First Line of Defense: A Fund to Pay Journalists' Legal Bills

James Risen of the Press Freedom Defense Fund

James Risen of the Press Freedom Defense Fund

Evidence keeps coming that journalism is in crisis—most recently, a study showing that newspaper newsrooms lost nearly half of all of their employees between 2008 and 2017. 

On the upside, we’ve been tracking a sustained “Trump bump” in nonprofit journalism funding that started after the 2016 election and has kept going. 

One of the biggest names in this fight is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has matched his vocal opposition to the president with a flood of funding to safeguard the Fourth Estate. That story began well before Trump’s election, when the billionaire created First Look Media in 2013. Meant to serve as a bulwark against the general decline of investigative journalism, First Look soon ran into some bumps in the road, a reminder that a “free press” beholden to a few major donors isn’t exactly ideal. 

But those troubles have faded away. And First Look has ended up very much in the right place at the right time. Omidyar isn't the only benefactor in the journalism space—support for the embattled field also comes from the MacArthur, Hewlett, Knight and Sandler foundations, as well as fellow tech giver Craig Newmark. But Omidyar has seemed especially alarmed by the risks of rising authoritarianism. His journalism support flows through several channels; in addition to First Look, money also goes toward this space from the Democracy Fund and the Omidyar Network.

Today, First Look Media serves as an umbrella for several entities receiving Omidyar support, including The Intercept, an investigative reporting outfit, and the Press Freedom Defense Fund (PFDF), which has gotten less attention. 

    While optimists hold on to the hope that Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on the media are just talk, others paint a grimmer picture. According to PFDF Director James Risen, press freedom around the world is declining, and the president’s unprecedented stance has a lot to do with it. “What bothers me is that Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is seen as a message to dictators that you can get away with anything,” Risen told me. Furthermore, he said, “the administration is starting to move legally against individual whistleblowers and journalists.”

    PFDF was originally launched in 2014 as the Press Freedom Litigation Fund, only to be relaunched last year as a “first line of defense,” as Risen put it, for journalists, whistleblowers and news organizations that encounter legal trouble.

    This iteration of PFDF is still fairly new—Risen’s been in charge for less than a year—and as a subsidiary program of First Look Media, it gets the majority of its support from the Omidyar funding apparatus. But Risen says PFDF maintains a fair degree of independence, making funding decisions separately from the brass at First Look. PFDF is also looking to diversify its own funding sources. Now that an operating strategy has been hammered out, additional fundraising can commence.

    But what does that strategy look like? When we spoke, Risen pointed to his own experience as a journalist under sustained legal fire from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. His backstory is quite interesting. After winning a Pulitzer in 2006 for reportage on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, Risen was subpoenaed in the government’s case against Jeffrey Alexander Sterling, a CIA whistleblower convicted of mishandling national defense information—by passing it to Risen. 

    Risen fought the Bush administration’s subpoena, which the Obama administration renewed, for seven years before it was eventually dropped. During that ordeal, Risen says he discovered that there “wasn’t really an organization designed specifically to help reporters with their legal bills when they face subpoenas and attacks. A lot of journalists aren’t backed up by a large news organization, and small news organizations often find it difficult to fight back.”

    Before he was tapped as PFDF’s new director, Risen worked as a writer for The Intercept. Now, he’s on the lookout for legal cases broadly similar to the one that embroiled him: cases that impinge on reporter-source relationships and journalists’ ability to freely gather information. PFDF’s most significant case so far involved the legal defense of Reality Winner, a former NSA contractor charged with disclosing classified information to the press. Winner pleaded guilty in June of this year. The organization also provided funds toward the legal defense of Chelsea Manning. 

    PFDF has a new advisory council composed of “legal and first amendment experts” who’ll partner with the organization. The council includes Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Sandra Mims Rowe, formerly of The Oregonian and the Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute, David Schulz of Yale Law School’s Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic, and Nabiha Syed, Buzzfeed’s general counsel. Risen hopes to solicit feedback from the council on which cases and defendants PFDF will fund.

    As we’ve reported before, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is a major player in this space, primarily pursuing research and advocacy rather than legal strategies. Its major backers include many of the usual names: MacArthur, Knight and Ford, as well as the Omidyar Network. 

    Closer to PFDF’s line of work is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group that supports the First Amendment rights of journalists in the courts of law. PFDF directly collaborates with the RCFP. According to Risen, “If we get an applicant who wants funding, we ask RCFP to vet the application and provide an analysis to determine whether it’s a good fit.” Some of RCFP’s funders include the the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and, of course, First Look Media. 

    Funding the legal defense of communities under attack by the Trump administration has become something of a trend among liberal philanthropies, with the immigration battleground providing the most examples. But if Risen’s correct, many more journalists will find themselves at odds with the federal government through 2020.

    Meanwhile, all this is happening against the largest backdrop of journalism's slow-motion meltdown, especially at the local level. Even if Trump’s presidency and a collective awakening to the fake news phenomenon have spurred donations, it isn’t nearly enough to halt the ongoing decimation of the old news industry. As they confront that reality, funders have been engaged in a kind of triage, putting a lot of focus on sustaining the hard-hitting national investigative reporting that is so critical in a democracy, and more recently, exploring ways to combat the scourge of disinformation. 

    In the end, all of that work hinges on whether a free press can exist in the first place. With that constitutional pillar of the American republic under fire at the highest level, the work of places like PFDF may become even more vital.