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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

January 7, 2010


Sam Smith - In recent months there's been increasing talk of non-profit groups doing more investigative reporting. This is a great idea. In fact, I wrote about it five years ago:

[][][] The nature of the corporatized press limits the desirability of investigative reporting. . . . A successful investigation is a risky way to climb the media ladder for the reporter and a threat to the next quarterly return for the boss.

But since you still need news, one way to make it seem as though you are doing something is to outsource your journalism to groups like the Center for Public Integrity or the Project on Government Oversight. Gone is the day when every reporter was meant to be a project on government oversight; now you let POGO do the investigation, you write it up, and if the story's wrong it's not your fault but POGO's. Nice deniability, just the thing a corporation likes. On a single day, for example, three reports by grantees [including POGO] of the Fund for Constitutional Government (on whose board I sit) were featured in the NY Times. Such groups have become a timid media's secondhand nose.

Groups like the aforementioned, independent investigators on the Internet, and lonely holdouts from journalism's past are all doing something much closer to what American journalism is meant to be about than the censored, spun, and desiccated version you find daily in the same elite media that pompously patronizes those who refuse to be servile sycophants like themselves. [][][]

Which is all well and good, except that all progress comes with a price as I was reminded the other day when I stumbled upon a story about meeting held last summer by a group of non-profit news organization that resulted in a declaration that "that preparations should be immediately made to form a collaboration, the Investigative News Network (working title). Its mission is very simple: to aid and abet, in every conceivable way, individually and collectively, the work and public reach of its member news organizations, including, to the fullest extent possible, their administrative, editorial and financial wellbeing. And, more broadly, to foster the highest quality investigative journalism, and to hold those in power accountable, at the local, national and international levels."

Still well and good until I looked up at the upper right hand corner and saw where the money was coming from for all this: Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Surdna Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

A bell rang and I recalled Joan Roelof's excellent book, "Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism." The Suny Press book promo sums up the problem:

"Documents how even progressive foundations serve to reinforce the political status quo. . . She shows how a vast number of policy innovations have arisen from the most important foundations, lessening the destructive impact of global "marketization." Conversely, groups and movements that might challenge the status quo are nudged into line with grants and technical assistance, and foundations also have considerable power to shape such things as public opinion, higher education, and elite ideology. The cumulative effect is that foundations, despite their progressive goals, have a depoliticizing effect, one that preserves the hegemony of neo-liberal institutions."

Or as Frank Walsh put it, "Mr. Rockefeller could find no better insurance for his hundreds of millions than to invest one of them in subsidizing all agencies that make for social change and progress."

Which is not to say that these groups don't do a great amount of good. But they also put a strong limit on the type of good that can be done with their money. Everyone knows it; they just don't want to talk about it.

I have some familiarity with this problem having been a journalistic wild card most of my life. And I can assure you that ending the war on drugs, criticizing Bill Clinton when he was president, helping to start the Green Party, or telling some basic facts about Barack Obama are not among the goals of these big foundations and of those funded by them. Also, one shouldn't expect to see any investigative reporting from their recipients of major foundations and their role in American society.

Further, if you compare these contemporary non-profits news media with the underground press that helped change America in the 1960s, you find a mainstream convergence that offers one good reason why so little is changing in America during this century.

This is a problem that should be faced and discussed more openly than it is at present.

What follows is just a taste of the situation, as outlined by Bob Feldman:

Bob Feldman - In her groundbreaking Foundations and Public Policy book, Joan Roelofs begins a chapter that examines foundation influence on social change organizations by asserting that "philanthropy suggests yet another explanation for the decline of the 1960s and 1970s protest movements." In Roelofs' view, "radical activism often was transformed by grants and technical assistance from liberal foundations into fragmented and local organizations subject to elite control" and "energies were channeled into safe, legalistic, bureaucratic activities."

Left media and left think tank staff people generally deny that the acceptance by their organizations of grants from liberal foundations has "transformed" their organizational priorities, made them "subject to elite control" or channeled their energies into "safe, legalistic, bureaucratic" activities. In 2001, for instance, the former executive director of the left media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Jeff Cohen, told German journalist Anja Einfeldt of the German magazine Message: "There have never been strings attached to any grants. We have never been asked to tone down our criticism. If anyone tried, we would refuse the money." Another FAIR staff person also insisted that "the charitable foundations which we do accept funding from have no oversight or control over our work."

Yet in a 1998 article in The Nation (which the former FAIR executive director was credited with helping to frame), the executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies between 1992 and 1998, Michael Shuman, wrote:

"A number of program officers at progressive foundations are former activists who decided to move from the demand to the supply side to enjoy better salaries, benefits and working hours. Yet they still want to live like activists vicariously. . . by exercising influence over grantees through innumerable meetings, reports, conferences and `suggestions.'. . . Many progressive funders treat their grantees like disobedient children who need to be constantly watched and disciplined." . . .

In a September, 2002 e-mail, the executive director of the left media web site, John Moyers (a former executive with the Schumann Foundation, as well), also stated: "Like any other grantee, I must report fully my activities and finances to all of my funders, including Schumann, on an annual basis…If they don't like what we're doing, we don't get funded for the next year."

According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper, "The foundation money has engendered a climate of secrecy at IAJ [Institute for Alternative Journalism n/k/a Independent Media Institute that's in direct conflict with IAJ's role as a progressive media organization." The same newspaper also asserted in 1997 that "the only money nonprofits can get these days is from private foundations--and those foundations want to control the political agenda.". . .

In an interview with Message magazine, I also argued that: "The acceptance by media watchdog groups of large sums of money from U.S. establishment foundations may raise legitimate conflict-of-interest issues. They may tend to avoid providing readers, listeners or viewers with much critical alternative news coverage of the global business and political activities of their multi-billion dollar foundation funders."

Whether or not you agree that left media organizations and think tanks have been channeled into a more mainstream and politically ineffectual direction--or are specially-influenced-- by their liberal foundation funders, the evidence is overwhelming that large amounts of liberal foundation grant money have been thrown towards left media groups and think tanks since the early 1990s. . .

Like the left media, left think tanks have also been receiving large amounts of money from liberal foundations since the 1990s. As Roelofs observes:

"There are some think tanks considered left wing or progressive. They do important work, especially in documenting the activities, and consequences of corporate and government policies. Nevertheless, almost all are funded by the liberal foundations; their challenges to the system are muted. . . There are several possible explanations for the mellowing that has occurred, including foundation funding and, sometimes, foundation staff joining the boards of funded institutes." . . .

Left media groups and think tanks which finance their journalistic activity and political work by soliciting grants from liberal power elite foundations like the Ford Foundation generally deny that they are acting in either a politically or morally compromising way. Some supporters of acceptance of foundation grants by left media groups, for instance, asserted (on the Free Pacifica e-mail list in the late 1990s) that it's not important where the left media gets its money from, as long as they use the foundation grant money for anti-corporate, progressive purposes.

But left sociologist James Petras, in an article entitled "The Ford Foundation and the CIA: A documented case of philanthropic collaboration with the Secret Police", argues that "the Ford Foundation has in some ways refined their style of collaboration with Washington's attempt to produce world cultural domination, but retained the substance of that policy."

. . . According to Petras, "the ties between the top officials of the Ford Foundation and the U.S. government are explicit and continuing." Petras also claims that the Ford Foundation "has never funded any major project that contravenes U.S. policy."

In her Foundations and Public Policy chapter on "Social Change Organizations," Roelofs indicates the various ways that foundation funding of U.S. left groups appear to have exercised a special influence over the political direction of the U.S. left since the 1970s. Foundation grants to one left group rather than another enables liberal power elite foundations to steer the U.S. left's agenda so that "threatening alternatives" don't appear on the serious political agenda. More militant left groups which the elite foundation boards or program managers regard as "irresponsible" or "unrealistic" are not funded: and, as a result, are more easily excluded from left political discourse than are the left groups favored with foundation grants.

Foundations can influence unfunded left groups to change the design of their projects and structure in accordance with a foundation board's special agenda, in order to qualify for grants from a particular foundation. Foundations can influence a left groups' choice of leaders by only giving grants to left groups whose leaders they regard as politically unthreatening. Foundations can promote "the fragmentation of protest" on the U.S. Left by using their grants to create and sustain "a universe of overlapping and competing social change organizations" and discouraging the unification of U.S. left dissident groups. As Roelofs notes:

"It is to the elite's advantage to be countered by a 'mass movement' consisting of fragmented, segmented, local, and non-ideological bureaucracies doing good works and, furthermore, being dependent on foundations for support. Diverse organizations emphasize differences among the disadvantaged: ethnic, racial, sexual, rural-urban, or age, and they discourage a broad left recognizing common interests."

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Anonymous wellbasically said...

Very interesting... an additional piece of information would be the anti-market orientation of leftish news, by which these papers and web sites cut themselves off from another source of funding and power.

January 7, 2010 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow! y'mean dan smoot and those other bircher types were right after all?

January 7, 2010 5:36 PM  
Anonymous wellbasically said...

Yeah that's what it means dumbass.

January 11, 2010 10:37 AM  

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