Imagine you are the executive director of a nonprofit working on public-housing issues. Support from the MacArthur Foundation accounts for a significant portion of your budget. You are disturbed by city policies that you believe harm public-housing tenants. MacArthur strongly supports those policies. Will you voice your concerns? Publicly? Privately? If so, how forcefully? You need to be realistic. You want to sustain the work of your organization, you have a payroll to meet, and you must answer to your board. The best course, you tell yourself, is to retreat to fight another day.
Viewed in isolation, this may seem an exercise in common sense. Yet such decisions, in the aggregate, can have a devastating impact on public discourse about important issues. As journalists join the nonprofit world, will we be able to resist the siren song of such calculations? The danger is not so much that foundations will dictate what gets covered and what does not. That is relatively easy to resist. It is that we will seek to ingratiate ourselves to funders in order to stay afloat. It is precisely because the stakes are so high, with careers and enterprises in the balance, that the pull toward accommodation is so intense.
Self-censorship is subtle and insidious. It is often hidden from those practicing it as well as those subjected to it. Amid all the decisions that go into producing any journalistic artifact, it can easily be disguised as editorial judgment or realism about limited resources. After all, there are many worthy stories for the news cooperative to tackle that do not overlap with MacArthur’s interests. When we back away from, or soften, a story that might alienate a funder, will we even recognize what we are doing?
In raising these questions, I do not mean to impugn the integrity of particular reporters and editors—or to claim some higher moral ground. In my career, I have accepted support from a number of funders with definite agendas. And I am currently seeking to raise funds for the journalistic initiative with which I am associated, the Invisible Institute.
Nor do I mean to romanticize the old regime. In traditional newsrooms there are many pulls toward self-censorship: anxieties about alienating advertisers and subscribers; skittishness about proposing stories that challenge the crotchets of powerful editors and publishers; concern about maintaining access to institutions and individuals one covers; and so on.
This is familiar terrain. Good journalists navigate it with self-awareness, resourcefulness, and, when need be, cunning. The new kinds of potential conflicts in the emerging nonprofit journalism, by contrast, are largely uncharted. As we enter this gravitational field, the only way to keep our bearings is to challenge ourselves and one another to remain alert to the risks.
By the same token, philanthropy needs to examine its own practices. These days many foundations are disinclined to provide general operating support to their grantees. They prefer to fund specific projects bearing on the policy areas that concern them. That is the essence of their craft: to create incentives that draw work to a particular area. The danger in the journalistic context is that such incentives will also act as disincentives—as invitations to self-censorship.
Promises by foundations not to interfere and assertions of editorial independence by nonprofit ventures mean little. Only a strong sense of journalistic vocation can trump the otherwise compelling cost/benefit logic of grantsmanship. And the only meaningful expression of such clarity of purpose is the work itself. If we are prepared to err in the direction of biting the hand that feeds, perhaps journalism and philanthropy will co-evolve in ways that benefit both, yielding forms of patronage that effectively underwrite the First Amendment. Paradoxically, this is among the ways the conditions that imperil journalism also create an opportunity to recover its best traditions.