As the duty of journalism is to service the people’s so-called right to know, a good way to embarrass a newspaper is to point out something it didn’t get around to telling them. Let’s say a daily paper writes a lot of stories about a hot local debate but doesn’t make it clear the coverage is being paid for by rich men deeply involved in the debate and all on the same side. That’s a no-no.
This embarrassing sin of omission was recently committed by the Los Angeles Times, the hot local topic being charter schools, and the richest of the rich men being billionaire Eli Broad.
Now we complicate our scenario. Let’s say one or more of these articles is picked up by another paper in a city thousands of miles away. Is this second paper under any obligation to acknowledge the sins of the first and correct for them?
In real life the other city is Chicago and the other paper is the Tribune. Both papers are owned, as we all know, by the same company—Tribune Publishing in Chicago. Of course, Tribune readers in Chicago don’t know or care why folks are screaming at each other in LA. And though Chicago readers have their own concerns about charter schools (which is why the article was picked up), few have any idea who Broad is. So does the Tribune have any reason at all—beyond the pleasure of righteousness—to be more forthcoming with readers than the Times was?
Perhaps. As it happens, Broad is a champion of charter schools not just in LA but far beyond. Every year, for example, his Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation names the nation’s top public charter school system and awards it $250,000; this year the Broad Foundation chose the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which runs 17 schools in Chicago. Yet if the Broad name rings a bell in Chicago it’s not because he favors charter schools (which the Tribune editorial page does as well). It’s because he’s periodically in our headlines for his lusting to buy the Times from Tribune Publishing. Recently, it was Rupert Murdoch tweeting that the Times was about to go to Broad; three months ago it was Times publisher Austin Beutner trying to midwife a sale to Broad and others until Tribune Publishing fired him.
It was Beutner—while he still had his job—who lined up the $800,000 that allowed the Times to launch Education Matters, a two-year reporting initiative for which the Times hired two new reporters. Its goal, said Beutner in his paper, was “to provide an ongoing, wide-ranging report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles, California and the nation.” Its funders, which he named, were institutions that, “like The Times, are dedicated to independent journalism that engages and informs its readers.” That some of these funders might be even more dedicated to other causes, such as charter schools, went unstated.
The arrangement was immediately accused by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) of flunking the sniff test, and later other voices joined in. In October the Washington Post took Education Matters to task. Some of those funders, observed the Post, “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.” (That would be Broad.) In short, the money was coming from “some of the very organizations the new education-reporting project is likely to be covering.”
The Times tried to shield its dignity with boilerplate. Compromised articles now say:
The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.
But this is far from being good enough. Consider a Times story last month that speculated on who’d be named the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Board of Education. Virgil Roberts, an attorney identified as a “veteran of the battles over education in Los Angeles,” was quoted by name describing the job as hopeless. “I’m worried that no one smart enough to do the job would be crazy enough to take it,” he said.
But full disclosure obliged the Times to identify Roberts as a member of the board of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, an LA charter network. Alliance made headlines in the Times when it was taken to court by the teachers’ union over the tactics it used to fight teachers attempting to unionize. (It was an ally of those teachers who originally complained to me about the Times‘s conflicts of interest.) Full disclosure further obliged the Times to report that investment banker Frank Baxter, whose Baxter Family Foundation also helps fund Education Matters, chairs the Alliance board. The Washington Post observed that throughout its coverage of the union battle, the Times failed to say so.
The trouble with boilerplate is that it never covers all the cracks. Last month Joy Resmovits, an Education Matters reporter, published a story about Alliance parents who felt pressured by the school to oppose the unionization campaign. As the disclosure merely acknowledged the underwriting role of the Baxter Foundation, the connection between the foundation and Alliance went unremarked. (So did other connections.) Resmovits and her boss, Mitra Kalita, have excellent reputations as education writers—each joined Education Matters after spending a year at Columbia University honing their craft on a fellowship—and when I asked them about the omissions Kalita said the fault was hers and promptly amended the stories online.
The story’s disclosure now says this:
Education Matters, The Times’ new digital initiative devoted to more in-depth reporting on schools, is funded, in part, by the Baxter Family Foundation. Frank Baxter sits on the Alliance board of directors. Staff members from the Broad Foundation and the California Community Foundation also sit on the Alliance board. The Broad Foundation has given money to support Education Matters, through grants administered by the California Community Foundation.
The problem with so much disclosure is that it defeats its own purpose. If all this is true, what’s the story doing in the paper? And why did the Times think it was acceptable to take money from these foundations in the first place?
The friend of the Alliance union movement who pointed Resmovits’s story out to me made it clear he respects her as a reporter. He said sympathetically, “Reporters are being put in the position of thinking beyond the story. If they fail to disclose the connection to the sponsor they can be accused of sloppiness or acting out of fear of losing their funding.”
Now we come to the Chicago Tribune. Stories about labor conflict at an LA charter won’t interest Chicago, but the Tribune linked to a story Resmovits wrote in October about a couple of teachers who were starting up a political action committee to support “friendlier, softer” education issues, the kind both unions and “education reformers” could get behind. But these reformers, unnamed by the story, would be Broad, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and other heavyweights. The story named Howard Dean, a former Democratic presidential candidate and a former head of the Democratic National Committee, as an ally of the teachers, and quoted him as saying he used to be a “total union person” but lately has had second thoughts.The comment suited the education reformers’ agenda; is that why it was there? “Who knows?” said my source, the union friend. “How can anyone trust the LA Times or the Trib any longer as an honest broker on this issue?”
In August Resmovits wrote a story about standardized testing; it raised the kinds of questions about standardized tests that are asked everywhere, and so the Tribune linked to it. One father Resmovits talked to said test scores matter to him because he’s searching for a good school for his kids and he has nothing else to go by. Extracurriculars were a luxury for other kids to enjoy. “Some people. . .” said the father, “can select between a good school and the best school. Where I live in South Central, we don’t have that choice.”
That’s why he and his South Los Angeles neighbors turned to charter schools. “I want more kids to have the best education they can receive,” he told Resmovits.
Given that Eli Broad and his friends are paying the bills, any plug for charters in any Education Matters story is a little bit tainted. But when the Tribune picks up one of those stories for its own website, does the taint persist? I’m not so sure it doesn’t, and I’d advise the Tribune, which is itself a champion of charter schools, and which surely wants its championing to remain beyond reproach, to be careful. The Times recently put space between itself and Broad by running a story accusing Broad, Bloomberg, and other deep pockets of secretly making almost $2.3 million in donations to procharter candidates in last spring’s LA school board elections. The Tribune didn’t pick up that story, and why would it? But apparently it believes it can repost only what it pleases with no concern for appearances.
“It’s a nonissue for us,” standards editor Margaret Holt e-mailed me. “We’re aware, of course, of the foundation’s grant to the LA Times.” But “Broad isn’t a public figure here, and the money didn’t come to the Tribune.”