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

The Center for Public Integrity is so serious about investigative reporting that it recently won a Pulitzer Prize. Now CPI has just landed a whopping $2.8 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which is underwritten by former Enron trader and hedge fund billionaire John Arnold. The gift will support a new CPI project focused on state campaign finance.

In April, the Arnold foundation also gave $2 million to ProPublica for general operating support.

The grant to CPI offers yet another moment to reflect on the knotty conflict-of-interest issues that surround the growing influx of philanthropic dollars into non-profit journalism. Those issues came into sharp focus earlier this year when a PBS affiliate returned a large grant from the Arnold Foundation after taking fire from the progressive muckraking journalist, David Sirota. The grant bankrolled a television series on public pension systems, and was said to advance John Arnold's views on this issue. 

Related: Is John Arnold a Self-Interested Funder?

In this latest case, John Arnold is actively engaged in political campaign spending even as this grant to CPI supports work to investigate such spending. How does this not present a potential conflict of interest for CPI? 

Responding to that possibility, CPI Executive Director Bill Buzenberg stated, "There really is an editorial firewall [at CPI]. Our editorial team is very independent, and the development team has the relationship with the Arnold Foundation. We publicly disclose all of our funders, and our reporters will not kowtow to a funder. They guard their independence pretty strongly."

That all sounds nice, but it seems only natural for the folks at CPI to now think twice about undertaking work that may be at odds with views held by the Arnold Foundation -- just like it's hard to imagine that the writers at First Look Media, bankrolled by Pierre Omidyar, will ever have an appetite for, say, attacking microfinance lending, a key issue for Omidyar. As Rick Cohen noted in a thoughtful piece on this situation: "nonprofits have been known to 'self-censor' because of the sensitivities, real or imagined, of funders and investors."

The larger problem is that funders like the Arnold Foundation have strong positions on certain policy issues, whereas quality journalism is premised on the ideal of editorial independence.

Earlier this year, John Arnold addressed charges he was wielding undue influence through his foundation's grantmaking with an opinion piece saying his foundation's approach was quite different from "passively donating to a bricks-and-mortar project. It involves analyzing extremely complicated and endemic societal problems, collaborating with experts in the field to understand the issues in depth, rigorously testing hypotheses to arrive at the best solutions, and, finally, seeking to implement those alternatives at scale through systemic policy reforms."

Regarding potential conflicts of interest, he said, "We pursue our policy objectives not because we have a financial stake in the outcome (we do not) or because we have any personal agenda other than improving outcomes for society as a whole."

In our own take on the Arnold controversy over the PBS pension series, we noted that nearly all funders have an agenda, and many have funded journalistic efforts with the goal of promoting their agendas. The Arnolds have attracted fire because they are center-right on some issues, but they're not doing anything different than liberal funders have done. 

The Ford Foundation has given Minnesota Public Radio $3.5 million since 2011 to report on economic inequality in America, a couple million to ProPublica for similar work, and $800,000 to NBC to report on economic and racial injustice -- but we haven't seen David Sirota writing any critiques of those grants. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, another progressive funder, gives big for reporting that highlights health concerns that it worries about, and environmental funders have bankrolled lots of reporting on climate change. 

Because David Sirota is on the left, he's not worried about this funding; instead, it's right-wing philanthropy watchdogs who've sounded the alarm in those cases. 

Look, the bottom line of nearly all grantmaking is that funders give money to groups that support their overall goals. If those groups stop supporting their goals, they usually stop getting money. An inherent conflict-of-interest in baked into the relationship between funders and grantees. 

We don't think twice about that basic truth when it comes to funders bankrolling advocacy or policy organizations, but things get weirder when it comes to media, which is supposed to be independent. 

Ultimately, there are no easy answers on this one, since the for-profit media model involves big conflicts of interest, too -- with corporate masters and advertisers. 

What we really need is more public money for media, with that money well insulated from political pressures as is the case in certain other countries. In the meantime, just about every lifeline for media is going to come with strings attached. Get used to it.