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