A Scary Mix of Journalism & Strategic Philanthropy: Gates Spends Big on Education Journalism

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October 15, 2015; Poynter

Anyone watching the philanthropic landscape who cares about democracy should start worrying about the confluence of top-down strategic philanthropy with the rise of philanthropically-backed journalism.

Case in point: NPQ has reported previously on grants made by the Gates Foundation to media outlets covering areas where its sometimes-controversial philanthropic activity is focused, but last week, the Poynter Institute revealed that over the last five years, the Foundation has been spending about $7 million a year on education-related journalism coverage through such outlets as NPR, Hechinger, Chalkbeat, EdWeek, and the Educational Writers Association. It also has partnerships with outlets like Univision and the PBS NewsHour.

Alexander Russo, author at the new education blog The Grade, points out the obvious problem with this in terms of its potential to hijack the public discourse, saying, “I don’t think that the Gates Foundation would be spending this kind of money if they didn’t think it helped their cause, however indirectly, and I’m under no illusions that newsrooms are able to completely ignore the sources of their funding, whether in the form of advertising or nonprofit funding.”

But then he backs away from that critique, saying, “The Gates Foundation agenda is focused on relatively moderate ideas like teacher quality and high standards, and it’s been pretty open about its journalism grants…So its media partnerships are less problematic to me than they would be if their agenda was ending tenure, charter school growth, or a Teach For America takeover—or if they were hiding the grants or seeming to pressure editors.”

Not everyone believes that the Gates Foundation agenda for America’s public schools is so neutral, as NPQ’s Marty Levine wrote last week and Liana Heiten wrote for Education Week, and these are certainly not the first concerns to be voiced about Gates’ funding of issues in which it is heavily involved. As far back as 2011, a well-researched and detailed article in the Seattle Times, entitled “Does Gates Funding of Media Taint Objectivity,” looked at the foundation’s funding of health journalism. At that time, it reported:

To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.

The efforts are part of what the foundation calls “advocacy and policy.” Over the past decade, Gates has devoted $1 billion to these programs, which now account for about a tenth of the giant philanthropy’s $3 billion-a-year spending. The Gates Foundation spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations—including Rockefeller and MacArthur—spend in total.

But Gates is not the only philanthropy investing in topic-specific journalism. Individual donors like Neil Barsky (The Marshall Project) and Michael Bloomberg (The Trace) have invested in standalone, single-issue news sites. The considerations behind the Marshall Project are described here by Bill Keller as journalism explicitly aimed at broad coverage of a topic systematically under-reported in mainstream media. In contrast, Bloomberg’s intention was to balance what he saw as unbalanced coverage of the debates about gun control and serve as part of a larger advocacy strategy with a point of view. The NRA called the Trace a “propaganda outfit” and a part of a larger “disinformation campaign,” but John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the advocacy organization funded by Bloomberg, discussed the work in terms of a balancing of information, in that the Trace grew out of frustrations with the enormous media-feeding capacity of the National Rifle Association. He believes that the NRA needs to be countered with serious, research-based journalism on the topic. Both are attempts to fill an information gap for the public.

There is, of course, a whole landscape of other relationships between philanthropy and journalism, some of it focused tightly on a single topic and some of it more general. Public broadcasting has for many decades taken sponsorship from philanthropic institutions, and this relationship has not always been without its issues. Readers may remember the flap at WNET concerning the influence wielded by David Koch over the airing of “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.” David Koch, who featured prominently in the film, was on the board of—and a large donor to—WNET. As we wrote in 2013, “The station was publicly pilloried, but that did not stop it from accepting $3.5 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, founded by former Enron trader John Arnold, to support its ‘Pension Peril’ series. The foundation states on its website that pension reform is one of its foci.”

David Sirota wrote then for Pando Daily:

PBS rules prohibit corporate, political or ideological interests from financing programming that directly involves those interests’ agendas. According to PBS’s website, the rules do this to prevent the entire frame of said programming from “pre-ordaining” conclusions and systemically skewing coverage in an ideological direction.

The “Pension Peril” series, funded by the anti-pension billionaire John Arnold, is a good example of how such skewing works to bias news coverage and suppress contextualizing facts. The individual public television journalists in the series may not knowingly be toeing Arnold’s ideological line when they conduct their “Pension Peril” reporting (indeed, Pando never suggested they were). However, as Pando noted in its original report, the core assumptions baked into the series as a whole—namely, that pensions are singularly creating peril and driving state and local budget crises—are highly ideological and are not substantiated by empirical data.

This is not, of course, the only basis on which philanthropy has been funding journalism. Some foundations give more generally to improve the information flow to a civic environment. The Knight Foundation is a good example of this approach, albeit with a marked attraction for new digital gadgetry over other approaches. Still, the Knight Foundation has made it its business to track the development of the business models of the new wave of nonprofit news sites, and that, as we have mentioned previously, is an enormous service to the field.

Long story short, there is plenty to be concerned about in the relationships between philanthropy and journalism. Some of it can be addressed through the claiming of a point of view and clear ethical guidelines, but let’s face it, the sensibilities of a large donor to a media outlet certainly may have some sway even when such measures are taken, as in the case of WNET and David Koch. And if one assumes that such not-so-subtle philanthropic influences do have an effect, those measures do not address the kind of seizing of the frame of the discourse through multiple channels that some believe that Gates has been involved with.

NPQ would love to hear from readers about the dangers and opportunities in philanthropically backed journalism—and, more specifically, philanthropy that funds a particular point of view in journalism. (Full disclosure: NPQ receives philanthropic support from a number of foundations.)—Ruth McCambridge

  • Patrick Lester

    As the for-profit press continues to struggle and have fewer resources for covering public policy and investigative journalism, the continued development of a nonprofit press is a very good thing. NPQ is a good example of that.

    The for-profit press had to deal with the tensions between advertiser support and independent journalism, so it is not really different for nonprofits deal with essentially the same thing, possible conflicts between funders and independence. Are foundation funders really worse or different than corporate advertisers?

    All journalists have a point of view. Even balanced journalism that attempts to cover all sides of an issue involves subjective decisions about what stories to cover, headlines, and what quotes and supporting facts to use. You can reduce, but you can’t really eliminate bias. Again, NPQ itself is a good example, since its biases are pretty easy to see.

    The best you can hope for is full disclosure of funders and let the outlet’s reputation ride on that. Let the reader decide how credible they are. News outlets that lose credibility will (hopefully) lose out in the competition for readers.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Good journalism requires funding, whether it’s from advertising, subscriptions, family money or grants. Is this really so much more problematic than having car dealers buying ads in automobile sections, restaurants buying ads in the dining sections? What about the biases that come with a local family or a media mogul owning the media outlet? As long as there is full disclosure and the contract agreements prevent funders from having editorial control of the results, this business model can serve the public interest.

  • marcgunther

    You write: (Full disclosure: NPQ receives philanthropic support from a number of foundations.)

    I’d call that partial disclosure. Which foundations? Taken together, how much of NPQ’s editorial budget do they support? I’d be interested to know what you think their effect is, if any, on the scope and nature of NPQ’s coverage. You’ve raised great questions here, and you’re in the position of an “insider” to offer a point of view on whether philanthropy and journalism is, indeed, a “scary mix” as the headline says. Should we be scared about the integrity of NPQ. As a reader, I hope not, and I think not.

  • ruth

    Marc – good questions and a slightly complicated answer. Right now most of our foundation money is for implementation of our business plan which is designed to move us away from big philanthropic slugs in our budget. The foundations providing capital currently include Ford, Hewlett, Edna McConnell Clark, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Mott Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation. In the recent past we have also had funding from Kresge. As you may have noted, we are not known for softsoap journalism. We have not had the problem of having any of our funders try to influence our coverage, but, I won’t lie, since we cover the philanthropic sector every now and again it occurs to me that we are about to critique someone who supports us or who we wish would support us. It never stops us, at least not to date, but we are aware and maybe a little discomfited. Its actually a good gauge of our alignment with a funder if they expect to be criticized by us occasionally. I do think that strategic philanthropy aimed at things other than good independent journalism is a scary mix for the public as is evidenced by the examples in the piece

    • marcgunther

      Thanks, good answer. I agree that NPQ offers smart, critical, independent reporting. To me, that’s one bit of evidence that foundation-funded journalism can be independent and worth reading. I’m associated with the Guardian, where the Gates Foundation supports a “global development hub” of stories. It makes possible coverage of the world’s poorest people, and efforts to aid them, topics that don’t get enough attention from much of the press. Then again, the examples you cite of PBS-WNET-foundation connections are troubling. Maybe the solution is to be skeptical of all journalism, whatever the funding model.

      • ruth

        I think that is wise – just remain skeptical. The reason why the link between so-called strategic philanthropy and journalism worries me is that a strong opinionated agenda where, for instance, the public schools is concerned is dangerous enough when you have bag-loads of much needed cash to toss about. NPQ has talked quite a bit in our coverage about the financial hijacking of democratic input into public systems but when you are also in a position of influence of the media which frames public dialogue on the future of those systems it creates a special kind of double teaming danger. I am afraid I did not fully explicate this idea in my piece and, thus got taken to task on it elsewhere today. Believe me I am not against philanthropic investments in media. I think it makes great good sense especially if it is motivated by an urge to ensure a well informed civic environment. But it needs watchdogging for sure!