Last week I reported on a controversy involving the not-for-profit Center for Public Integrity. Politico had previously run a story claiming CPI coordinated the release of a story with an advocacy group. Greenpeace. I followed up with CPI’s spokesman Randy Barrett who assured me that not only was this :"unusual” but that it was the “first time” anything like that had happened. On Friday, Politico ran another story setting out two more examples in which release of a report was coordinated with advocacy groups.
This morning I called Barrett to ask why he had told me differently. He passed me on to CPI’s executive director Bill Buzenberg. Buzenberg called me back quite agitated, insisting, “You need to get it through your head that we are solely responsible for our work. Nobody has anything to say about it.” As for his spokesman’s comments, Buzenberg said that the news organization’s designated spokesman was “not as clear as he should be on how we operate.” He reiterated, “You gotta get clear how we operate!” I asked him if his spokesman had been misleading. He repeated again that his press person wasn’t clear and in the future I should come to him.
He explained that, before releasing a story, CPI contacts both media outlets and advocacy groups to preview the upcoming release and provide embargoed copies of the reporting. He says CPI does this because “we want everyone to use our work.” He insists that it is standard operating procedure to do this with not only press outlets but with advocacy groups. “This is how it worked at NPR,” he explained.
I then asked about the funding. He explained that CPI has funders who give unrestricted grants and there were funders who, for example, give grants to do environmental reporting. “And there are people who want us to do something and are not interested.” So does the reporting track the ideological agenda of the foundation giving money? He insisted, “There is a firewall.” Has the reporting ever turned out contrary to the foundation’s perspective? He said the foundations come to CPI for its thorough reporting. But has anyone gone away disappointed? He couldn’t name one. “Listen, I never heard a foundation say they didn’t like our work.” He again insisted that in the future I should come to him and then I would not have such “silly questions.”
But of course, the questions are legitimate. If a news group takes funding from groups with a particular bent and consistently produces work that confirms that bent there is a question as to whether the journalism is truly objective. By declining to work on stories from certain foundations CPI is pre-selecting its stories and thereby only investigating matters from foundations it in essence “likes.”
CPI insists there is a “firewall” and there is no connection between funding and outcome. But who is kidding whom here? If the Weekly Standard or National Review or the Washington Times got funding from the Koch Brothers to do reporting on the chemical industry and the ensuing reporting came out with laudatory conclusions about the industry, CPI would b the first to call foul.
I don’t doubt CPI’s earnestness. But they have constructed a system that is unlike most news organizations and which funnels reporters into stories that comport with a certain perspective. The most dangerous form of bias is unintentional bias by those who don’t even recognize their own blinders. Buzenberg was angry that his organization’s objectivity should be questioned, but readers should be able to decide for themselves whether what CPI produces is impartial journalism or a slice of the world which rarely if ever winds up disappointing its funders.