We've been saying for a while that the tight new embrace of journalism and philanthropy is tricky, and for some obvious reasons. Foundations have agendas, so when they give money to media outlets, you can't help wondering how that might influence coverage.
Last year, we reported on the controversy around a big grant from the Arnold Foundation, which favors pension reform, to support a television series called Pension Peril at the PBS station in New York, WNET. The money was returned after public criticism.
We've also noted a double standard at work in scrutinizing this funding, and how some large foundation grants to media outfits attract very little scrutiny, even though they should—for example, the generous support of public radio for coverage of such issues as healthcare and inequality by two foundations with progressive agendas, Ford and Robert Wood Johnson. If the Koch brothers made similar grants to media outlets, you can bet there'd be a firestorm. Ford has also given over $1.5 million to the Los Angeles Times in recent years.
Still, it doesn't feel great to complain about philanthropic support of journalism at a time when serious media outlets are struggling to survive. What's more, evidence that funding has any impact on coverage is hard to establish. And anyway, the old model of relying on corporate advertising was filled with conflicts, too, and the media created rules to mitigate those conflicts.
All of which is important context behind a grant of $550,000 made last year by the leading philanthropic proponent of charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation, to the Atlantic Monthly, a storied magazine that's been commanding attention from the nation's educated elite for a century and a half. The grant was made as part of Walton's effort's to shape public policy. The foundation describes its goal in this area as catalyzing a "national movement demanding choice and accountability."
So how, exactly, does the Atlantic help the foundation advance its game plan?
That's a good question. The money funded two live events hosted in partnership with the Aspen Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The first was the Washington Ideas Forum 2014, which featured participation by U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), Joe Manchin, III (D-WV), Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with ABC News’ chief White House correspondent Jonathan Allen and the Atlantic Monthly’s National Correspondent James Fallows. The second event is the Aspen Ideas Festival 2015, scheduled for June 25 to July 4, 2015, in Aspen, Colorado. These gatherings are billed as forums where participants have the opportunity to hear from influential leaders who “discuss the ideas and issues that both shape our lives and challenge our times.” Past sponsors include the American Federation of Teachers, Mount Sinai, PBS, Toyota, and the Gates Foundation. The Aspen Institute and the Atlantic retain editorial control of the events, including who speaks and what topics are discussed.
We should note that beyond big grants to pro-charter advocates, Walton gives money to an array of institutions under its public policy grantmaking program, including Aspen, Brookings, Columbia University, and Notre Dame. So the Atlantic has some prestigious company here.
What's different, though, is that Atlantic is a journalistic enterprise and, over the past few years, the magazine has extensively covered charter schools and education with multiple pieces. Articles include Natasha Lindstrom’s largely favorable in-depth look at the implementation of California’s parental trigger law in “What Happens after Fed-Up Parents Take over a School," published in February 2014, balanced by Meredith Simons piece the same month, “The Student-Led Backlash against New Orleans's Charter Schools.”
We don't see an overt bias toward a Walton worldview in Atlantic's pieces. But nor have we seen any disclaimers related to the magazine's education coverage. Should there be such disclaimers? We don't know, but that's an example of the kinds of questions that people should be asking now that philanthropy and journalism are in bed together in a bigger way.