Imperfect Together? With Another Flap, More Questions About Philanthropy and Journalism

Over the past year, we've regularly explored the question of whether philanthropy-backed journalism is inherently problematic. Given that nobody likes to bite the hand that feeds them, we've wondered whether media outlets that take money from funders with agendas can ever really be unbiased, whatever safeguards or firewalls may be in place to ensure editorial independence. Also, by underwriting reporting on certain topics, funders can shape what media outlets do and do not cover in the first place. 

Related: Yes, That Big Media Grant to the Center for Public Integrity is Sticky. Get Used To It

One pattern we've noticed that is that media funding by liberal donors is much more likely to fly under the radar than such funding by centrist or conservative funders. A case in point: The Arnold Foundation's gift last year to a PBS station to cover pension issues caused a major flap (and a return of that gift), but grants to public radio to cover health issues by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has a strong policy agenda in this area, have elicited barely a peep of criticism. One could imagine the uproar if the Koch brothers were writing those checks. 

Related: Did You Hear the Koch Brothers Just Gave a Million Bucks to NPR to Cover Healthcare?

Nor has much concern been voiced about the liberal Ford Foundation's funding of Minnesota Public Radio. Similar Ford funding to the Los Angeles Times has also attracted little criticism. 

Meanwhile, though, that same paper's new education reporting initiative, Education Matters, has some people up in arms and calling the paper's journalistic integrity into question.

You might recall that earlier this summer, the Times dropped an ed reform bombshell when it reported on secret plans to expand L.A.’s charter movement. The story broke the news that prominent ed reform funder Eli Broad had been meeting with high-profile charter advocates to bring 260 new charter schools to L.A. Weeks later, the Times published yet another piece about the plan, this time chock-full of details and dollar figures, even including a confidential draft of the initiative itself. This was followed by a Times editorial endorsing the charter expansion plan and then another story reporting on the findings of a Broad-commissioned poll that claimed overwhelming public support for the plan. 

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According to the Washington Post—which first raised this as an ethical quandary—of those four published stories, only one disclosed the fact that Education Matters, the initiative responsible for bringing Times readers this coverage, is funded by a group of leading high-profile ed reform and charter advocates, including Broad. For charter critics already fearful of any Broad-backed ed initiative, their anxieties were not only stoked, they were validated. (It's worth recalling, by the way, that Broad has tried, and failed, to buy the Los Angeles Times at least twice.)

Let’s back up for a second.

Education Matters launched in August as a weekly newsletter covering issues in education that matter most to parents and their children. According to Times CEO Austin Beutner, Education Matters is the Times' attempt to rededicate itself to coverage of teaching and learning, while providing a report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles.

The initiative included an expansion of its education reporting team, including two new reporters that would be paid through an $800,000 grant provided by the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation, the Baxter Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation. And while this information had been disclosed at the outset, the criticism of the Times stems from its repeated failure to note this caveat throughout its Education Matters reporting.

Get ready for even more flaps like this one. The collapse of the media's old business model, based on subscription and advertising revenue, has opened the way for philanthropy's major role in this sector. In many ways, that role is hugely positive, with funders bankrolling investigative journalism, local reporting, and coverage of vital niche topics like criminal justice and environmental policy. A new wave of nonprofit media sites have drawn much of this funding, but grants have also flowed to more established news organizations, including for-profit papers struggling to make said profit. 

The Los Angeles Times, financially embattled for years now, has done better than nearly any other paper in pulling in foundation funding. Since 2012, the Times has received $1.5 million from the Ford Foundation "to cover under-reported topics of public interest and importance including wealth and poverty, immigration and criminal justice." 

Meanwhile, as we've reported, ed reform funders have been some of the biggest investors in journalism. The Gates Foundation has spent around $35 million funding education journalism groups—albeit smaller niche ones—over the past five years. Walton has also backed education reporting, including giving money to Education Week. Education Writers Association (EWA), a national association of education journalists,   receives support from more than a dozen prominent funders, including the GatesCarnegieFordCookeJoyceKernLuminaDell, Raikes, Spencer, WallaceWalton, and Hewlett foundations. And just recently, a bunch of ed funders teamed up to bankroll a news site launched by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor turned education reform advocate, called The Seventy Four.  

All of which is to say that the Los Angeles Times is hardly alone in accepting grant money to cover education. Is that funding actually swaying its coverage? That's nearly impossible to say as an outsider. Certainly, there's at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it's worth noting that the Times has been kind to Broad and his brand of ed reform for quite some time now—and maybe the editors genuinely like what he’s doing.

Unless part of your job is digging through foundation financial statements and grantee logs, you’re probably not up to speed on who is funding what all the time. For better or worse, it's not always that clear cut. The Los Angeles Times undoubtedly could have done a better job in hammering home a clear disclosure about its relationship to the funders behind Education Matters. But that’s on the paper—not the funders.

Related: Can Philanthropically-Backed Journalism Impair Free and Open Public Discourse?