’re giving away, tend not to distribute their money with a blind eye to the results. How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows? Or takes the ‘wrong’ position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?”
Providing an almost comic dimension to the Sandlers’ ambitions is the fact that earlier this year Time magazine named them to their list of the “25 people responsible for the financial crisis,” and "SNL" did a skit in ’08 in which it was suggested that they should be shot.
Looming over the whole of the Knight/AP exercise is the elephant in the room that is the public’s growing lack of trust in the media. A piece written last month by Melik Kaylan for Forbes.com summarized that distrust as follows:
“The Reagan years also ushered in the distrust of the Eastern-seaboard intellectual elites. President Reagan understood and exploited the great divide between the heartland and custodians of news, who were chiefly in New York. The two sides saw two different Americas. Journalists and the institutions that formed their ideas saw a country composed largely of wronged minorities with fascinating grievances. Much of the country saw itself as a unified coherent nation with its traditions under siege from insular power blocs who were back-scratching each other all the way up and down the seaboards. Out of that disconnect grew the success of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, Fox News, the blogosphere and the great decentralizing force of the alternative media."
By an ironic coincidence, on the same day that the AP came out with its announcement, the Gallup organization released the results of a new poll of Americans’ ideological attitudes. It found that conservatives outnumber liberals by a margin of 2 to 1. More importantly it revealed that only 5 percent of the people consider themselves "very liberal," a designation that accurately describes the investigative nonprofits the AP and the Knight Foundation have now embraced.
Leave it to them to explain, as the media continue their march toward oblivion, how such a biased and shabby program will improve the public’s trust in the mainstream media or in journalism.