Throughout the 1960s, states and universities primarily funded individual public radio stations, with some support from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and other foundations, according to Edward Lenert, a professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, Nevada. Carnegie also funded the creation of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which in 1967 issued a national plan for public television as a national institution, the funding for which would be controlled by a new government-funded nonprofit corporation, which was created that year by Congress and called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Radio was excluded from the original draft of that bill, but was later added—literally penciled in—according to the first NPR employee, Jack Mitchell, the author of Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio. National Public Radio was founded on February 24, 1970, with ninety stations as charter members, “the first permanent nationwide interconnection of non-commercial stations.”
Although virtually all of NPR’s early money came directly from the CPB—and the CPB continues to send tax dollars to hundreds of NPR affiliates nationwide in the form of federal grants (which in turn pay for NPR programming)—beginning in the 1980s, NPR began more aggressively seeking philanthropic contributions from private sources, foundations such as Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and others, as well as from corporations. Simply stated, NPR would not exist nor have evolved into what it is today without that kind of support. A public need for such an institution was perceived and then duly addressed.
Despite its excellent and in-depth reporting, NPR is not known for investigative reporting. (The sole radio program in the U.S. devoted substantially to investigative reporting is American RadioWorks, a documentary show out of St. Paul, Minnesota, home of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, another, separate nonprofit and the U.S.’s second largest producer of public radio programming.) Indeed, none of the nonprofit ownership outlets mentioned above is solely engaged in the practice of investigative journalism—painstaking, time-consuming work that usually takes weeks or months to complete. Few news organizations, in fact, support such expensive curiosity anymore. With the institutional commitment to investigative reporting on the decline, reporters have formed their own nonprofit organizations in recent years in which to do their work.
For example, in late 1988, I quit the CBS News program 60 Minutes, where I worked as a producer assigned to Mike Wallace, and from my house founded, along with two other journalists, the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. With no money of my own to contribute, and no background in either fundraising or management, I set out in 1989 to find philanthropic support, initially from small foundations, labor unions, companies, and TV network consulting contracts (in 1994 we stopped seeking business and labor support). Our first annual budget was $200,000; over the next fifteen years we raised approximately $30 million, more than 90 percent of that from foundations. By 2004, I oversaw a full-time staff of forty and more than twenty part-time, paid intern researchers on a $4.6 million annual budget. Today Bill Buzenberg, the first managing editor of NPR, is the nonpartisan Center’s fourth executive director, overseeing what has become the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world.
Since 1997, reporting across borders with its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Center has produced more than four hundred investigative reports released online, in printed studies and newsletters, and in seventeen books, including a national best-seller, The Buying of the President 2004 (Perennial/HarperCollins). The Center first revealed that Enron was George W. Bush’s top career patron, for example.
But the first and oldest nonprofit investigative journalism organization in the world is the Center for Investigative Reporting, based in Berkeley (and on whose board I sit). Three investigative reporters, Lowell Bergman, David Weir, and Dan Noyes, founded the Center in 1977. It was first run out of Bergman’s house in Berkeley, and seed money came from a $3,000 grant from Philip M. Stern, a public-spirited philanthropist and author who created the Fund for Investigative Journalism in 1969. (That same year, the fund gave Seymour Hersh enough cash to complete the My Lai story, among other successes. Bergman is now a correspondent for Frontline, a consultant reporter for The New York Times, and a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley.