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Foundation spending in politics and journalism poses risks – OCRegister

Politicians sometimes compare money to water. No matter how hard anyone might try to keep it out, it finds a way to get in.

Lately it has become clear that money is getting into politics through the unlikely channel of philanthropy. Tax-deductible donations to foundations and non-profits are effectively funding lobbying and political work.

As one example, a flood of foundation money surged into selected local jurisdictions ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation pumped $400 million to non-profits that paid for election workers and equipment to facilitate mail balloting, drop boxes and “voter education.” About $350 million was distributed through the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a 501 (c)(3) organization that is officially nonpartisan, but founded by individuals who previously worked together at the New Organizing Institute, providing data and training to liberal activists. The money they directed rained down harder in areas with higher numbers of registered Democrats.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic-leaning counties were awarded an average of $4.99 per voter, but Republican-leaning counties received just $1.12 per voter. In Florida, the Democratic-leaning counties of Palm Beach and Miami-Dade were given $18 million and $2.4 million, respectively.

When political parties and candidates pay for voter education and turnout in areas where they think it will be most beneficial for them, the money they spend is limited and regulated. But when foundations and non-profits fund the identical work in the identical areas, the money is unlimited and unregulated. Donations to a foundation are tax-deductible. Donations to a political party or candidate are not.

How is this even legal?

In some states, it isn’t legal any longer. In Georgia and Texas, new laws prohibit private foundation donations to local elections offices and require any such donations to be distributed by the secretary of state. Arizona, Iowa and Kansas flatly banned the private donations.

Another way that foundation money is influencing politics is through funding of selected journalism. The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Health Journalism has recently bombarded me with emails offering “reporting grants of $2,000-$10,000” from its “Impact Fund.” But they’re not funding just any kind of impact. They’re advancing a particular viewpoint and offering “guidance” and funding to reporters who are willing to write particular stories.

“The fund invites proposals that illuminate health inequities and disparities, as well as holes in the health care safety net and promising solutions to chronic problems,” the email states. “We are especially interested in investigative or explanatory reporting projects that can inform health policy for underserved or vulnerable populations, including people living in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, prisons, foster homes, juvenile detention centers or homeless encampments.”

But is this an effort to “inform health policy” or is it political advocacy posing as news reporting? The Center for Health Journalism describes what it’s advancing as “‘impact journalism,’ which marries powerful narratives, data and community engagement to serve as a catalyst for change.”

Judge for yourself.

In another foundation-backed call for advocacy journalism, a company called We Don’t Have Time sent me an email invitation to its “U.S. launch” on December 2. We Don’t Have Time is a “review platform for climate action” owned largely by a foundation of the same name in Sweden. The launch event included a panel on “The Role of Media in Solving the Climate Crisis.”

Perhaps the biggest player in foundation-funded politics is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In August 2020, the Columbia Journalism Review exposed the foundation’s extensive reach in the media world. CJR reported on a National Public Radio story about a Harvard-led project to arrange housing for low-income families in wealthier neighborhoods in order to “break the cycle of poverty.” All the experts quoted in the story were connected to the Gates Foundation, a funder of the project. NPR itself received Gates funding, as an editor’s note acknowledged.

CJR identified $250 million in Gates Foundation grants going toward journalism. This included money sent to the Leo Burnett ad agency to create a “news site” promoting the success of aid groups. Some recipients of the foundation money distributed subgrants to other groups to pay for more “journalism.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with advocacy for good causes. Where things start to go south is when the foundation money is used to suppress opposing ideas from other sources.

Beginning with the 2020 presidential election and continuing through the COVID-19 pandemic, a new and separate enterprise of “fact checking” has developed to provide the basis for censorship and de-platforming of contrary viewpoints. “PolitiFact and USA Today (run by the Poynter Institute and Gannett, respectively—both of which have received funds from the Gates Foundation) have even used their fact-checking platforms to defend Gates from ‘false conspiracy theories’ and ‘misinformation,’ like the idea that the foundation has financial investments in companies developing covid vaccines and therapies. In fact, the foundation’s website and most recent tax forms clearly show investments in such companies, including Gilead and CureVac,” CJR reported.

Many of the news organizations cited by the Gates-funded fact-checkers are themselves receiving funding from the Gates Foundation. CJR identified grants to the BBC, NBC, ProPublica, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Financial Times, Al Jazeera and Univision, among many others.

At best, foundation funding of journalism tied to a call for particular content risks jeopardizing the credibility of journalism in general. At worst, it is a mechanism that allows the laundering of propaganda for power and profit.

Write Susan Shelley at

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