Big bucks bankroll nonprofit journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; 9:58 AM

Sheri Fink had a medical degree, a doctorate and a nose for news, along with a tendency to rush off to disaster zones from Kosovo to Iraq. What she didn't have was a steady paycheck to support her journalism.

Once Fink was hired by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, she spent a year investigating a New Orleans hospital where 45 patients died during Hurricane Katrina. And last week the New York Times Magazine shared a Pulitzer Prize for running her powerful, 13,000-word piece.

This is a glimpse of an unexpected future: a battered newspaper business, an idealistic start-up with a deep-pocketed liberal backer, and dogged reporters who otherwise might be out of work. If the Times was piggybacking on ProPublica -- which covered about half the $400,000 cost of the investigation -- the paper has plenty of company.

"That's what we're here for," says Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who founded ProPublica and makes its stories available to interested outlets. "The goal is not about getting credit. The goal is getting the story before the eyes of the people who can most benefit from it."

Herbert Sandler, a 78-year-old former bank owner who is giving the venture roughly $10 million a year, says his motivation is simple: "I can't stand the abuse of power. I can't stand corruption. I can't stand the powerful taking advantage of those with less power."

Fink, 41, who still lectures at Harvard and Tulane but says she finds reporting more challenging, wants to change what she sees as a dysfunctional medical system. "This may be a vain hope or an idealistic hope," she says, "but I hope that could help prevent some of the horrific experiences that were had in New Orleans."

There was a time when most major journalistic investigations were carried out by newspapers, when revenue was abundant and "I-teams" were all the rage. But with nearly all papers hurt by cutbacks and some in bankruptcy, ambitions have often been downsized. And that has left a vacuum for ventures that don't have to worry about Wall Street expectations.

Two years after setting up shop in lower Manhattan, ProPublica has earned substantial respect and a top-tier list of partners. The nonprofit has done nine stories with The Washington Post, 27 with the Los Angeles Times, eight with USA Today, six with the Chicago Tribune, six others with the New York Times, 13 with Politico and 10 with the Huffington Post. Other partners have included ABC, CNN, CNBC, "60 Minutes," Newsweek, Salon, Slate and PBS's "Frontline."

Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, says Fink first pitched the hospital story before she joined ProPublica. "We as a magazine don't have the resources to pursue a story like that," he says. "So we sort of passed."

Once ProPublica got involved, the magazine worked with Fink through nearly a dozen drafts and provided fact-checking, legal reviews and photography. "Our magazine editing machine was engaged in bringing this to publication for a long time," Marzorati says. "It was a real collaboration."

In some cases, Steiger says, ProPublica does all the reporting, and in others has shared the reporting load with the news outlets. More than half the joint efforts with The Post have featured bylines from both organizations, including such Steiger hires as former Post reporter Dafna Linzer and former New York Times correspondent Jeff Gerth.

On Friday, The Post ran a front-page story by two ProPublica reporters on members of Congress holding fundraisers in luxury suites at Bruce Springsteen concerts. Some of ProPublica's work runs only on its Web site, which Steiger hopes to make more prominent so he is less dependent on outside media venues.

For now Steiger remains heavily dependent on Sandler's foundation, a situation that the San Francisco philanthropist calls unhealthy. Sandler and his wife, Marion, are major Democratic donors who have poured money into the liberal Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't know how democracy functions without strong investigative journalism," Sandler says.

In attempting to broaden its financial base, ProPublica raised $1 million last year mainly from foundations, a figure that includes about $200,000 from author Mary Graham, co-director of Harvard's Transparency Policy Project and the ex-wife of Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham.

Marzorati says he would be "wary" of media outfits underwritten by wealthy patrons: "What happens when the rich guys start ordering up stories where they know what they want? The temptation for news organizations will be to get their hands on a big, sexy investigation."

While Sandler is ProPublica's chairman, he says none of the board members know what the reporters are working on. "We told them from the beginning, investigate everything. . . . If we've done something, go after us," he says. "If anything's off-limits, it's not a legitimate newsroom."

But Sandler is not a fan of all reporting. He complained bitterly about a 2008 story that the New York Times did on him and his wife. The headline was "Once Trusted Mortgage Pioneers, Now Pariahs." When the couple ran World Savings Bank, the Times said, they championed an exotic mortgage later seen as "the Typhoid Mary" of the industry, and Wachovia, which bought the bank, wound up with huge losses. Sandler said he did nothing wrong other than misjudge the housing bubble. The Times has defended its work but ran four corrections to the article.

Clearly, Fink's work would not have been possible without Sandler's backing. She made repeated trips to New Orleans and around the country to examine allegations that doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center injected patients with lethal doses of drugs. "It's a very sad, tragic story," says Fink, who recently left ProPublica and moved to Washington to write a book on the subject.

"The newsroom was set up to invest in long-form, deep-dive investigative journalism," she says "That was a huge luxury."

Anchor and anguish

Katie Couric dealt with death in two very different ways last week.

The CBS News anchor hosted a "Sesame Street" prime-time special on the subject, embracing Elmo and talking to military and other families that have suffered a loss about dealing with their children. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died in 1998.

"Having been there -- having a 6- and 2-year-old at the time -- and wishing I had more resources available to me, I thought this was something that could help other families," she says. For herself, "whenever you're talking about loss, it does uncover those feelings that have healed partially. I just felt I was in a position where I'd have complete empathy for these families that were profiled." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called to thank Couric for making the program after a Pentagon screening.

Couric also aired an "Evening News" piece from Haiti in which she focused on a 13-year-old boy, Pierre, who lost his parents in the earthquake there. On her first trip to Port-au-Prince after the disaster, the teenager was seen screaming while doctors worked on his broken leg, and although he is recovering, the earthquake destroyed his school.

"There are a million stories like Pierre's," Couric says. "Because he made such an impact, not just for me but for viewers, with his piercing cries of anguish, he really captured the pain of an entire country." Colleagues say Couric was so moved she has decided to pay for Pierre's education.

Not every part of her job is depressing. She got to hang with the "slightly eccentric" Al Pacino for a "60 Minutes" profile that aired Sunday. Lately, says Couric, she's been "exercising a lot of muscles."

Winning the afternoon

The Huffington Post launches a new feature Monday -- a roundup column that won't post until 6 p.m. Kind of the opposite of Politico's "win the morning" approach, a phrase coined by Mike Allen, who puts up the early-morning Playbook.

"There's a lot in the morning -- I personally love Mike Allen -- but not in the afternoon," says founder Arianna Huffington. "It's the equivalent of an afternoon newspaper when you're on your way home, except now you're reading it on a handheld."

HuffPost Hill will be tightly focused on the Capitol Hill community, but Huffington says the target audience is anyone obsessed with politics. "It will have news, talking-head appearances, gossip, who is getting married, who is getting divorced -- a mix of high and low," she says.

Ryan Grim, the Web site's congressional correspondent, will oversee the new column, to be written by Eliot Nelson. He says it will include a daily wrap-up, a look at what's on cable news that night (the latest Arianna appearance?), and the scoop on what Politico, Roll Call, The Hill and CQ Today will be leading with the next day.

"What will really make it pop is that we're going to include fundraisers and happy hours," Grim says. "A lot of free things are going on that staffers are happy to take advantage of because of their paltry salaries." I wonder if that will boost attendance at these functions, at least those with the best h'ors d'oeurves.

Where did the idea come from? "The conversations we have among ourselves -- did you hear this or that?" Huffington says. "The things you discuss at dinner." Almost like being a guest at Arianna's L.A. manse.

Gibbs on the record

I sat down with Robert Gibbs for an interview that aired Sunday on CNN's "Reliable Sources." Among the highlights:

--I asked him about administration leaking, and he said: "We had a discussion with the White House correspondents earlier in the year about the use of background sources. And I offered the Correspondent's Association -- I said, 'Let's end background.' Right? We won't do background. You don't do background.

"And the specific offer was if you've got a background source, you should put them on the record. And if you're not going to put them on the record, then have somebody at the White House, give them an opportunity to say that that is or is not true. And we would attach our name to it." The idea went nowhere.

--The president often derides "cable chatter," so I took that up with his spokesman: "The truth is what makes really good television are not two people that are at the end of a four- or five-minute segment going to come to an agreement. But at the end of the four- or five-minute segment are, you know, maybe 30 seconds away from doing each other bodily harm."

--What about Obama calling out Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh by name? Gibbs denied that the president was boosting their stature and tried to cast it as a matter of accountability: "The media in some cases covers the food fight, but doesn't necessarily check who started it and whether they started it for a reason that was legitimate or not."

The spokesman also accused the White House correspondents of playing to the cameras in the briefing room -- and included himself in that assessment as well. "I think we all are. . . . I sometimes joke that I know when somebody thinks they have a good question, because when I walk in they've already got their makeup on."

Gibbs also went on at some length about his newfound enthusiasm for Twitter. Here are the writeups in Politico and the Huffington Post.

Too much anonymity

Speaking of background, NYT ombudsman Clark Hoyt spanks his paper for letting critics take shots without their names attached -- especially in a case of a real estate agent accused of racial discrimination:

"The Times continues to use anonymous sources for information available elsewhere on the record. It allows unnamed people to provide quotes of marginal news value and to remain hidden with little real explanation of their motives, their reliability, or the reasons why they must be anonymous."

He'll be back?

The L.A. Times wonders what Arnold will do after leaving office at year's end:

"Forget low approval ratings, tax hikes and an education crisis -- fans and entertainment-business insiders are asking more pressing questions. Is the appearance in the Aug. 13 release 'The Expendables' -- a testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movie, if testosterone-drenched shoot-em-up summer movies were cast in action-film retirement homes -- an acting swan song before Schwarzenegger stalks off to a new political adventure (a post in the Obama administration, perhaps)? Or is it a trial balloon for another foray into Hollywood?"

The Kagan conundrum

My story on the White House ripping CBS News for posting a column by blogger Ben Domenech, asserting that Solicitor General Elena Kagan is gay, drew plenty of comment on the Web. An administration official said the possible high court nominee is not a lesbian, CBS eventually yanked the posting and Domenech apologized for recycling a rumor.

The Huffington Post reported:

"Leading gay rights group are accusing Republicans of trying to rile up their conservative base by launching a whisper campaign against potential Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan -- suggesting the current Solicitor General is a closeted lesbian even though she's not.

"In its first entree into the upcoming Supreme Court nomination process, the group Human Rights Campaign blasted the increasingly public discussion of Kagan's sexuality, calling it a play 'straight out the right-wing playbook.' "

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen says it's immaterial:

"As for the veracity of the Domenech's rumor, who cares? Kurtz talked to an administration official who said Kagan is not a lesbian, but what difference does it make?

"The question is one of professional standards -- which in this case, CBS chose to ignore."

Gawker's Alex Pareene takes issue with the administration's response:

"Why is the White House treating lesbian rumors like allegations of vampiric necrophilia? When CBS republished a column repeating the rumor that possible Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is a lesbian, the White House responded furiously. Because lesbians are terrible?"

And Ben Domenech offered this reaction:

"It's an odd thing to get attacked by the White House for a blog post, and odder still when the attack is for something mentioned in passing, and intended to highlight a political positive about a potential Supreme Court nominee."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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