One reason some of America's most prominent news organizations have been getting "bad press" lately, and losing viewers and readers, is they lack transparent standards and seem willing to "report" (a better word might be repeat) almost anything, without proper confirmation.
Proper confirmation is not just a second "source" willing to parrot what somebody else said. Frequently, that's just two people spinning the same tale. Proper confirmation is independent verification obtained through fact-gathering, analysis and firsthand reporting. If a reporter can't be there in person, he or she should talk to reliable people who were.
Consider the latest conspiracy tale making the rounds in Washington. The short version, courtesy of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat (in a May 24 letter to the Wall Street Journal), goes like this: Corporations and other "special interests" involved in litigation give money to nonprofit organizations that then "wine and dine judges" at lavish resorts, where they hold brainwashing seminars to align the judges "with the legal interests" of the corporate money-men.
The charges, in these or similar words, have been repeated by several major news organizations. The trouble is the charges are nonsense. But few serious journalists (with the notable exception of the New Republic's prominent environmental writer, Gregg Easterbrook, and Wall Street Journal editorial writer Kim Strassel) have bothered to investigate, giving readers the impression this is exactly what happens.
The alleged conspiracy, concocted by an activist "public interest" law group known as the Community Rights Counsel, reared its ugly head again just a few weeks ago. The Washington Post ran stories two consecutive days that three federal judges resigned "from a corporate-funded group that opposes environmental regulation and provides free seminars and trips to judges." There was more; but you get the drift.
The "group" singled out was a Mountain West environmental organization, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), Bozeman, Mont.
It serves no useful purpose to attribute such reporting to media bias. I don't know if the reporter who wrote the stories is biased. But I do know the term "corporate-financed" was used pejoratively, conveying the impression FREE is in corporate America's pocket. And I know the story created the impression FREE is anti-environment but offered no supporting facts.
The Capital Research Center is a nonprofit organization that studies other nonprofits. We are familiar with both the Community Rights Counsel and FREE and with the games some journalists play: using the "funding" issue to discredit one organization, while ignoring the financing of others.
All this raises serious questions at the heart of the media's problems. For example, what is the accepted media definition of "corporate-financed" and when and why is the term used?
The Urban League, NAACP, Council on Foreign Relations, Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, and National Council of La Raza (among others) all have received hundreds of thousands of dollars -- in some cases, millions -- from U.S. corporations. Among environmental organizations, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, Sierra Club Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (among others) receive corporate support -- including money from companies vilified by the media as "anti-environment."
Yet, of all the organizations I named, only FREE is identified as "corporate-financed." Why?
If facts really matter, FREE openly provides details about its funding. Of the $896,000 it raised last year, 78 percent came from foundations and individuals; just 22 percent from corporations. More important, no corporate money -- and no foundation money with corporate ties -- is ever used for its legal seminars, which (for the record) are cosponsored by Montana State University. This information is readily available on the organization's Web site ( www.free-eco.org). All a reporter has to do is look.
And how about the motives and financing of the organization complaining about FREE's seminars: the Community Rights Counsel. Should that be part of the story? Some readers might find it interesting, for example, that the organization receives major funding from George Soros.
If mainstream journalism does not have a death wish, it needs to clean up its act. The formula is simple: honest, straightforward reporting, using transparent standards, applied consistently across the board.
Robert Huberty is executive vice president of the Capital Research, a policy institute focused on American nonprofit organizations and philanthropy.