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

No, you didn't hear about that Koch gift to NPR, because it never happened. 

But now that I have your attention, let me ask you whether you heard that a different funder, who also has a strong agenda on healthcare, just gave $1.3 million to NPR to report on this topic?

No, you probably didn't hear about that gift either, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—a grant that has caused zero controversy. 

Come to think of it, I didn't recall any controversy when RWJF gave National Public Radio $5.6 million to report on healthcare between 2008 and 2011, during a period when this was among the most politicized of all topics. 

You'd think that somebody would at least have raised an eyebrow, given that RWJF is a strong proponent of the Affordable Care Act, as well as other healthcare policy positions on the progressive side of the spectrum.

God bless that foundation, if you ask me. But as a thought experiment, imagine if the Koch brothers had given the same amount of money to NPR to cover healthcare. 

People would have gone nuts. 

People like David Sirota. Earlier this year, WNET, the public television station in New York, returned a $3.5 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to report on public pension issues after Sirota wrote a piece rightly sounding the alarm about how a hedge fund guy with a clear agenda on pensions was essentially buying a platform on public television to bring attention to the pension issue. (See IP's coverage here.)

Sirota also raised important questions when the Arnolds recently gave money to the Center for Public Integrity. 

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

Of course, RWJF has an agenda, too, and the latest grant to NPR is explicitly to "promote the Culture of Health," a catch-all goal of the foundation that among other things includes "eliminating health disparities." 

So is Sirota wheeling his artillery around to fire on RWJF? Or maybe on the Ford Foundation, which this year gave Marketplace—the national show produced by Minnesota Public Radio—a million bucks "to produce and distribute original reporting and analysis on economic disparity and inequity in the United States."

Imagine if the Kochs pumped that kind of money into Marketplace to cover inequality? Amid the uproar, some local affiliates would probably threaten to drop the show. 

But the Ford grant slid by without comment. And speaking of money to local stations, WNYC also recently landed big money from RWJF to report on health issues, as we reported last month. Silence on this one, too. 

My point, of course, is that growing concern about the subversion of public media by private donors is quite selective. Progressives only fret when it's conservative money coming in, but ignore cases in which funders they like are writing the checks. And while the right routinely hits NPR for being too liberal, it's been strangely quiet on NPR's sources of funding and the possible conflicts embedded in funding arrangements. 

One stream of funding to public radio that's alarmed a lot of people has come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to cover education issues. Last year, the foundation gave NPR $1.8 million at a time when Gates is deep in the fight to promote the Common Core, the biggest, most controversial national ed reform shift since No Child Left Behind. 

In response to concerns that NPR was being compromised, its education editor, Steve Drummond, objectedto the suggestion that funders could sway coverage, saying that funders "don’t get to pick what stories we cover or how we approach a given beat." He went on:

But the simple fact is, in education there is going to be a lot of overlap between funders who support NPR, and funders who support research and programs aimed at improving schools. Philanthropies are interested in giving their money to the very same people and programs we’re interested in writing about as journalists: the educators, entrepreneurs, researchers and thinkers who are doing new—and successful—things to solve the toughest problems in education.

Mike Janssen, at Current.org, has done great work covering the sticky issues around Gates giving to public radio if you want to dig in further here

My own point, again, is a more narrow one about how some grants trigger alarm bells and others don't. To some extent, that makes sense, in that some funders have a more self-interested agenda than others and will benefit financially from certain policy outcomes. The bottom line of Koch Industries, for example, is affected by a range of issues before the U.S. Congress, and so Koch money in politics and media rightly causes concerns. Foundations like Ford and RWJF don't benefit financially from the views they advance. 

Still, nearly all funders have some kind of ideology and agenda. And whatever media grantees say about their editorial independence, all nonprofits are wary of biting the hands that feed them. Exactly how that reflex toward self-preservation plays out may be extremely hazy, but it's naive to imagine that funder preferences don't percolate their way into grantee behavior—not just in media but in every sphere of nonprofit life.  

(As an aside, let me note that Inside Philanthropy gets no support from foundations and is entirely supported by subscribers.) 

So even if concrete evidence is scarce in most cases that foundation funding influences public media coverage, the broad point holds that all private money flowing into public media in large chunks subverts the ideal of truly independent media. That's disturbing. 

Of course, the U.S. has never come anywhere close to realizing the ideal of public media, since we're ridiculously backward in this department. Everyone agrees that access to reliable, objective information is essential to a strong democracy, yet here in the world's oldest democracy we leave this challenge mainly to private actors while kicking a pittance to public media. (That pittance is under constant fire, too.) 

And it's ironic that well-meaning foundations like RWJF, which are committed to this ideal, end up being part of the problem. Which is not to say they shouldn't be funding NPR, or that NPR shouldn't be asking for private money. Both institutions are dealing with reality as it exists. What's screwed up is that reality. 


David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy and can be reached at davidc@insidephilanthropy.com