ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism outlet, has won a Pulitzer Prize four times and been named a finalist nine times in its decade-long existence.
The outfit has become known for the type of research-heavy investigative projects that many news organizations have moved away from in recent years because of their immense time and cost: series looking at the United States' high maternal death rates, children confined in psychiatric hospitals, bouts of PTSD among police officers and firefighters, and, just this week, how the working poor are increasingly more likely to face IRS audits than the rich.
The nonprofit organization, which is funded by donors, does not complement these pieces with the type of catty, click-on-me journalism that so many are critical of the media for, nor does it publish opinion pieces. Instead it sticks to a mission to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”
Perhaps that is why it makes some powerful people nervous.
On Wednesday, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, laced into the news organization after it announced that it would be partnering with the Louisville Courier-Journal to fund a year-long investigative reporting project into a state government program. Bevin sought to discredit the partnership by smearing ProPublica’s funding, about 1 to 2 percent of which comes from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
With the fixation on Soros, a Holocaust survivor who is the frequent target of anti-Semitic and right-wing conspiracy theories, Bevin’s volley was the latest example of an effort by a political official to discredit a news media organization whose reporting doesn’t reflect their politics or shine flatteringly on them. And it echoed attacks made by autocratic leaders in countries such as Hungary, where the right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made Soros a frequent target of attacks.
ProPublica’s project with the Courier-Journal was one of 14 that the organization announced on Wednesday, including those with local reporters in places such as Anchorage; Providence, R.I.; Birmingham, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; and Charleston, W.Va. The Washington Post is a ProPublica publishing partner.
But Bevin had his own ideas about the partnership, which he released in a tweet and a three-minute video on his Facebook page.
“The Courier-Journal, which pretends that it’s an actual news organization, is so remarkably biased that they are now full in bed with this particular organization, ProPublica,” Bevin said.
He also took aim at Herb and Marion Sandler, a wealthy New York couple whose philanthropy helped found the organization, accusing the Courier-Journal of being a “sock puppet” for ProPublica, George Soros, and others “who hate America.”
On Twitter he was more to the point.
“OUTRAGEOUS,” he wrote. “ProPublica, a left-wing activist group funded by the likes of George Soros, is now funding . . . ‘investigative reporting’ at the @courierjournal.”
ProPublica President Richard Tofel said that Bevin’s remarks were tinged with anti-Semitism.
“The phrase ‘the likes of George Soros’ is a classic anti-Semitic dog-whistle,” he said. “I just know what most people who pick George Soros out when he is a very small part of a story and focus on him — I know what that usually represents.”
Richard A. Green, the editor of the Courier-Journal, which is owned by the Gannett Company, said that the newspaper had won 10 Pulitzer prizes over the years.
"I appreciate Gov. Bevin sharing tonight the news of our partnership with ProPublica with Kentucky residents and taxpayers,” he said. “They certainly know that for 150 years, the Courier Journal has stood by its good work. We certainly intend to do the same in 2019 in our partnership with ProPublica.”
It was not entirely clear what set Bevin off. Some journalists pointed to recent stories the Courier-Journal reported about Bevin, including one disclosing that Bevin gave a $215,000 raise to an old Army buddy who had been hired as the state’s chief information officer. The total salary for the position: $375,000.
Bevin’s remarks come as journalists find themselves increasingly under threat around the world by hoaxers and autocratic leaders. In the United States, President Trump and his allies have made attacking the news media for unflattering stories a central part of their political entreaties. Most of that consternation has been focused on national organizations.