Press freedom group to deploy $1M Bezos gift, its largest ever, on local level

Jeff Bezos photo via Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons

JEFF BEZOS, AMAZON’S CEO AND The Washington Post’s owner, is giving $1 million to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The gift, announced Tuesday night at the Freedom of the Press Awards Dinner in New York, is the largest personal contribution in the RCFP’s history.

“It’s an institution-changing gift for us,” Bruce Brown, the RCFP’s executive director, told me. “We’re always generating new ideas of what we could be doing to support and serve journalists, but financial constraints can get in the way—and this gift opens up the breadth of the work we could do.”

The RCFP, founded in 1970 and funded by corporations, foundations and individuals, provides pro bono legal services to news organizations and journalists. It also produces educational materials and stories about media law issues. Under Brown’s leadership, the RCFP has grown in size and ambition.

We’re very aware that there are needs at the state and local levels involving issues arising under state and local laws.

In the past year, the RCFP has announced, among other gifts and grants, $300,000 from the Ford Foundation, $300,000 from the Heising-Simons Foundation, $150,000 from the Barr Foundation, $800,000 from the Democracy Fund, and $450,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. All of them came after the election of President Donald Trump, who has spent much of his time in office (and before that as a candidate) growling at the press.

The Bezos gift will enable the RCFP to expand its efforts to help state and local journalists and news organizations, hard hit by the industry’s changing economics, Brown told me.

“We feel a strong pull toward state and local journalism, especially in the area of access to information, because we’ve tended to focus on federal FOIA issues,” Brown said. “But we’re very aware that there are needs at the state and local levels involving issues arising under state and local laws.”

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That kind of help couldn’t come too soon. I wrote in CJR’s latest print edition about Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and its trickle-down consequences for state and local journalists, and I discussed more generally the First Amendment and FOI challenges facing them:

[A] Knight study released last year reported that 53 percent of US newspaper editors agreed that “news organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.” Sixty-five percent said the press is weaker than it was 10 years ago, with most of those editors citing economic pressures as the reason. Twenty-seven percent said they’d been unable to bring a case at their outlets because of the cost…. The implications of this retrenchment are significant because the state and local press have shaped American media law for decades by bringing critical cases—to unseal court documents and open meetings, for example.

When I asked Brown for an example of the work that the Bezos gift would make possible, he pointed to an April case involving the free community newspaper Camarillo Acorn, in California. The RCFP represented the paper and, in litigation, helped it obtain a judicial order granting access to voicemails and emails between a public health agency’s ex-CEO and ex-attorney, accused of conspiring to overbill for legal services.

“The paper was in a records fight and had a lawyer, but the paper ran out of money, and the lawyer couldn’t do the case pro bono, so we jumped in to handle it,” Brown told me. “It’ll be great to have the additional resources from the Bezos gift to do more of that kind of work.”

Tuesday’s dinner raised nearly $2 million for the RCFP, and honored the achievements of Washington Post editor Marty Baron, former AP editor Kathleen Carroll, ProPublica chairman Paul Steiger, and the media law practice of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. And the Bezos gift wasn’t the only news made there.

First Look Media, established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, announced the expansion of its Press Freedom Defense Fund. First Look will add $2 million of its own and commit to raise another $2 million in matching funds for a total of $6 million. (CJR receives funding from Democracy Fund, which was founded by Omidyar and has also supported RCFP.) In the past, grants from the fund have been used to support challenges to FOIA denials and motions to quash subpoenas seeking journalistic sources, among other things. To administer the fund, First Look Media will partner with the RCFP, which will help review grant requests.

Speaking at Tuesday’s dinner, Michael Bloom, First Look Media’s president, said, “Our company is founded on the belief that a true democracy is predicated on freedom of expression and of the press. It’s our goal to continue offering this legal support to fearless journalists and others whose credibility and independence are threatened because of their crucial work in holding the powerful accountable.”

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. He is a media law professor at the University of Georgia, with posts in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Law. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.