Here’s a journalistic proposition: it would be ethical for a reporter to accept a grant from the Ford Foundation for coverage of Eastern Europe. After all, Ford has a distinguished record of funding projects that promote the study of foreign affairs but does not lobby or advocate specific policies. But it would be wrong to accept a grant from General Motors to cover international trade. Even were there no editorial interference, GM’s economic interests in the matter would create a perceived conflict of interest.
Make sense? The above is taken nearly verbatim from National Public Radio’s news policy manual. And it’s indicative of the prevailing ethos—some might say doublethink—that prevails these days when foundations and media organizations collaborate to create news content.
In research published last year by the Poynter Institute on the rising number, scope, and dollar amounts of foundation grants for journalism, I found that media recipients are becoming ever more comfortable—and perhaps less reflective—about taking the money. Foundations aren’t necessarily asking to influence specific stories or instill a point of view into the news coverage they fund. But nonetheless, when they show up with much-needed funding for an investigative series or pay the freight for a reporter working on an underreported beat, foundations don’t receive the same due-diligence scrutiny for hidden subtext that journalists routinely apply to a corporate press release or a politician’s statement. The effect that foundation money may have on the news business is subtle but real, and increasingly troubling on the ethical front.
The universe of these collaborations can be divided into three weight classes. In public television and radio and at certain serious magazines, foundation funding has become a way of life, and the grants can run to seven figures. At for-profit newspapers and television stations, the foundation presence is more like a beachhead, but some traditional borders have unquestionably been crossed—for example, in something called “civic journalism,” an idea boosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts among others. What “civic journalism” means isn’t always clear, but its aims are suggested by one practitioner’s goal of having his newspaper be “the facilitator of a conversation that should be happening in a community but isn’t.” Then there is the different case of openly ideological publications where the cards are generally face up, although the competition to inject ideas and information into the public discussion is nonetheless intense.
Admittedly, the sums we’re talking about are fairly small. Foundations and other grant makers make up 6 percent of the more than $2 billion raised annually by public radio and television stations nationwide, as compared to a tiny sliver of the overall budgets in for-profit journalism. Still, the percentage of public broadcasting revenues coming from foundations has doubled in the past two decades. And in the world of nonprofit media, a few million a year goes a long way.
Especially in nonprofit or “public” media, the question arises whether foundations are using grants to influence news coverage. Everyone involved emphatically says no, and in one sense they’re right. It is extremely rare to find a nonprofit funder who received the final say on news content, set specific ideological criteria by which news stories were developed, or demanded the inclusion or exclusion of a specific point of view.
But the lack of overt editorial influence should not blind us to the more subtle, one might say cultural, ties that bind these news organizations to their funders. There are, for example, any number of opportunities for grant makers to shape the editorial product as it is developed. As an officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts told me, “the hallmark of good grant making is to do your work thoroughly at the front end.” Thus, if the foundation’s and recipient’s goals have been properly “aligned,” not much more may be needed to see that the intent is carried out.
Lost in the benevolent fog that surrounds most foundations is the notion that they may have more of an agenda, not less, than a sponsoring corporation. The two biggest funders in this area, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Henry F. Kaiser Family Foundation, consciously cultivate name-brand recognition in their respective specialties that can obscure the ideologically pitched nature of some of their funding. Playing off the Pew Foundation’s name, I asked “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” president Dan Werner, “Would you take a million dollars from the Pugh Foundation if you didn’t know much of anything about who Pugh is?” He replied, “That’s a good example of why politicians don’t answer hypothetical questions.”
But perhaps most importantly, there is no yawning cultural divide between the news media and the foundation world, as there often is between journalists and businessmen. The prospective benefactor from Pew or Kaiser will be bright, idealistic, and disposed to being an activist hoping to set the world right—a congenial spirit, in short, to many reporters’ and editors’ view of themselves. That cultural affinity can sometimes make it difficult for editors and journalists to draw the distinction between accepting a grant and accepting a funder’s point of view.
Hairsplitting at NPR
National Public Radio is the heavyweight champion in harvesting these grants, so it may be a logical place to begin. Its income is pushing $100 million a year, about 40 percent of that from corporations and foundations (most of the rest from programming fees and subscribers’ contributions; only a tiny percentage from public sources). NPR consistently declines to say what share of the grants that it receives are restricted to specific content areas.
NPR, alone among news organizations I examined, has a written policy on taking “earmarked” money. It tolerates some internal debate on the practice and even aired an edition of “On the Media” last year examining the practice and the related question of sponsorships by foreign governments, which NPR has now discontinued. But the core of the policy is merely an elaboration on the principle of no editorial interference. News staffers are instructed not to contact funders, who are asked not to offer story suggestions.
Each year senior NPR news executives promulgate a wish list of topics for earmarked funding and decide whether a given grant offer is too narrowly drawn. “We rejected a proposal on workplace issues,” said Bruce Drake, vice president for news, “that was overly specific on what was to be covered and on a particular approach.” Similarly, NPR president Kevin Klose said that when a funder expressed some dissatisfaction to him with how a grant to cover a particular topic had been used, he closed down renewal discussions.
But my research turned up examples that cut the other way. One of several grants to the NPR news fund from the W. W. Kellogg Foundation came with the suggestion it be used to cover philanthropy and broad themes of interest to the foundation, like venture philanthropy. Kellogg didn’t get a seat at the assignment desk, but it did receive a report after the grant period from NPR’s development department describing relevant stories that aired along with play dates.
Also, for several years, NPR’s reporting unit on money and politics has been supported by a grant from the Florence and Joel Schumann Foundation. Schumann is one of several foundations (see “Big Money and Foundation Cash,” Philanthropy, March/April 2001) with an avowed campaign finance reform agenda. That seems a little at odds with the policy manual’s vow not to take grants “so narrow in concept as to coincide with the donor’s . . . advocacy interests.” The grant has been renewed several times, an indication that all sides were satisfied.
The Cash Nexus
Bill Kovach, former curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, was a director at NPR for several years. He says that he advocated, without much success, chasing harder after general purpose support and easing off the earmarked grants, with their subtle compromise of editorial independence. NPR executives say that’s just not realistic; the content-specific grants provide the margin for more of the coverage that keeps their hyper-loyal listeners tuning in.
Grant makers to the nonprofit—and the related not-very-profitable—sector have capitalized on this sentiment in multiple ways in recent years.
Pew and Kaiser each sponsor a reporting unit, now on a second grant cycle, on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”—Pew’s grant on the news media, Kaiser’s on health care. For its $1.5 million a year, Pew has gotten a quantum jump in the volume of the program’s reporting on the media, thanks to the energetic reporter Terence Smith. Kaiser, a senior executive there says, didn’t much care who was covering stories like a cure for the common cold but wanted a discerning correspondent like Susan Dentzer, whose work the foundation and the show knew, when big health policy questions heat up.
Pew has also put up seven-figure grants for:
- Education Week’s annual special issue ranking the states educationally
- A similar ranking of state and local government performance in Governing magazine
- Polling and a series of case studies published in Campaigns and Elections, a magazine directed to campaign professionals
- A multi-part series on “The State of the American Newspaper” published in the American Journalism Review.
- A million dollars is a lot more than part of the mix in the modest revenue picture of these publications. It enables them to do huge—and in the view of their publishers, highly successful—special projects that would never have been possible in the ordinary course of business.
Beachhead at For-Profits
At newspapers and for-profit television stations, the reverse is the case. The grants are less frequent and usually for more modest amounts. But given a fierce tradition of independence from influence, it is interesting that foundation money has made its way into the newsroom at all. And with tough times and tightened news budgets, even a $25,000 or $50,000 grant may leverage huge influence at the margin in determining which special project is undertaken.
The much-debated Pew Civic Journalism grants are the prototype here. Organizations that have accepted the money felt they were part of an experiment in engaging viewers and readers in a community-building exercise, a process that spun off some outstanding stories as well. Critics thought taking the money was wrong in principle and _didn’t care for a dual participant/reporting role.
I was intrigued by the much less noticed Kaiser “mini-grants”—$5,000 for newspaper projects, $10,000 for broadcast. Technically the grants are to an applicant reporter, but many include an informal promise by a sponsoring organization to publish or air a successful effort. That leaves a newspaper or TV station running a big story, with the special travel expenses or document research courtesy of Kaiser rather than the regular news budget.
Susan Duerksen, a San Diego reporter who used her Kaiser mini-grant for a four-part 1997 series on health care issues along the Mexican border in the Union-Tribune, chastised me for disregarding the richer Kaiser fellowships—currently $55,000 for a year’s sabbatical study. Here the arrangement is looser; there is no obligation to publish at all. But the fruits of these projects have turned up in newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Petersburg Times, both of which would refuse an outright grant.
The largest of these collaborations I found is a joint polling venture involving the Washington Post, Harvard University, and Kaiser, supported mainly by $300,000 a year from Kaiser since 1995. Every installment runs with a careful disclaimer that while the poll is jointly designed, “each organization takes sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name.” The same notion—a partnership to generate content—has been applied to Pew Civic Journalism awards and Kaiser mini-grants.
My inventory of these projects may suggest that all roads lead through Pew and Kaiser (other funders are less prolific and more inclined to general support grants) and that both are remarkably adept at finding ways into the print and broadcast media. Leaders of the two foundations would put it differently. Pew CEO Rebecca Rimel said the foundation “came in through the ultimate back door” to its media activities. “Our interest was in how to get citizens engaged. . .. The news media is one of the most powerful ways to engage them—or conversely to shut them off.” And while Pew has moved on to undertakings like Smith’s reporting unit and the $10.9 million Project for Excellence in Journalism, Rimel disclaims any unified Pew view on media matters beyond the importance of journalism as an institution of democracy.
Kaiser’s Drew Altman says the communications collaborations were secondary to the foundation’s main business of “heavy-duty policy analysis.” Indeed Kaiser officials and studies are broadly quoted, giving it a 360-degree presence in health journalism, rounded out with such tools for working journalists as a source guide, daily online update, and webcasts of health policy hearings and events.
These means-to-an-end formulations do not offer a lot of comfort to journalists wary of being used. Sometimes they just say no—as when Rimel and several of her lieutenants paid an exploratory visit several years ago to the ABC news brass. The conversation was cordial but division president David Westin concluded the network would pay for its own ventures. Along the way, Ted Koppel articulated some old-school suspicion about such deals. “When a soap company sponsors ‘Nightline,’ I know what they want—so many million eyes on an ad for their soap,” a member of the Pew group recalls him saying inquisitorially. “But when the money is from Pew, what is it you’re looking for?”
Funding From Left and Right
There is an honorable place in the media mix for ideologically angled presentations, from the crusading left documentaries of the PBS “Frontline” series to the conservative news commentaries offered by the Fox network.
It is no secret, though it is often buried in the fine print of the masthead, that many journals of opinion are themselves nonprofits, the better to attract foundation funding. That is true of Mother Jones on the left; it was true of American Spectator on the right before its sale to George Gilder. It remains true of Harper’s, with its hard-to-classify world view that draws periodic seven-figure advances from the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation.
This sort of foundation support seems unproblematic, given the lack of hidden conflicts of interest. Instead, the burning question is whether the left or right is ahead in this competition. The left points to Richard Scaife’s foundations’ bankrolling investigations into the Clintons. The right rejoins that the Schumann Foundation alone has given seven-figure, life-sustaining grants to the Columbia Journalism Review and the new-liberal American Prospect.
The American Prospect published an interesting take on the war of ideas under the title “Lessons of Right-wing Philanthropy.” Author Karen M. Paget argued that the right has perfected a “conveyor belt” of “knowledge production” from the academy through think tanks to print. Stars like William Bennett are routinely set up at well-funded nonprofits, she wrote. Centrist and left foundations by contrast, are doers and experimenters, less likely to invest in an intellectual engine of progressive reform. Allowing that her article reads like a brief for grants to the American Prospect and perhaps inflates the potency of the opponent, Paget has a point. On my scorecard, the right at least holds its own in the openly ideological arena.
On the other hand, the think-alike mentality that greases the skids for many of the collaborations cited here seems more the province of leftish idealists. (Full disclosure: that is where my head, heart, and votes most often are.) Causes like campaign finance reform, civic involvement, or safe sex for young people are often considered above criticism, rather than examined clear-headedly as advocacy.
A forecast: at least modestly more of the same. Ed Fouhy, the first director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism—now running a Pew project to support statehouse reporting—wrote in 1996 that foundations will continue to support “breakout ideas,” especially when big media companies don’t make those investments. In a parting shot as he left the Tribune Co., editor Jim Squires predicted that the media may need to turn to “the world of nonprofit foundations and educational institutions for the ‘nourishment’ of ambitious public service reporting.”
With a sharp business downturn and a tough round of staffing cuts last year, it is hard to dismiss the Fouhy/Squires viewpoint. Perhaps most news organizations, as Kovach argues, could afford to invest more of their own nickel in news gathering. But will they? As management continues to cut resources, look for foundations to step in.
Rick Edmonds is a consultant on education policy and writes on the business of journalism.