Shafer Grasps at a Straw

ProPublica’s funders know journalism when they see it

Jack Shafer, in his most recent Slate column, trains his sights on the recently announced ProPublica non-profit investigative journalism initiative. His big beef: how will editors know that the foundation’s work won’t be tainted by it’s biggest donors—Marion and Herbert Sandler—and their political agenda. (The couple has given millions to Democratic campaigns and progressive causes.)

Shafer suggests that the Sandlers not serve on the board, set up an endowment and get out, leaving ProPublica to do their digging without any semblance of interference. For the record, that sounds well and good, but personally I’d rather have ProPublica and their 24 investigators in the mix —Sandlerbucks and all—than not. And Paul Steiger, the Wall Street Journal editor who will helm the venture, presumably knows a thing or two about tending the wall between journalists and the money folks.

Meanwhile, Shafer overreaches in his attempt to build an atmosphere of Sandlerphobia, when he darkly warns that the couple’s “enthusiasm for journalism and journalists is late in arriving” by slicing and dicing a clip from April 12, 1992:

… at the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual convention, Marion ascribed partial blame for the savings and loan disaster to the press. “Where were you when it was happening?” she asked, according to a story by The Chicago Tribune’s James Warren. Her husband accused the press of making “stars out of bums and charlatans” like swindler Charles Keating. “The press is susceptible to the Big Lie, no matter how patently nonsensical,” Herbert said.

Yikes! That does make it sound like the Sandlers sure didn’t like those journalists!

But why were they so unhappy? A fuller look at that old clip is, shall we say, revealing. As it turns out, the couple was upset because the business press was prone to telling a pat story when they should have been, yes, investigating:

Marion Sandler calls what happened in her industry during the 1980s the “largest financial disaster in the history of the world.” There’s ample criticisms to be leveled at lax regulators and the industry itself, she said, but also the media.

“Where were you when it was happening?” she asked the editors, referring to the S&L debacle.

Her husband cited an array of specific institutions that ultimately failed and raised questions about press performance. How could the media not have wondered how one thrift was paying so much higher rates of deposit than competitors; or how another could grow to $1 billion in assets from $18 million in a single year?

Along the way, Herbert Sandler argued, there was an alarming press propensity to take major savings and loan figures such as Charles Keating and “make stars out of bums and charlatans” by being too passive in the face of “obvious nonsense and lies” regarding their operations.

“You take the superficialities and make heroes out of bums… . The press is susceptible to the Big Lie, no matter how patently nonsensical,” said Herbert Sandler, clearly no fan of convicted junk bond guru Michael Milken, either….

“You guys bought that hook, line and sinker-Milken’s reputation for helping ‘little guys,’ ” said Herb Sandler.

His wife shakes her head when considering the many profiles done of her firm that, she claims, are rife with lazy reporting and reflected frequently banal lines of questioning.

Throughout the tumultuous 1980s, she said, reporters’ interest in her firm constantly prompted the same queries, such as, “What’s it like being a husband-wife team?” and “Do women manage differently than men?”

After all that, no wonder the Sandlers couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for faux journalism. And we’re lucky that they’ve opened their checkbook to fund something that might actually be journalism.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.