ProPublica And The Problem With Journalism

Patrick Maines President, The Media Institute
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It’s symptomatic of the syndrome: So many people who presume to speak for and about journalism’s shortcomings misdiagnose both the problem and its solutions. So it is that individuals of a certain mindset promote the idea that “corporate influence” is a problem, and nonprofit media are an answer.

One of the most prominent purveyors of the wrong stuff is the Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica, the nonprofit “newsroom” that produces investigative journalism “in the public interest.”

ProPublica has received funding from such birds of a feather as George Soros and the Knight Foundation, but most has come from its founding chairman, Herbert Sandler, a man with a well-established history of giving to left-wing organizations like ACORN.

Sandler has also been the subject of withering, and occasionally comic, criticism for his role as the former head of Great West Financial. In 2009, Time magazine named him and his wife to their list of the “25 people most responsible for the financial crisis,” and “SNL” did a skit in ’08 in which it was suggested he should be shot.

ProPublica says it focuses on stories with “moral force,” by “shining a light on the exploitation of the weak by the strong.” With these as their mission statement, funders, and modus operandi, it will come as a shock to no one that ProPublica’s light rarely shines on issues as would discomfit liberals and progressives, even as they also publish stories that are down the middle.

Nowhere to be found this year, for instance, are investigative stories focusing of the future effects of the kind of deficit spending currently being done by states, localities, and the federal government. No investigations of public employee unions and the role they play in stimulating those deficits. No investigations of the outsized impact on healthcare costs caused by ambulance chasing trial lawyers. No investigations of the derelictions and inadequacies of public school educators and administrators.

No investigations of the failure and counterproductive aspects of the many taxpayer-funded “poverty programs.” No investigations of the obvious fraud in the exploding number of people claiming disability benefits. No investigations of the willful misuse of claims of racial bias made by politicians and government officials. No investigations of the compelling legal arguments, based on the First Amendment, behind decisions like Citizens United.

Instead, the kind of stuff pumped out by ProPublica, to name just a few of their current investigations, are stories in ongoing series such as:

Patient Safety: Exploring Quality of Care in the U.S. More than 1 million patients suffer harm each year while being treated in the U.S. health care system. Even more receive substandard care or costly overtreatment…;

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat. Vast deposits of natural gas have brought a drilling boom across much of the country, but the technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, is suspected of causing hundreds of cases of water contamination… ;

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data. A series of court rulings led to the creation of super PACs and an influx of “dark money” into politics, fundamentally changing how elections work…;

Segregation Now: Investigating America’s Racial Divide. Investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing, and beyond…;

Restraints. How public school kids are being pinned down and held their (sic) against their will…

In addition to its transparent ideological affinities, ProPublica has also been implicated in the IRS scandal. Though it attracted very little media attention, in November 2012 the IRS improperly gave (or someone leaked to) ProPublica the tax-exempt application forms of nine conservative groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, that had not yet been given tax-exempt status.

Shortly thereafter, ProPublica published six of those applications, with their financial information redacted. And when, on May 10, 2013, Lois Lerner lit the fuse on a fire within the IRS that is burning still, ProPublica quickly published a story (and a week later a podcast) exonerating themselves of any blame, and retelling why the organization published these applications. (There was, according to ProPublica’s president, “a strong First Amendment interest.”)

Though they had asked for the applications by name, they did so, they say, without knowing that the groups had not been granted exemptions, and they claim not to know why they were sent to them when they should not have been.

That claim notwithstanding, anyone keeping track of their “Dark Money” series, which began many months before the IRS imbroglio, knows that ProPublica is a big fan of what is called “campaign finance reform,” suggesting the possibility that the IRS  sent the applications in the hope that, were they published, that would further the agency’s crackdown on conservative tax-exempt organizations. We simply don’t know, and may never know unless an independent prosecutor can one day get IRS officials to testify under oath.

Given, though, what is known about ProPublica’s mission and funders, one might assume that the mainstream media would be chary of working with them. Far from it. In fact, ProPublica’s list of partnering media reads like a who’s who of the mainstream media: the Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, and many, many more.

And it’s this, not the fact that ProPublica exists and does what it does, that is the most disturbing part of the ProPublica phenomenon.

The greatest problem with mainstream journalism isn’t the editorial influence of advertisers, or even the advent of the Internet, which is more of a business challenge. As shown in polls, the greatest journalistic problem is the way in which the mainstream media, all of which profess objectivity in their news reports and feature stories, have tarnished the reputation of contemporary journalism as a check on government and an impartial chronicler of the nation’s most important issues.

Patrick Maines is the president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit think tank that promotes free speech, sound communications policies, and journalistic excellence.