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

If you were like us, you were watching Monday Night Football this week and checked out the trailer for the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, which aired during halftime. Conveniently, Walt Disney owns ESPN, the station that carries Monday Night Football, prompting the New York Times to call the move a "Death Star-sized display of corporate synergy."

Of course, large corporations aren't the only folks who are keen on synergies. Take philanthropies that fund journalism education groups—say, the Gates Foundation.

In a phone call with The Grade, an education blog at the Washington Monthly, Gates Foundation official Manami Kano disclosed that the foundation has been spending about $7 million a year on education journalism groups for the last five years. These partnerships range from the small (the Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat, and Education Week) to the large (Univision and PBS NewsHour).

Among other things, Gates has been supporting outlets that explore education issues near and dear to their heart—things like teacher quality and standards-based learning. As Kano noted, these partnerships "are designed to be a supplement to the foundation’s programmatic and policy work."

Seems reasonable, right? After all, it's perfectly normal for a foundation to fund communications efforts to further its overall mission. But others aren't so sure. These detractors posit two arguments: First is the matter of scale. Gates, naturally, wants to reach as many listeners and viewers as possible, yet gifts to big groups like Univision and PBS NewsHour can contribute to the ever-shrinking role of local media.

Secondly, there's the issue of big donors' influence on information. Newsrooms need the money, and while a foundation's gift may not come with programmatic and policy strings attached, and while strong firewalls may be in place to preserve editorial independence, the reality is that nobody likes to bite the hand that feeds them. So to what extent do these dollars infringe on journalistic objectivity?

We've wondered this before in covering other foundation funding for coverage of media outlets. For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave National Public Radio $5.6 million to report on healthcare between 2008 and 2011, during a period when the foundation was actively pushing for the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, the Ford Foundation has given some big grants to media outlets, including Minnesota Public Radio, for work on inequalityan issue that the foundation has strong views on.

You'd think this funding would have raised eyebrows. In fact, as we pointed out, it surely would have if similar funding came from, say, the Koch brothers. Don't forget the big flap last year when WNET, the PBS station in New York City, returned funds from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation for a program covering pensions, an issue of keen interest to LJAF. 

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Alexander Russo, a longtime education blogger who interviewed Kano, noted that the Gates Foundation has been very transparent about where its money is going, and it isn't pressuring editors to contort to its demands. That's good. But he is also quoted as 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."

Russo tempers that statement by pointing out that Gates's agenda could be considered fairly tame since the issues it's pushing—teacher quality and high standards—have universal support. He goes on to say, "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."

As we've pointed out, Gates has a lot of company in funding ed coverage by mainstream outlets, including Education Week. Other funders for that outlet, for example, have included Joyce, Wallace, Walton, Hewlett, Raikes, Cooke, Carnegie, Ford, Atlantic Philanthropies, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the California Endowment. 

Related: More Funding Is Flowing for Education Journalism. Is That OK?

On the other hand, we recently reported on how a number of ed reform funders have gotten behind the new education news site started by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown—a woman with strong views on education, including hostility to teacher tenure. Those funders include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, investor Jonathan Sackler, and the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation. 

Related: Who's Funding Campbell Brown's Education News Site?

Meanwhile, we've written about streams of money flowing for journalistic work in other issue areas by funders with a clear agenda, including the environment and criminal justice. This funding is often seen as a good thing—philanthropy riding to the rescue of a fourth estate essential to strong democracy—but it deserves close scrutiny, too. And we've been surprised that more people aren't asking hard questions about what private donors hope to get for their money when they bankroll journalism. 

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