So in many cases journalists have turned to foundations and philanthropists, and to well-meaning venture capital, to develop new nonprofit journalism operations. Indeed, some of these outlets have attracted attention and awards. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, two very different journalism operations, are examples: ProPublica was the first all-digital news operation to be awarded a Pulitzer, and the Texas Tribune is routinely praised for its aggressive reporting and investigation as well as its rigorous monitoring of statehouse data. The Texas Tribune was initially launched with funding from a civic-minded venture capitalist, John Thornton, who put up $1 million and helped raise more. ProPublica has been funded primarily by Herbert and Marion Sandler, the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation, though it, too, is working to broaden its donor base.
What tends to be forgotten in all the praise for the philanthropic model is that big handouts can come with a price. The reason for the press to be independent of a political agenda is not the danger that a bad political agenda could take over; it’s that agendas in general are toxic to a certain kind of journalism.
I have had a chance to think about this: as a reporter for The New York Blade, a paper about gay political issues and culture, I served the readership by reporting on the finances of such important organizations as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. If the paper, instead of being employee-owned, had been financed by do-gooders with deep pockets and a passion for local aids charities and gay political causes, how possible would that have been? Our money would have come from the same sources as many of the places we were reporting on.
Even charities that mean to do good work for journalism in particular must observe a different kind of restraint from straight-up capitalists if they want the journalism they fund to be truly independent: they must decide that even their good works are open to critique and interpretation by the reporters they’re paying. That can be a harder pill to swallow in practice than it is in theory, even for the most enlightened funders.
The danger here is that philanthropy has given the moneyed class the potential to exert a new pull on journalism. And in a world where the lines between private money and government continue to blur, serious journalism must resist that pull and guard its independence—with business prowess, rigorous cost efficiency, and by spreading wide the donor base.
A.J. Liebling’s famous formulation, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” has a different ring today. An expensive press is no longer necessary; he who owns the publication has the freedom, something more possible than ever as developments in digital publishing and distribution have removed costs traditionally associated with print journalism.
The only thing left to pay for is the journalism itself. Figuring that out, for ourselves, is the only route to independence. And independence is more important than ever.
In Philanthropy In America: A History, due out this month and likely to become a landmark text, Olivier Zunz, an academic at the University of Virginia, argues that American government has long been shadowed by two kinds of private philanthropy. One is mass philanthropic effort (the “Big Wind,” as H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury put it in 1928, when the tax code evolved in such a way as to save the middle class significant tax burdens if they made charitable donations; “Viewers Like You!” is the current parlance). Another is philanthropy from elites (American Mercury’s “Big Money Boys,” now recognizable in end credits listing the likes of the Helena Rubinstein Foundation).
Zunz explains that the very creation of both these classes of philanthropy required significant government interference with the tax code, a process that evolved over decades, and which Zunz profiles with diligence and nuance. In other words, philanthropy’s independence from government interference required government action, to loosen restrictions on the disposal of private money for charitable causes.
What’s more, government has continually sought to create its own firewall between private moneyed interests, philanthropic and otherwise, and the spheres of activity that rightly belonged to the state, lest unelected interests have control of the basic functions of practiced democratic government. From the very earliest changes in the tax code to allow charitable organizations to operate without serious tax burdens, a distinction was made between “education” and “advocacy.” The latter, Zunz writes, was considered a dangerous counterpoint to actual government; the former was a form of free speech. Diligence was required to keep the line from blurring.