The Los Angeles Times announced what seemed like good news for its readers in August: a new reporting initiative that would expand the paper’s coverage of local education.
“Our goal is to provide an ongoing, wide-ranging report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles, California and the nation,” wrote then-Publisher Austin Beutner. He noted that the project, called “Education Matters,” would be funded by a series of charitable organizations.
Except the newspaper left out a key detail: Some of the foundations funding “Education Matters” are among the most prominent advocates of public-education reform in Los Angeles. One of them is the principal backer of a proposal to convert nearly half of Los Angeles’s public schools into charter schools.
In other words, the Times’ new education-reporting project is being funded by some of the very organizations the new education-reporting project is likely to be covering.
The Times has said the foundations will provide $800,000, enough to cover the salaries of two education journalists for at least two years.
Nevertheless, the initiative has raised suspicions, most notably among teachers’ union representatives and others who oppose the reformers’ agenda. Can a news organization, they ask, take money from vested interests and cover the issues fairly?
“It’s dead wrong,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the city’s largest teachers’ union. The Times’ readers, he added, “are harmed when they don’t know what they can trust in the biggest paper in Los Angeles.”
Three of the Times’ benefactors — the K&F Baxter Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation — have been major supporters of charter and school-privatization efforts that are strongly opposed by teachers’ unions.
More specifically, the Broad Foundation developed the Los Angeles charter proposal, which would cost $490 million to create 260 new charter schools enrolling at least 130,000 students in the sprawling district (charters are publicly funded but independently operated schools that are usually nonunion and exempt from work rules that govern traditional public schools).
The Broad Foundation’s chairman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, has repeatedly expressed his interest in buying the Times. The newspaper’s owner, Tribune Publishing, has rejected his offers, reportedly including one this month.
Major news organizations have long tended to fund their own news-gathering activities, on the principle that taking money from another group could compromise their independence, or prompt readers or viewers to question their reporting.
But the practice isn’t unknown; NPR, a nonprofit organization, takes “grants” from organizations to fund reporting on international affairs and education. The Times has accepted grants from the Ford Foundation to expand its environment and immigration reporting.
Both organizations say the money doesn’t buy influence.
“There is no editorial control or say that the funders have on our newsroom,” said S. Mitra Kalita, the Times’ managing editor for editorial strategy. “As an editor, you want to ensure that this distance does exist. . . . The integrity of the news side is fundamental to what we’re doing.”
Broad, a major civic figure, has received copious coverage from the Times, some favorable, some less so. But in either case, his connections to the paper have not always been made clear to readers.
The Times’ editorial board recently applauded his foundation’s school overhaul proposal, headlining its endorsement, “A charter school expansion could be great for L.A.” The editorial made no mention of the Broad Foundation’s funding of the Times’ education reporting (the Times’ newsroom and editorial board are managed separately).
A recent Times news story reported on a poll co-commissioned by the Broad Foundation that found widespread support for the foundation’s charter-school plan. The article also didn’t mention the foundation’s support of the Times (the foundation didn’t return a request for comment). Mitra said that was an oversight and that the disclosure would be appended.
Meanwhile, Times education reporter Howard Blume has mentioned the Broad funding connection in his stories. His scoop about the Broad charter plan in September noted the Broad Foundation’s involvement in the Times’ education initiative.
But Broad’s multiple entanglements with the paper have prompted Caputo-Pearl and other critics to dub the paper “the Eli Times.”
The teachers’ union is especially critical of the Times’ reporting on union organizing efforts at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a local charter network. A superior court this week granted a request by the state labor agency, the Public Employment Relations Board, for a temporary restraining order to stop Alliance from what the board characterized as abusive anti-union tactics. Alliance has denied wrongdoing.
Among Alliance’s board members is Frank Baxter, whose Baxter Family Foundation is one of the funders of the Times’ education reporting effort. The Times hasn’t mentioned Baxter’s role in its coverage of the Alliance issue. The Times editorial praising Broad’s charter proposal also favorably referenced Alliance but didn’t mention Baxter’s ties to the newspaper.
Kalita said the newspaper discloses such relationships when it reports directly on an organization or individual, but not when an individual has a secondary or indirect involvement in a story, as Baxter does with Alliance.
“Financial imperatives” have driven news organizations to accept outside funding, but “all such arrangement are, in my mind, ethically suspect,” said Steven A. Smith, a journalism professor at the University of Idaho and a former newspaper editor. “Foundations are no less agenda-driven than any other institution with which a news organization does business. . . . The traditionalist in me says, ‘no, we go it alone.’ ”
At the very least, said Smith, news organizations that make such deals should engage in “complete, exhaustive, repetitive transparency,” disclosing all of their financial connections in news articles.
The lack of disclosure in some of the Times charter stories “is a clear ethical fail,” he said.