News from the Field

How philanthropists can slow the slide of political rhetoric

President Obama last week issued a blunt critique of the news-media industry for enabling a steep decline in the nation’s political rhetoric.

Speaking at the annual presentation of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, he said, “Ten 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes. They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies, and asked the hard questions and forced people to see the truth even when it was uncomfortable.”

Important as it was for Mr. Obama to raise these concerns, perhaps he should have added an exhortation to America’s philanthropists—who need to do more to ensure that nonprofit news organizations are able to provide the kind of accountability journalism we need to keep democracy healthy. And they can provide a healthy antidote to the for-profit media industry, which routinely engages in practices that pollute and corrupt our political discourse.

An excellent example of what nonprofits can accomplish was clear from this week’s Panama Papers investigation, a mammoth undertaking by hundreds of journalists around the world to examine leaked financial documents from a law firm in Panama. The project was coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

That’s hardly the only example of nonprofit investigative-news organizations filling the gap where commercial media companies are faltering.

Indeed, the recipient of this year’s Toner Prize, Alec MacGillis, is a reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet that has quickly become one of the nation’s most authoritative news organizations. Mr. MacGillis was awarded the Toner Prize for his work on “The Breakdown” a feature at ProPublica in which we learn “how politics and government really work, and why they don’t.”

Mr. MacGillis was recognized for political coverage that went well beyond mundane and titillating details that dominate the presidential campaign, focusing instead on remarkable political trends and interests, like in his article “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” which explains “why poor areas vote for politicians who want to slash the safety net.”

Other new entrants to the world of nonprofit news include those focused on specific subjects and others covering cities and states. The Marshall Project, founded by the Wall Street financier Neil Barsky and led by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, focuses on America’s sprawling criminal justice system. And in the Lone Star State, The Texas Tribune has quickly grown into the most important newsroom covering politics and policy in Texas.

At the same time, the longtime leaders in nonprofit news have continued to thrive and evolve. The Center for Public Integrity was established in Washington two decades ago by CBS News producer Charles Lewis, after he resigned from 60 Minutes in protest of the interference of wealthy and powerful people over the editorial process.

A longtime powerhouse based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Center for Investigative Reporting has also in recent years introduced many innovative approaches, creating new products like “Reveal,” an hourlong audio program available on podcast and broadcast to more than 250 radio stations nationwide.

This past weekend, leading investigative journalists met at the University of California at Berkeley for the 10th Annual Reva & David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting, named for the foundation that has supported the conclave from the beginning.

Attending this year were many of the reporters and sources responsible for some of the epic investigations of recent generations: The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Mother Jones exposè of the exploding Ford Pinto, and the tobacco industry’s efforts to silence whistle-blowers, as revealed by 60 Minutes, to name a few.

Presiding over the illustrious occasion was Lowell Bergman, founding director of the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley and correspondent for PBS’s Frontlineanother leading source of nonprofit investigative newsgathering. Like Charles Lewis before him, Mr. Bergman also resigned from 60 Minutes in protest of editorial interference. Only in his case, the episode was portrayed by Al Pacino in the Academy Award-nominated film, The Insider.

Occasionally, press critics will express concern that philanthropic support for nonprofit news organizations will invariably undercut the independence of reporting at those organizations.

Anyone who thinks that reporters are going to hold their fire in deference to their philanthropic supporters probably has not met many investigative journalists. Deference is not their strong suit. Just ask Lowell Bergman or Charles Lewis. Or Alec MacGillis for that matter.

When Mr. MacGillis stepped up to accept the Toner Prize, he acknowledged President Obama’s deep appreciation of journalism. But with the Presidential Seal still on the front of the lectern, he scolded, “That does not get him off the hook for taking so long to respond to our FOIAs.”

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist. This piece originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on April 6, 2016.

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