08/06/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

America's Press Needs to Stop Fawning Over Big Donors

ERIC PIERMONT via Getty Images

America's news media are failing to focus a critical eye on philanthropy, especially on wealthy donors. A decade ago, major newspapers like the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times regularly uncovered the inappropriate activities of foundations and large wealthy donors. But today journalists have become, for the most part, relatively uncritical, almost supine, cheerleaders of American philanthropy.

A painful reminder of this lack of skepticism came a few weeks ago when CBS's "60 Minutes" repeated a piece it had aired last year about the Giving Pledge, the effort by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to persuade fellow billionaires to donate at least half of their fortunes during their lifetimes.

The broadcast, moderated by Charlie Rose, interviewed a handful of wealthy donors who had made the pledge. No critics of the Giving Pledge were interviewed. Mr. Rose asked just one tough question, namely, How did the donors respond to the observation that wealthy donors like them had too much power and authority? The donors never answered the question, and Mr. Rose was satisfied not to press the issue. The segment was essentially a puff piece, hardly worth putting on the air once, let alone twice.

A couple of years ago when the Gateses and Mr. Buffett introduced the Giving Pledge in two news conferences, the reporters never asked the billionaires any hard questions, like: Why did the Gates foundation only have three board members? How were the Gateses and other donors going to be accountable to the public? Would any of these funds be earmarked for needy nonprofits and their constituents? They seemed in awe of the great wealth sitting before them.

This veneration of the wealthy seems today to suffuse most of media discussions about philanthropy. That's in part because the scarcity of government funds has made private sources of financing much more important for nonprofit organizations and their supporters, thereby casting a positive glow on almost all charitable contributions, regardless of their purpose and impact.

How else do we account for the enormous coverage and publicity The Washington Post has given to the financier David Rubenstein, who has given such humdrum grants as $4.5-million for the National Zoo's panda exhibit, $7.5-million to restore the Washington Monument, and more recently $12-million to renovate the historic home of Robert E. Lee. Nobody ever asks whether his money should go to worthier causes.

Another reason for the media's love-in with wealthy donors and foundations is the changing nature of journalism. A decade ago newspapers like the Boston Globe, Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, Seattle Times, and others routinely ferreted out foundation scandals and errant wealthy donors. Their investigations led to Senate hearings and changes in philanthropic behavior. The print media once served as the nonprofit world's most effective accountability mechanism.

But those days are gone. The recent demise of many newspapers, the accompanying loss of investigative reporters, and the pressure on the daily press to cut back on costs have left much of the media "defanged." The New York Times, Washington Post, and other major newspapers no longer have a nonprofit beat; those reporters who periodically write about philanthropy don't have the understanding, experience, or time to do more than a cursory examination of the topic. The tough questions are seldom asked.

Grant makers like Gates and the Ford Foundation have recently made grants to newspapers to cover reporting in certain subject areas.

Gates, in particular, has financed media attention to its education push, including its work to promote common-core standards. And John Arnold's gift to PBS and its New York affiliate--which they later refused--to promote his pension-reform views raised some eyebrows. Is it any wonder that newspapers would tread lightly on potentially negative investigations of philanthropy? Similarly, the corporate owners of major TV networks aren't likely to tolerate much critical coverage of wealthy donors who are linked to their corporate business.

Some observers believe that the growth of independent nonprofit investigative centers, which today number more than 100, will be able to fill the critical gap left by a diminished press. Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity and author of the new book 935 Lies, views these nonprofit newsrooms as the wave of the future, important instruments for truth telling.

But their record thus far doesn't inspire much confidence that they will treat foundations and wealthy donors any differently than today's print media. Very few, if any, of these alternative centers even bother to cover nonprofit organizations or philanthropic giving trends. They are almost entirely focused on political issues and government. Nor have they exhibited much more courage when dealing with wealth than have their newspaper counterparts.

And it's hard to tell how long these nonprofits will be able to survive financially. As Mr. Lewis notes, "Another valid concern is the issue of long-term funding. How much longer will private philanthropy remain interested in the state of quality journalism?"

Not long ago when I asked the editor of one of the major nonprofit centers for investigative journalism why his organization had not written about either nonprofits or foundations, he replied that it would be a conflict of interest. After all, he added, his operation was funded by foundations. Online websites and other forms of alternative journalism will not be adequate substitutes for good old-fashioned newspapers.

However, there are some occasional gleams of hope in the shape of a few reporters who are still willing to take on and write critically about wealthy donors and foundations. People like David Sirota, who wrote numerous pieces in PandoDaily and elsewhere about the Arnolds and the giving by the Koch brothers. Dale Russakoff, a New Yorker contributor who examined in detail the debacle in Newark that resulted from Mark Zuckerberg's $100-million gift. And Benjamin Soskis, an academic and freelance writer who has written probing pieces on philanthropy for The Atlantic and The Washington Post, are at the forefront of a small but growing group of analysts who are taking aim at America's wealthiest donors. But will they and their colleagues be enough to restore some semblance of objectivity in the media about the way our foundations and wealthy individual donors are viewed?

This question is increasingly urgent, as philanthropists immerse themselves in shaping public policy, both nationally and locally. As Mr. Soskis wrote in The Atlantic, "Given the power that private philanthropy can wield over public policy, a spirited, fully informed public debate over the scope, scale, and nature of that influence is a democratic necessity. It is the closest approximation of holding our megadonors accountable."

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle of Philanthropy contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His email address is