‘Interest Groups’ and the News Media

From the Pew Research Center/Project for Excellence in Journalism comes the welcome report that newspaper editors and TV news directors are not eager to be, or to be seen as being, wards of the state.  This wholesome sentiment will not come as a surprise to most people, but it has to be disconcerting to the “media reform” crowd, which has been clamoring for direct government subsidies or tax breaks for the news media.

According to the study, 75 percent of the respondents, drawn from the ranks of members of ASNE and RTDNA, had “serious reservations” about direct subsidies from the government, and approximately half had such concerns about tax credits for news organizations.  (Note: These figures do not indicate how many of the respondents had “reservations,” only those who had “serious reservations.”)

It’s in the matter of non-governmental support, of the sort that issues from “interest groups” or nonprofit organizations, that the picture becomes a little murky.  According to the report, a whopping 78 percent of the respondents had serious concerns about accepting donations from “interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind,” while a little over half expressed either serious or “some” reservations about funds issuing from nonprofit foundations.

Buts what about those groups, like the investigative news organization ProPublica, that are funded and led by people with extensive, and clearly defined, political profiles?  Is ProPublica an advocacy group or just a nonprofit news group?  The question takes on a practical significance in light of the Pulitzer recently awarded to ProPublica and The New York Times for their collaboration on a piece published in the New York Times Magazine.

As reported here, the founder, chairman, and principal financial backer of ProPublica is billionaire Herbert Sandler.  Since selling his interest in the bank (Golden West Financial) through which he made his fortune, Herbert and his wife, Marion, have become big-time philanthropists, with substantial sums going to “progressive” organizations like the Center for American Progress and Acorn.

Along the way the Sandlers acquired an interest in bankrolling a news organization that would create “journalism in the public interest,” as ProPublica calls itself, and hired Paul Steiger, then the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, to act as editor-in-chief.

As reported in The New York Times, Steiger, who was then nearing the WSJ’s mandatory retirement age, didn’t know the Sandlers well but regarded them as “civic-minded people who were kind of partial to lefty or progressive causes.”

From its inception in 2008, ProPublica has proclaimed its independence and impartiality — a claim that is undermined by its avowed goal of producing journalism that “shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong,” and by the looming presence of Mr. Sandler who, rather than donate his money as a lump sum and walk away, installed himself as chairman and is parceling out his contributions over time.

At a recent conference of the American Bar Association, the general manager of ProPublica who, like Mr. Steiger, was formerly with the Wall Street Journal, defended the organization against criticism of Mr. Sandler’s role by suggesting that ProPublica, like the WSJ, is capable of producing journalism that is independent of the political views of management.  Unfortunately, this is an inapt analogy.  In fact it’s worse than that — it positively undermines the argument it’s meant to buttress.

This, of course, because the reason that the Wall Street Journal, or any commercial news organization, can produce news stories that are not a reflection of the political views of management is because they, like all for-profit organizations, operate on the principle of maximizing returns to the shareholders, rather than as a forum for the expression of management’s political or ideological views.

But contrast this dynamic with the very different operating principle of ProPublica, or any nonprofit enterprise.  As Slate’s Jack Shafer asked at ProPublica’s launch, “What do the Sandlers want for their millions? … 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?”

In fairness, most of the reports produced by ProPublica to date do not suggest an organization that is marching in lockstep with the progressive agenda.  For the most part they are ideologically value free.  But that’s only half the story.  The real issue with a group like ProPublica is not the kind of issues it does cover but the kind it doesn’t.  As Jack Shafer asked, what kind of investigative pieces will ProPublica do — not counting the rare expose that proves the rule — that discomfit progressives?  That will be the true test of its independence from its benefactor, and of its suitability as a partnering organization with mainstream news organizations.

In the meantime, close your eyes and try to imagine the kind of reception that would have come to Paul Steiger and ProPublica if, instead of Mr. Sandler, the group’s founder, chairman, and bankroller had been someone who, politically, was Mr. Sandler’s polar opposite — someone who had supported conservative or libertarian causes and organizations.  How do you think that would have gone down with the J-schools, journalism reviews, and grant-giving foundations?

The Media and the Economy

Virtually everyone who’s taken an objective look at the subject agrees that media coverage of the presidential race was tilted in favor of president-elect Obama. The latest to make the claim is Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, who last week characterized “extreme pro-Obama coverage” as “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war.”

Late last month, a study by the Pew Research Center found that by a margin of 70%-9% (including over 60% of Democrats and Independents), Americans said journalists wanted to see Obama win on November 4. Even the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, corroborated the charge. “Readers,” she said, “have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.”

So for 70% of the people of this country, the media’s performance was noted. And for 46%– those who voted for McCain– it was noted and resented, thereby further alienating a large part of the audience of the foundering newspaper and broadcasting industries, a woeful aspect of contemporary journalism that’s been mentioned here before.

But there’s another feature of the media’s campaign coverage that is the subject of this note, also mentioned here before: the failure of political reporters generally to focus their coverage on the issue which mattered most– the extraordinary financial and economic crisis, and what, if anything, the candidates knew, or proposed to do, about it.

An item reported on Bloomberg shapes the problem nicely: “Obama’s program will be far larger than the $175 billion package of tax cuts and stepped-up government spending he proposed just a month ago. Some of his advisers, and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, have suggested a figure of $700 billion.”

In a country in which trial lawyers routinely work their will on juries comprised of people who have no conception of the difference between, say, a million and a billion, the difference between what Obama was saying then and what his aides are saying now may seem to many like no big deal.

But as people come to understand, however imperfectly, that this is a piper they’ll have to pay, they may look upon the matter differently, especially if the effects of the stimulus and bailout plans don’t come in time or in numbers sufficient to save their jobs, or homes, or life savings.

There is no suggestion here that substantial and intelligent media coverage of the economy would have changed the election results. For that to have been the case, even in theory, would have required an opponent with a far stronger grasp of economic issues than John McCain, about whom it may fairly be said that no presidential candidate in recent history was more inarticulate or unpersuasive.

But by their neglect of the economic issue, political reporters disserved the nation as a whole, and left the people utterly unprepared to vet the candidates’ economic proposals, then or now. That they did this while also clearly favoring Obama just adds journalistic insult to civic injury.