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Curtis Black

Curtis Black

Posted: June 8, 2010 11:25 AM

The New York Times in Chicago: Under the Influence?

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New York Times digital editor Jim Schachter has gone into full denial mode in response to Jamie Kalven's Columbia Journalism Review article raising concerns about foundation funding for nonprofit news ventures.

It doesn't seem necessary. Kalven's thesis seems fairly obvious - that funding for new journalism by civic foundations, which have a sometimes outsized role in shaping issues in their communities, raises a new set of potential conflicts of interest, and that journalists need to be alert to the risks.

It may be that the risk is greater now, in a world where journalists are among those who must increasingly be entrepreneurs too. (I've also faced these issues covering nonprofits for Newstips at Community Media Workshop, an organization which has been generously supported by the city's philanthropic community.)

But Kalven focuses on the Chicago News Cooperative (whose twice-weekly contribution to the Times Schachter oversees), raising questions about the influence of its funders and board members. His concerns include CNC's funding from the MacArthur Foundation and what that will mean for its coverage of the CHA's Plan for Transformation, in which MacArthur is a major partner.

These concerns are "specious," according to Schachter, in a long comment on the web post of the story. Schachter suggests that raising such questions amounts to "guilt by association" and even DaVinci Code-style conspiracy mongering.

True, CNC has had a few missteps in its early months. Schachter, even as he mocks the ritual of journalistic disclosure, notes a partial disclosure subsequently appended to a glowing column on the University of Chicago (partial because it skips the fact that the university's vice president is on CNC's board).

He neglects the contretemps over the NYT-CNC story on the "turnaround" of Marshall High School, which didn't acknowledge the presence of a major turnaround booster, millionaire Martin Koldyke, on CNC's board. After Substance News raised the potential conflict, Koldyke's role was noted in a subsequent article on the subject, which District 299 hailed as "a victory for Substance News (and journalistic disclosure)."

What Kalven lacks, according to Schachter, is hard evidence that a funder or board member has directly influenced an NYT-CNC story.

But Kalven's concern is more subtle than disclosure or product placement: it's the danger of self-censorship, which can easily happen unintentionally, "disguised as editorial judgment or realism about limited resources." The danger is not that foundations will dictate news coverage, "it is that we will seek to ingratiate ourselves to funders in order to stay afloat....When we back away from, or soften, a story that might alienate a funder, will we even recognize what we are doing?"

Schachter brings up a wonderful example: a recent CNC-NYT article on a MacArthur-funded study of CHA's mixed income communities conducted by a University of Chicago sociologist. He is quite proud that CNC disclosed the MacArthur connection before anyone called them on it. And he praises the story's objectivity: "To my eye, and that of CNC's editors, there was no trace of MacArthur influence on that reporting."

Whatever Schachter may or may not see, the CNC-NYT story reflects the interpretation held by supporters of the CHA plan, including MacArthur - that its goal is breaking up concentrations of poverty in order to provide low-income people with greater economic opportunity - and neglects evidence that the real impact is strikingly different.

According to CNC's report, which is the only major piece they've published on CHA, the agency's goal is to replace "blighted high-rise projects" with "mixed-income communities," and one of the biggest problems is "creating harmonious communities" of people from different classes. CHA claims of economic self-sufficiency for "more residents," and the termination of court-ordered receivership to ameliorate CHA's history of segregation, are given as evidence of the plan's success.

What's missing, of course, is any countervailing data. There's nothing about the net loss of many thousands of units of public housing. The thousands of former residents whom CHA can't locate. The quite plausible charges (pdf), denied by CHA, that the plan has added to the city's growing homeless population. The undisputed fact, underscored once more by a study from the Voorhees Center earlier this year (pdf), that the Plan for Transformation is moving thousands of low-income people out of neighborhoods near the Loop into economically isolated and racially segregated areas.

It's quite remarkable, an Orwellian triumph, that a plan executed in the name of breaking up concentrations of poverty would end up increasing segregation. That Orwellian facade is held up for admiration in CNC's story.

The school turnaround stories follow a similar pattern. There are a few complaining voices from the affected schools who worry about downtown control. These appear to provide some balance, but they are presented without sufficient context to make sense.

There's nothing about the long series of heavy-handed, utterly ineffective central office interventions at schools like Marshall. (Going back to Mayor Daley's takeover of the school system in 1995, as the Times reported back then. Check the details in the Designs For Change report [pdf] on bureaucratic evasion of accountability in CPS high school interventions; Marshall is discussed briefly in a 2008 Sun-Times piece which is reprinted there.) There's nothing about the long series of studies (pdf) showing that after 15 years of mayoral control, Daley's education policies haven't worked.

There's no discussion of reports that turnaround schools raise test scores by pushing out difficult students; no mention of CORE's discrimination complaint, charging that turnarounds have replaced large numbers of veteran black teachers with novice white ones.

Most important, there's no questioning of the turnaround model itself - how firing an entire school staff (lunchrooom workers and janitors included) does anything to improve a school, what the cost of disruption is, how indeed it affects efforts to attract more good, dedicated teachers to challenging schools. It's a model imported from the corporate world to the education world by businessmen, and many educators and scholars say it's counterproductive, but you won't learn that from the New York Times or CNC.

So what we get are stories that are framed pretty much the way funders and board members might frame them. That doesn't prove undue influence as much as it suggests a shared worldview. (Indeed, one doubts whether MacArthur or Koldyke would be particularly bothered by more challenging coverage.) But it does validate Kalven's concern with what's left out of the coverage of such issues. Especially in Chicago, where groups opposing Mayor Daley's agenda are increasingly marginalized. (On this, Tom Tresser's comment on the CJR site about his experience organizing against the city's foundation-backed Olympic bid is instructive; though in his zeal, Tresser seems to have forgotten a few David Greising columns.) Schachter and CNC need to take this into account on issues where they have connections.

This is a case study of a much larger trend. Nationally, it's in the area of education that what Mike Klonsky calls "power philanthropy" (and Diane Ravitch calls "the billionaire boys club"), led by Bill Gates and cheered by Arne Duncan, has really come to dominate public policy. In Washington D.C., foundations are even trying to dictate who can be the city's school superintendent.

Now the Joyce Foundation, which supports charter schools and turnarounds, is funding a Hechinger Institute project to "bolster prominent coverage in the Midwest of school turnaround challenges, teacher improvement efforts, and state and local uses of federal 'Race to the Top' funds, which are earmarked for innovative education reform." How prominent in their coverage will be the many voices in the education community (including parents) that would characterize RTTT differently? Especially since Secretary Duncan doesn't seem to be aware of them.

Going a step further, some foundations with policy agendas are establishing their own news services. Kaiser Health News is just what its name announces, a service sponsored by a foundation that has long worked with journalists and news organizations. The Fiscal Times is sponsored by the foundation of billionaire Peter Peterson, who has campaigned for decades to cut Social Security. In January the Washington Post came under ridicule when it published an FT-produced article without noting Peterson's sponsorship. But with President Obama now possibly taking up Peterson's agenda, FT may be a valuable source, taking into account its unannounced bias.

There's a long and worthy history of philanthropic support for public and nonprofit media, in Chicago and elsewhere, including support for small and critical voices. Clearly, it's badly needed (though as Alan Mutter has pointed out at Newsosaur, it may be necessary but it's not sufficient). But it doesn't take a tin foil hat to see that such relationships do bear scrutiny. Even when it's the New York Times.