“There’s a lack of transparency over the whole issue of bias,” said Greenhut during the Franklin Center’s panel in Tampa, scoffing at the way journalists convince themselves that they are completely fair arbiters of the truth. “If you don’t think you have a point of view, then I think you’re more likely to be biased.” The question lurking beneath his argument: is having a conservative bias so much different from having a soft liberal bias, or an establishment bias, or any other bias of the sort that colors so much political coverage?
The worry with sites like these is that a casual online reader, or a reader of one of the local and regional newspapers that run Franklin Center statehouse reporting, might not be aware of the Franklin Center and its agenda or “point of view,” as Greenhut put it. Think Progress, funded by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, is a site that’s somewhat analogous to the Franklin Center. Its “About” section notes that the blog exists to “provide a forum that advances progressive ideas and policies.” The Watchdog.org site, however, makes no mention of the site’s conservative leanings, instead characterizing itself as “a collection of independent journalists covering state-specific and local government activity.”
There’s not necessarily anything nefarious about this. But it’s confusing in a way that Think Progress is not. And while this sort of explanatory language is technically accurate, it also comes across as somewhat evasive. The sites aren’t particularly open about their funding sources, either. Whereas other nonprofit news sites—like CJR, for example—list their major donors, the Franklin Center does not disclose its funders. They say they do this so that editors and reporters won’t feel unduly influenced, or unduly pressured, and will feel free to write the stories they want to write, but this is unconvincing. The point of disclosing donors is to reassure readers, not to free writers from vague editorial pressures which can be exerted a thousand different ways, anyway.
Odds are, the money behind the Franklin Center sites comes from conservative donors wanting their priorities and positions represented in news. But the money behind the news has always been politicized; publishers have always purchased newspapers in order to push their own agendas. This isn’t to excuse or justify this sort of activity, just to say that the Franklin Center certainly didn’t invent it. Yes, it’s important to trace the provenance of the money that funds reporting, especially in an era when it’s so easy to set up benign-sounding groups and nonprofits that serve only to mask the true motives of the people providing the money. And it’s important that readers know where, agenda-wise, the Franklin Center comes from—just as it’s important to know where any news organization comes from these days.
But, beyond that, we should judge them on their reporting. More and more often, ideologically motivated groups like the Franklin Center are going to be filling the reporting vacuum. “The opportunities caused by a crisis in journalism are going to continue,” said Franklin Center founder Jason Stverak during the Tampa panel. “You’ve seen more and more newspapers go to three days a week, and say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll have just as many stories, we’ll just put it up online.’ [If you believe that,] there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.”
Whatever you might think of their motives, the Franklin Center staffers claim they want to do good work. “I do believe there’s a strain of political journalism out there on the right and on the left that’s ‘gotcha’ journalism,” said Greenhut. “We do serious, point-of-view journalism. But we don’t deal with straw-men arguments. We deal with the best arguments the other side has. We’re trying to do pieces that matter.”