Media Matters

Free Market Muckraking

Conservative nonprofits can battle liberal media bias through investigative journalism.

By 1.9.08

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The long-term decline in newspaper circulation presents the conservative movement with an excellent opportunity to increase its influence with the media. Falling readership and tighter budgets are forcing newspapers to dedicate fewer staff to investigative reporting. As a result, they are increasingly relying upon nonprofit organizations to fill the gap.

A 2005 Arizona State University study found that 37 percent of the 100 leading daily newspapers had no full-time investigative reporters. A majority had two or fewer.

Although the largest newspapers have usually been reluctant to use reporting from other organizations, experts say the resistance is breaking down as they get squeezed financially.

Stephen B. Shepard, dean of the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and a former BusinessWeek editor, says newspapers are "looking for alternative means of paying for ambitious journalism."

If conservative nonprofit organizations significantly increase their use of investigative reporting, then the movement will be able to partly offset the liberal bias of the mainstream media.

Despite their political agenda, newspapers and TV networks like scandals simply because they make great headlines. Experience shows that they will cover scandals exposed by conservatives.

For instance, the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) has been successful in publicizing earmark abuse and criminal profiteering from government spending.

In March 2006, following a 10-month investigation, NLPC filed a criminal complaint with the US Justice Department. It charged that Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV), a member of the House Appropriations Committee and then-ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, illegally profited by funneling millions of dollars in earmarks to friends and associates who then cut him in on lucrative business deals.

NLPC suspected that Mollohan was shady because his personal wealth, as disclosed on his Financial Disclosure Form, which all congressmen must file every year, went from extremely modest assets to having $6 million to $24 million in assets over a four-year period.

The story was extensively covered by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press, CNN, ABC, and other news outlets. Mollohan was subsequently forced to resign from the Ethics Committee, due in part to pressure from Nancy Pelosi who wasn't thrilled that Mollohan put the lie to her charge that Republicans had fostered a "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill.

A federal Grand Jury is currently investigating Mollohan.

NLPC BROKE THE Mollohan story only because it had the staff, expertise and time to conduct a thorough investigation. It is highly unlikely that a major newspaper would have bothered to do such research. Even newspapers that have the investigative tools are unlikely to pursue such a story because they aren't certain it will necessarily lead to a headline-grabbing scandal.

The Mollohan case clearly shows that by aggressively getting involved in investigative journalism conservative nonprofit organizations stand to enormously change the terms of the media debate, perhaps in much the same way that Fox News and Talk Radio revolutionized media coverage.

However, the media's increasing reliance on nonprofits also poses a threat.

The Left understands the importance of nonprofit investigative journalism as well. And, unfortunately, the Left has more money and is rushing to fill this media vacuum.

Herbert and Marion Sandler, liberal billionaires with close ties to George Soros, announced in October that they will donate $10 million annually for at least three years and maybe more to create a nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to investigative reporting. The organization, called ProPublica, will be led by Paul Steiger, former editor in chief at the Wall Street Journal, and employ 24 journalists. When it starts operations in January 2008, ProPublica will be the nation's largest nonprofit center for investigative journalism

ProPublica will most certainly push a liberal agenda. The Sandlers are fervent activists. In 2004, they gave MoveOn.org $2.5 million and, along with Soros, help fund the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank established in 2003 to counter the influence of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

To hear Herb Sandler speak, the mission of ProPublica will be strictly nonpartisan and "on the side of the underdog." According to Sandler, "I am deeply opposed to wealthy people who exploit the poor, powerful people who prey on the weak, and government representatives who betray the trust of the people they supposedly represent."

ProPublica will seek to expose abuses in government, business, universities, nonprofits and supposedly labor unions. Steiger told the Sandlers that he would only get involved with the organization if it was truly nonpartisan.

When he asked them what would be their response to a hypothetical article "devastating to the biggest union supporters of the Democratic Party," the Sandlers said, "No problem."

This is not believable.

HERB SANDLER CLAIMS that one of the reasons for promoting nonprofit journalism is because the media doesn't pay enough attention to important issues such as global warming. What a ridiculous assertion. Global warming is without a doubt the most overhyped issue in the world today.

Indeed, it is astounding and downright frightening that the scientifically unproven threat of man-made global warming is accorded religious-like acceptance by the Left and the media. The real story here is how this Luddite hysteria has managed to permeate the popular culture.

Yet, Sandler sees global warming as just the kind of issue the ostensibly nonpartisan ProPublica should cover because of inadequate mainstream media attention. And combating the global warming phantom will not be the only liberal position pushed by the group.

Sandler, like Soros, is a political philanthropist. His passion in life is to fund groups that counter the "vast right-wing conspiracy." There is no way he is going to waste $10 million per year on an organization that does not advance that agenda.

Soros' Open Society Institute is also donating money to nonprofit journalism centers. It is reasonable to assume that Soros will increase his support for these groups in the future.

CONSERVATIVES CAN easily get disillusioned by the huge sums of money that liberals shower on nonprofits. But there is good news. It doesn't take a lot of money or staff to do solid investigative reporting.

An investigator seeking to expose corruption in government must have expertise in the often Byzantine congressional appropriations process, campaign finance law, the Freedom of Information Act, ethics laws and open government laws.

Mastering the intricate details of these multi-faceted activities takes a lot of time and hard work. However, it does not require an especially large financial investment.

In fact, many conservative nonprofits already have the necessary infrastructure and trained staff to add investigative reporting to their missions. Of course, there are some organizations in which investigative journalism is not feasible or beyond their mission. Nevertheless, many conservative nonprofits are well-positioned to add investigative journalism to their portfolios.

A critical reason for the success of the conservative movement is its ability to counter the biases of the media establishment through talk radio and the Internet. Conservatives can similarly revolutionize the media by filling the void in investigative reporting caused by the decline in newspaper circulation.

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About the Author

John Carlisle is director of policy at the National Legal and Policy Center, a nonprofit foundation based in Falls Church, Virginia.