Is Funding Transparency Enough To Prevent Billionaire Influence

Above Photo: From

 …In Education Journalism?

Here is where we stand with the revived controversy over the Los Angeles Times’ 2010 “investigation” into teacher effectiveness.

In 2009, Teachers College, which sponsors The Hechinger Report, received a grant from the Gates Foundation in the amount of $652,493 in order “to support the development of high quality education coverage in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines.”

In 2010, The Hechinger Report paid a researcher by the name of Richard Buddin $15,000 to develop the VAM system that was used to rank thousands of teachers in Los Angeles according to their ability to raise test scores. It is not clear if this money was from the Gates Foundation grant, but it well could be.

Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Jason Song published a series of articles extensively quoting “experts” from the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project as they justified the use of Value Added systems for purposes of determining teacher effectiveness.

The Education Writers Association, which also receives significant funding from the Gates Foundation, awarded Felch and Song a second prize in the Investigative Reporting category for the series.

In response to my latest writing on this subject, Greg Toppo, Vice President of the Education Writers Association, tweeted: “No. Journos, LAT included, go where evidence sends them, sometimes badly but always independently.

In the conversation that ensued, Caroline Grannan responded: “Always independently? With Broad now funding LAT education coverage?” and “*Appearance of conflict of interest* violates ethics, both LAT and EWA.”

To this, Toppo replied: “Lots of journalism outfits take foundation $. None of them independent?”

To which I replied: “Lots of politicians take lobbyist $. None of them independent?”

Toppo replied: “We’re getting off topic. If news orgs r transparent about $, they can totally be independent. Am I outlier on this??”

First of all, we do have an issue with transparency. While I can make a case that it is possible that Gates Foundation dollars paid for the VAM analysis in the LA Times story, I cannot prove it. The FAQ that accompanied the series did not disclose the funding from The Hechinger Report, let alone the Gates Foundation. Was this “pass-through” funding funneled from the Gates Foundation through an intermediary? Impossible to say with any certainty.

But even if the funding source had been disclosed, would this be adequate protection from undue influence? Can reporters and news outlets – and the Education Writers Association — be completely independent when they depend on donations from corporate philanthropies for their salaries and activities? Does the fact that these donations are publicly disclosed dissolve these concerns?

I think the comparison to the corrupting influence of political campaign contributions is apt. Does the act of disclosure by a politician that he or she has received however many millions of dollars from this or that corporate lobby mean that these donations have no effect? Hardly. In fact, their existence is indirect evidence to the contrary. After all, why would corporations throw away money on such contributions if they were not getting a good return?

The Gates Foundation is known to be highly strategic in their philanthropy. They do not accept applications for funding. If they think you can do something to advance their agenda, they will contact you to develop a proposal that will achieve their objectives. If an organization is getting Gates funding, then that funding is intended to achieve something the Gates Foundation wants.

Last year, the Gates Foundation gave nearly $2 million to the non-profit that runs Education Week, with the stated purpose: “to broaden education digital media capacity in the U.S. to share analysis, best practice, and current innovation in public education.” As a result, we can expect to see a great deal of coverage of “personalized learning” and other forms of ed tech that have been defined as “innovations.” Will we see any investigations into the possible harmful effects of wireless radiation on young children? Not likely.

The Broad Foundation has stepped forward to fund education reporting at the Los Angeles Times, at the same time that Eli Broad is attempting to push the district towards a huge expansion of charter schools. How will this funding affect coverage?

Back in 2013, the Gates Foundation hosted a conference focused on what they called “Strategic Media Partnerships.” According to a report by Tom Paulson, the meeting was “off the record,” and he was not allowed inside. He wrote:

Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.

The report from Paulson indicates that the emphasis from the Gates Foundation was that they wanted more positive stories about “what works.” He wrote:

… in some of its earlier grants to media, the Gates Foundation specifically said they wanted grant recipients to focus on ‘success stories.’ While well-intentioned, any media organizations who accepted those marching orders (and many did) arguably neglected some basic tenets of journalism. One tenet has been that we shouldn’t take money in return for doing a specific story. So should we be taking money for doing categories of stories? The lines are fuzzy ….

Yes. The lines are indeed fuzzy, and perhaps intentionally so. Just as with campaign donations and millions of dollars in speaking fees, a political candidate can say “show me where I changed my vote as a result of a donation.” The standard is that we must prove a quid pro quo in order to establish any wrong doing. But the voters have become wise to this rigged game. They can see that just because the deck has been stacked behind the scenes, the deal they are getting is crooked.

I included John Merrow in my tweets, and at one point I tweeted  “I have heard of at least one case in which a funder pulled support from a media outlet over displeasure with focus.” Merrow responded: “I once returned $, turned down $ another time, and know I have been denied $ by foundations unhappy w/ my reporting.”

The most frustrating thing about the Education Writers Association’s role in this is that they ought to be watchdogs of integrity in journalism. As such, they should make their seminars a place where these ethical issues are robustly debated. However, at the very time this debate has become most crucial, they have changed the rules so as to exclude unpaid, independent bloggers like myself from participating in their awards process. And bloggers were already disqualified from standing to ask questions at their annual seminar, as I discovered when I was told to sit down and give up the mic back in 2013 when I stood to ask Arne Duncan a question.

I know that Greg Toppo is a reporter with a high level of personal integrity and skill as a journalist. However, I think the influence of money has become so pervasive that the ways in which its influence is felt is hard to see by those who are close to it. The LA Times VAM debacle ought to be enough for anyone to see, however. We have undisclosed funding, spent in service of the agenda of a major philanthropy, with reporting closely aligned to the objectives of that agenda. We have the EWA, also receiving funding from that same philanthropy, praising this reporting.

And of course the Gates Foundation was at the same time buying NBC News’ Education Nation, where Brian Williams told the world that

Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.

NBC’s Education Nation – also a winner of an award in 2010 from the EWA. This was Groupthink in action, and the funding from the Gates Foundation played a critical role in advancing the story that “bad teachers” were the big problem to be solved. The LA Times jumped at the chance to help. The nexus of money and influence cannot be ignored.

Since I obviously have a horse in this race, I reached out to someone not directly involved for his perspective.

Peter Sussman was a longtime editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. I reached out to him because he was co-author of the Society of Professional Journalists 1996 Code of Ethics. Here is what he had to say:

The journalism community has not grappled adequately with the serious ethical issues arising from nonprofit financing of reporting. As newspapers especially become an endangered species, ever more dependent on new sources of revenue, it is more tempting than ever before to welcome nonprofit underwriting. But when outside entities – especially those with their own agendas and coverage priorities — begin financing reporting, the resulting news stories are ipso facto suspect. Whether or not there is outright influence-peddling, there is unquestionably and rightly a perception of a conflict of interest, and the news organization thereby relinquishes some of its claim on reader trust and credibility. No amount of disclosure can erase those justifiable perceptions.

Scores of detailed decisions, large and small, go into every news story, starting with whether a subject is worth covering, and in what way, and it is impossible to defend the independence of the organization or the journalistic credibility of its editorial decisions when the money of participants and advocates is involved.

It seems to me that the influence of funding and the issues of bias that it raises are more subtle than we usually assume — so subtle that the reporters and editors involved may not be able to discern them. They include the aforementioned macro decisions — how important a journalist thinks a story is and whether it merits coverage at all — and micro decisions such as why a particular detail caught the reporter’s eye and ended up in a story or editorial. I’m not sure a reporter or editor could even discern accurately whether he or she was AVOIDING a story to prove that they AREN’T in a funder’s pocket. The mere fact of the funding pollutes the entire process when the funder is a partisan or participant.

In the case you cite, the L.A. Times’ report, reputations were jeopardized and public-policy decisions likely influenced by a decision to evaluate teachers’ efficacy based on test scores that were designed for another purpose (student, not teacher evaluation). But the problem begins earlier: Would the paper have undertaken that study or used the techniques it did were there not financial incentives for doing so? How specific were the funding criteria? (You mentioned “success stories.” Does that vague condition alone predetermine how a problem is addressed?) Were alternative approaches and dissenting partisans given the attention they would have received if foundation money had not prescribed the approach? How can the public be certain that the experts interviewed are indeed conflict-free when there’s a possibility the foundation employing them was financing the story on which they were asked to comment?

Ultimately, I would argue, there must be a neutral screening and anonymizing organization to insulate journalists from funders with agendas. I am thinking of something like the National Endowments for humanities and the arts, which insulate artists and scholars from any political influence that might come with public funding. Journalists ideally wouldn’t be able to identify the source of money disbursed through a go-between organization or the editorial approach it must take to meet grant criteria. Meantime, news organizations that take money from nonprofits to cover areas of controversy and especially when the funders have taken positions on those issues will continue to jeopardize the trust of their readers, with good reason.

What do you think? Is it enough for media outlets to report their funding sources? Or is the comparison to the influence campaign funding an appropriate one?