As newspapers fold and reporters are laid off, nonprofit journalism websites funded by foundations have moved in to fill the void with the kind of investigative coverage many news outlets no longer can afford.
The problem, say conservatives, is that some of those nonprofit sites act less as objective purveyors of news than as disseminators of liberal propaganda, funded by foundations with a left-of-center agenda, especially on environmental issues.
With that in mind, the conservative Media Research Center unveiled Thursday its effort to shed light on where such outlets receive their funding with a website called “Buying Bias: Discover the Network of Billionaires Behind Non-Profit Journalism.”
“In the last decade, traditional news outlets have shrunk newsrooms and laid off 40 percent of [the] nation’s journalists, paving the way for the rise of advocacy journalism under the guise of nonprofit journalism,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business for the Media Research Center.
At the top of the list is InsideClimate News, a 9-year-old website funded by the liberal Rockefeller and Park foundations that has targeted ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies as it promotes what critics describe as thinly disguised climate change advocacy.
Even so, InsideClimate has been embraced by the journalism community while garnering the industry’s highest honors, including a 2013 Pulitzer Prize and a Pulitzer finalist nod in 2016 for a series accusing Exxon of hiding its research on climate change.
More troubling to Mr. Gainor is that the site has partnered with news services such as The Associated Press and McClatchy, along with Bloomberg, the Center for Public Integrity, the [U.K.] Guardian and the Weather Channel.
“We’ve seen liberal, biased outlets, like InsideClimate News, funded by billionaire families and foundations integrated into traditional outlets, without any stipulation or concern for bias,” Mr. Gainor said.
The rise of nonprofit journalism outlets gives a new spin to the longstanding debate over media bias. While newspapers, radio stations and television news stations are expected to cover news objectively, the journalism umbrella also covers publications with a clear-cut point of view.
For example, the venerable left-wing organ Mother Jones has been a finalist for 31 National Magazine Awards, taking seven — but Mother Jones is upfront about its biases in a way that critics say some journalism nonprofits are not.
Mark Feldstein, professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, wasn’t buying it, chalking up the Media Research Center website’s launch as “the latest salvo in the propaganda wars between those who accuse the media of left-wing bias and those who accuse it of right-wing bias.”
“In this particular case, the website’s simplistic visual depiction of sinister-looking links between respected nonprofit groups and foundations is so exaggeratedly ominous as to be ridiculous,” Mr. Feldstein said. “The plain fact is that a ‘network of billionaires’ on both ends of the ideological spectrum funds research and reporting to advance their political agendas. So it is amusing to see activists on either side profess outrage about the others’ use of identical tactics.”
InsideClimate founder and publisher David Sassoon, a former Rockefeller consultant who has described himself as an advocate for the “clean energy economy,” dismissed the newly launched site, calling the bias allegation “laughable nonsense.”
Nonprofit journalism sites have multiplied in the last decade, spurred by the 2008 recession and the collapse of the newspaper ad-revenue business model in the face of internet competition. Nearly 40 percent of reporters have lost their jobs in the last decade.
In 2015, weekday circulation fell 7 percent and Sunday circulation dropped 4 percent, the biggest decline since 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.
Journalism nonprofits have been hailed as a promising alternative for in-depth news coverage, although they often have the same problems with maintaining a steady revenue stream, one reason that those with strong foundational funding such as ProPublica and InsideClimate have thrived while others have folded.
Mr. Feldstein said the success of nonprofit publications also lies in the quality of their work.
“The proof is in the pudding, namely the quality of the journalism involved,” he said.
ProPublica has seen its work recognized — the online publication has won three Pulitzers — but as the Buying Bias website points out, its revenue stream comes from liberal funders, including the Marisla Foundation and Democratic megadonor George Soros.
ProPublica and InsideClimate both list their funders on their website, but those funding sources aren’t listed when their articles appear in other publications. The Buying Bias website offers another opportunity for transparency, Mr. Gainor said.
“We’re a conservative organization and we’re a nonprofit. But we don’t have any media partnerships,” he said. “When we produce something or we’re cited in major media, it’s as a conservative organization. But InsideClimate News and ProPublica — they’re cited as a journalism organization. And that’s the problem.”