The sticky business of foundations funding the news

For years I’ve attended the annual conferences of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an international group that tries to keep the media honest, but the gathering just held in Montreal was unique. For the first time, ONO’s sessions offered simultaneous translation in three languages.

How that little upgrade happened offers an illuminating sidelight to a big problem confronting today’s revenue-starved media industry: Finding money.

Now, having interpreters transformed the character of the ONO meeting, which gathers public accountability officials from news outfits in the Americas, Europe, and Australia. French- and Spanish-speaking attendees were no longer marginalized, and the debates were more fully engaged than ever.

ONO long recognized its future couldn’t be English-only, but it’s perpetually cash-strapped and couldn’t pull thousands of dollars for translation services from a sock drawer. So it went shopping for grants and got two years’ worth, $126,500, which among other things enables its website and conferences to be trilingual.

The money came from the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier. Soros is one of this country’s most prolific philanthropists, an enthusiastic donor to educational and cultural initiatives and, notably, to leftist political causes. That has made him one of the most vilified figures in the right wing’s pantheon of evil-doers.

Thus did ONO become a lesser target in the wider shooting war against Soros. Dan Gainor, a writer with the rightist Media Research Center, included ONO in a recent four-part denunciation of Soros’ media giving. (Gainor even listed some of ONO’s individual members, as if the grants put them personally in Soros’ debt.) He didn’t mention how much money was involved or what it was for.

But then, Gainor had bigger quarry, including the $1.8 million Open Society gave to National Public Radio in October, seed money for a network of reporters covering state and local government. That grant had already drawn criticism, with Daily Beast media writer Howard Kurtz deploring the “perception” it fostered and declaring that NPR “never” should have accepted money from “a committed ideologue.”

Gainor now reopened the controversy, and NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard weighed in: “[A] deep current of concern has run through the newsroom about taking money from someone with a well-known, documented political agenda supporting Democrats and Democratic causes.” Shepard urged NPR to say who else had donated to the initiative: “Diversification of funders would go a long way toward diluting any suspicions about a Soros connection.”

The flap over Open Society’s giving to NPR (and ONO) is extremely timely, since revenue constriction has driven widening numbers of news outfits—both startups and name brands—to pitch philanthropies for handouts. But they do so with only the vaguest idea of the perils. What principles should apply?

Plainly, media organizations should heed the Florida State University affair. FSU is taking intense heat over a $1.5 million grant from a foundation controlled by Charles G. Koch, the conservative oil and gas billionaire, that gives Koch’s people approval rights over who is hired for the economics professorships the money bankrolls.

Surely, any institution that values its independence must reject money that comes with such close and continuing outside oversight. But that’s an extreme case. It doesn’t necessarily help clarify the murkier midrange of foundation giving.

The fact is, media funders are nothing like the advertisers whose money they’re replacing. The advertiser bought ads and generally couldn’t care less about content (as long as it drew the right crowd.)

But funders care intensely about content. Their motives are civic. They want to enable coverage they believe desirable. And even when they prescribe only broad topics—health care, for instance—they still redirect the newsroom in a way that, I’m afraid, is incompatible with traditional independence.

Besides, a donor may be hands-off today, but there’s still tomorrow to consider, and the temptation is keen to encourage journalism that will bring the funder a smile and the funding a renewal.

These are real problems. The quest for clean and renewable sources of revenue has sent hundreds of media entrepreneurs knocking on foundation doors, and has yielded dozens of fresh, exuberant ventures.

But donor funding is a huge, uncharted region, with potential for corruption that the advertising age left the media ill-prepared for. These hard questions aren’t answered through facile formulations that dismiss one funder as “an ideologue,” even if its money comes without strings, or that fret over “perceptions,” as if perceptions were the same as reality, and as if the media didn’t have a duty to correct perceptions when they’re ill-founded.

As for ONO, the Soros money enabled the international members of a worthwhile organization to understand each other. That’s the whole point of having media.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally published on April 12, 2011 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”

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