Can Nonprofit News Outlets Avoid the Biases of Funders?

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May 27, 2012; Source: Great Falls Tribune

Increasingly, public discussion of nonprofit news operations is veering toward the ideological bent of their funders. For example, supported by the liberal political activists Herb and Marion Sandler, ProPublica is frequently seen as a politically left-of-center-leaning nonprofit news operation.

The state of Montana, with less total population than some big city neighborhoods, has two nonprofit news operations that have distinct—and acknowledged—conservative political leanings. Neither, established in 2010, nor Media Trackers Montana, created this past spring, reveal details of their funding sources, both utilizing the confidentiality accorded by their 501(c) status, but they are close to or affiliated with organizations with conservative agendas. was created by the Montana Policy Institute, a free-market-oriented conservative think tank. The president of the Institute, Carl Graham, says, however, that the ideologically conservative leanings of the Institute will not undermine’s commitment to good journalism, though there is an obvious political dimension to’s choice of subject matter—for example, a lot of attention to stories about government spending. Graham said he directed his top investigative reporter, Phil Drake, on his hiring, to “be honest, be fair, be objective and don’t give readers a reason to question your veracity as a reporter.” doesn’t reveal the donors behind its relatively low annual budget, but a tie to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity has been publicized. The Franklin Center is funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, a mainstay of conservative philanthropy. Graham denies insinuations that the Koch brothers have funded

Media Trackers Montana appears to be primarily funded by a Tea Party-linked organization called American Majority, with the stated goal of “dig(ging) up dirt on the left” and taking on liberal organizations such as Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. It was created around the firestorm of attacks against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s policies on public sector unions, a strategy that conservatives in some states would like to see protected and replicated.

Montana Watchdog had to endure a dust-up concerning a story it ran by a writer with the Franklin Center who may have played a bit fast and loose with journalistic ethics, reportedly lying about his identity to obtain information for a story, but Montana Watchdog points out that he wasn’t a Montana Watchdog reporter—though the outlet ran his stuff.

Both of these nonprofit publications claim that they will be no less committed to good journalism than anyone else. Is that possible? Isn’t the reality of journalism, whether commercial or nonprofit, that there is always a funder—advertisers for most newspapers, foundations and think tanks for nonprofit news venues—with some sort of political or institutional biases that might come into play? And don’t all journalistic venues pick and choose among stories that suit their interests or perspectives? Do NPQ Newswire readers think that the conservative nonprofit news operations at Montana Watchdog and Media Trackers can do good journalism despite their politics, funders, and partners?—Rick Cohen

  • Kevin Davis

    I run the Investigative News Network, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit network of 60 nonprofit news publishers that produce investigative and public interest journalism that educate and promote an informed citizenry. In order to be a member of our organization, a nonprofit has to disclose its funders beyond $5k. This transparency policy has also been adopted by the Knight Foundation. In my opinion, only through transparency of funding can the types of questions posed by this post be answered. Furthermore, as it is a journalistic mission to shine a bright light in dark corners and hold the powers-that-be accountable, it is inconsistant to think that ethical journalism that informs the citizenry with balanced and complete viewpoints – which is a standard of the IRS to qualify for 501(c)(3) status – can come of a policy of secrecy and nondisclosure. Clearly not all nonprofit new organizations are alike.
    – Kevin Davis, CEO, Investigative News Network.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Kevin: thank you so much for your response and the information. As you know from reading our articles here on the NPQ Newswire and in the Cohen Report, we are pretty big believers in the value of transparency. In fact, the other week, I actually debated a panel at the Aspen Institute where I was in favor of increased transparency and everyone else on the panel was in favor of limiting or reducing nonprofit transparency, including other foundations (not Knight, however, which wasn’t a participant in the program). Do share more about the Investigative News Network. I’m sure NPQ readers would love to know what you are doing and how that level of transparency increases the quality of the journalism that ensues.

  • Kevin Davis

    Thanks Rick for our reply.
    Readers can find more info about INN at our website [LINK=][/LINK] and, specifically, our membership guidelines [LINK=]here[/LINK].

    In short, our organization is focused on providing our nonprofit, non-partisan member organizations with a breadth of services that range from back-office functions such as access to affordable insurance and legal representation; to technology support to help their content be published in ways that give people information the way they need it; to editorial collaborations that combine the reporting and data from multiple outlets to create the biggest impact on the widest audience possible.

    All that said, ultimately we believe our commitment to transparency allows our organizations – who are not the most well known media brands – to establish credibility with audiences and other media outlets so that they can understand our motivation and intent in producing the content; namely to educate and inform our citizenry to help keep our democracy free.