DeVos Appointment Raises More Hard Questions for Funder-Backed Journalism

IP readers are familiar with our concerns about funder support of journalistic coverage of K-12 education and how those ties may affect editorial independence. President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of billionaire funder and school choice activist Betsy DeVos as secretary of education thrusts those concerns into the spotlight.

Earlier this week, we examined DeVos's philanthropy, which includes extensive support of school choice, including voucher programs and charter schools. We also mentioned her involvement as chairwoman of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which functions largely as the school choice arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and includes on its board former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, founder of the education news website The Seventy Four

It turns out that Brown's ties to DeVos run deeper than shared involvement with AFC. As reported this week by the Washington Post, DeVos has also been a major funder of Brown's website, which also counts Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation among its supporters. This means, assuming Senate confirmation of DeVos, that Brown's website will be reporting on federal education policy activities led by one of her site's past funders. 

Like DeVos, Campbell Brown is an advocate of charter schools and sees teachers unions as holding too much sway over education policy decisions, often to the detriment of school children. As education secretary, DeVos would be in a position to expand charters and other forms of school choice nationwide. These shared interests, coupled with the financial ties between DeVos and Brown, raise legitimate concerns about future coverage of these issues by The Seventy Four.

Before saying more, we should note that The Seventy Four has never positioned itself as a wholly neutral news site. It's been pretty clearly aligned with the ed reform movement from the get-go, saying that its "reporting aims to challenge the status quo, expose corruption and inequality, and champion the heroes who bring positive change to our schools." In this sense, it's similar to other new media ventures like the Marshall Project, which reports on criminal justice with the aim of advancing a reform agenda in that area. Inside Philanthropy, by the way, is another media site that mixes a distinct point of view with traditional "just-the-facts" reporting.  

Meanwhile, as we often note, the tendency of funders to support journalistic coverage that aligns with their own worldview is hardly new. Funders of all stripes do this, on the left and the right, and across various issues. Education Week, for example, receives Walton funding for its coverage of parent empowerment issues—a near and dear concern of Walton, which is a key supporter of Parent Revolution, the group that advocates parental takeovers of failing public schools to turn them into charters. Top environmental funders have backed Grist and other publications that work to sound the alarm on climate change. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports public radio's reporting on health issues, where the funder has a strong liberal agenda. 

What's different in this case is that we've never seen a funder of a media site elevated to head of a federal agency that said site covers closely.  In fact, the past funding relationship between DeVos and Brown's site would be relevant to much of what The Seventy Four covers, including DeVos' appointment itself, the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and actions that could alter the nation's K-12 landscape by expanding the choice programs that DeVos and Brown favor. Education historian Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, has written on her blog that the conflict of interest is so pervasive that The Seventy Four should abstain from covering the U.S. Department of Education. If it did that, though, the site wouldn't be able to do its job properly. 

A statement put out by The Seventy Four said it would not be seeking further support from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation and also that "given Ms. Brown’s close ties to Ms. DeVos, she is recusing herself from editorial involvement in the coverage of Ms. DeVos and her upcoming confirmation hearing." The statement said further:

As always, we will continue to include the same robust disclosure to articles mentioning either Betsy DeVos or AFC. The disclosure notes the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation’s operating support of the site and Campbell Brown’s role on AFC’s board, as well as AFC’s support for our 2015 New Hampshire Education Summit. 

That sounds like the right move by The Seventy Four and it's an example of the kind of disclosure of funders we'd like to see more of. Still, it doesn't erase the strong loyalty to a past (and likely, future) funder. In an op-ed piece a few days ago, Campbell Brown vigorously defended DeVos from critics, saying: "Before long, I hope, a lot of people will be surprised by how much someone truly committed to educational excellence can accomplish for parents and children."  

It's hard to imagine this kind of cheerleading coming from a truly independent and objective journalist in regard to the most important public official on her beat. But, then again, as we've said, it'd be wrong to think of Campbell Brown as such a journalist in this phase of her career. These days, she's an advocate who runs a media site with an agenda. The problem here lies not with Campbell Brown or The Seventy Four. It's with a growing nonprofit media sector that's bankrolled by wealthy people and foundations that strongly favor certain public policy outcomes. 

RelatedA Donor Goes to Washington: The Philanthropy of Betsy DeVos