Neil Young Has a Cow

The Tribune stands by its Farm Aid story, the one Neil Young tore into pieces at a news conference. Or rather reporter Jason George and his editor, Jim Kirk, stand by it. Rock critic Greg Kot holds it at arm’s length. Kot wasn’t consulted before the story was written, and in his Tribune interview with Young last Sunday he made it clear that Young was angry about “an investigative news story that emanated from a different department in the newspaper.”

Kot tells me, “Neil’s father was a journalist. He knows how papers operate.”

George’s story ran on page one September 17, the day before Farm Aid’s big annual concert, held this year at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park. Farm Aid champions the family farmer, but George questioned how much of that championing is rhetorical. “Last year, Farm Aid donated less than 28 percent of its revenue,” he reported—$387,641 of some $1.4 million. He called Naomi Levine, executive director of New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, to find out how 28 percent stacked up and reported that she told him anything under 65 percent was unacceptable.

Moreover, he wrote, “The 2003 concert earned $1,013,087 through sale of items like tickets, T-shirts and programs,” yet after expenses “generated only $159,254 of net income.” Imagine reading that as you set off to Tinley Park to spend a fortune you’ve justified on the grounds that every dime will land in the pocket of a needy corn grower or dairyman. Wouldn’t you be honked?

Young was honked. A Farm Aid cofounder who’s now on the board of directors, he ripped the Tribune in more ways than one. “That was a great performance he put on,” says Kot. “When rock stars get ticked off there are various levels, but Neil Young is at the top level. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he took it personally.”

Young couldn’t say the Tribune had its numbers wrong, which is why Kirk is sticking by the story. “Our story on Farm Aid focused specifically on the amount of grant money allocated to organizations that help farmers,” he e-mailed me, “and how much income, directly, the concert creates. Because the information is public, grant allocation is one concrete way to measure an organization’s effectiveness.”

It’s one way, but not the only way. “We are not purely raising money to give to farmers,” Young thundered. “That’s only a small part of what we do. We are available 24/7, 365 days a year to the American farmer. That’s what we do. That costs a little bit of money.”

Kot read the story and thought, “It looks like they’ve nailed some of this pretty well,” but he says parts of it “made me scratch my head a little bit.” For one thing, he knew that Farm Aid, which isn’t a foundation, doesn’t just make grants. Yes, grants last year came to $387,641. But according to Farm Aid’s 2004 tax return, total spending on programs was $908,940—a figure that didn’t show up in George’s story.

Melissa Morriss-Olson, director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management at North Park University, was quoted by George, and she thinks he’s onto something. “Farm Aid could have done a better job of communicating what they’re all about,” she says, and she’s pleased to see that it responded to the story by posting a lot more facts and figures on its website. Its entire 2004 tax return can now be found there, complete with attachments that list every organization to which it gave a penny.

But Laurie Styron, an analyst with the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago, tells me the Tribune “missed the whole point” of the concert. She says the purpose of such extravaganzas—not just the concert but any other high-profile charity event, including the familiar black-tie auction and ball—is to raise visibility and drum up donations. These events are expensive, she explains, and on a balance sheet often not particularly profitable.

But she says that’s not how to judge them. Referring to the 2003 Farm Aid tax return George had cited in his article, she wrote him an e-mail saying he “completely ignored the $747,880 which was raised [in donations] above and beyond the retail value of the ticket price, which is reported as Contributions.” She went on, “The whole point of a charity throwing such an event is the opportunity for them to raise Contributions.”

When I asked Kirk, the assistant managing editor for business, about the $747,880 he said, “It certainly was not ignored.” Not entirely, but it was shown much less respect than Styron thinks it deserves.

Because the Farm Aid concert was coming to Chicago, “we focused on how much the concert itself had brought before from people going to the show, buying t-shirts, etc.,” Kirk explained. “We then looked at how much went toward expenses to put on the show. Then we compared it to other benefit concerts.” Specifically, the Tribune compared it to a concert Young puts on every year at and for a California school—though of course the school donates its facilities and the Tweeter Center does not, something Young pointed out at his press conference.

As for the $747,880, he said, “There is no difference between these funds and those raised at other parts of the year.” The Tribune barely acknowledged the connection with the concert. It simply wrote that “last year, Farm Aid’s revenue of approximately $1.4 million came from three basic categories: the concert, financial gifts or donations, and savings and investments. Most of the revenue associated with the concert came from direct donations rather than ticket sales.”

Articles such as George’s show up on the front page because they make readers indignant. Facts that deflate indignation into an idle “Interesting, I guess” don’t get stressed. Facts suggesting that although ticket sales alone don’t justify a Tweeter Center concert, contributions do, and that Farm Aid does more with its money than give it away are dealt with vaguely and briefly.

The American Institute of Philanthropy gives nonprofits a letter grade, and its last rating guide, published in August, gave Farm Aid an A-minus. There’s grade inflation everywhere, but that A-minus puts Farm Aid well above the average. AIP measures some 500 charities on the basis of a couple criteria: the percentage of their total expenses spent on programs, and the cost of raising $100. AIP flunks organizations that don’t keep the first above 60 percent and the second below $35. Farm Aid’s scores were about 75 percent and $17. That 75 percent strikes me as a real and important figure, the 28 percent of George’s story as more dramatic than significant.

“Rankings of Farm Aid from various charity watchers run the gamut,” Kirk e-mailed me. I asked him for other watchers, and he sent me to Charity Navigator. It gave Farm Aid two stars out of four, but its scores for spending on programs and for the cost of raising money were virtually identical to AIP’s.

When I called back AIP I got its president, Daniel Borochoff. He was eager to talk about the competition. He said Farm Aid suffers at the hands of Charity Navigator because that group compares it to other charities that are nothing like it. To Meals on Wheels Indianapolis, for example, and Friendship Trays in Charlotte, North Carolina—both three-star performers in Charity Navigator’s book.

I also called NYU’s Naomi Levine. She told me she didn’t remember talking to the Tribune and knew nothing about Farm Aid, wasn’t sure she’d ever heard of it. You did speak to the Tribune, I told her, and they reported you said 28 percent was too small a cut of a nonprofit’s revenues for donations. What about 75 percent of its expenses going to grants and programs?

“It seems OK to me,” Levine said. “If they’re giving that much in grants and programs, it’s a respectable number.”

News Bites

When Federated Department Stores announced last week that the Marshall Field’s name would vanish in favor of Macy’s, the editorials could have written themselves. Of course it hurts . . . Things change . . . Federated has its reasons . . .

The only question—and it wasn’t much of one—was how the papers would inflect these sentiments. Would they write that it hurts like hell? That sometimes things change for the worse? That obtuse out-of-town owners have been known to make changes for reasons that are really stupid?

That tack was favored by columnists such as Roger Ebert. But to no one’s surprise, the editorial pages struck a more wistful and fatalistic note. “We’ll miss Field’s name,” said the headline over the Sun-Times editorial, “but we’re ready to move on.” The Tribune remarked, “The folks at Federated may have underestimated the reaction to this decision. . . . But if Federated runs a better store, Chicagoans will find it. They may even grow to like it.”

Virtuous editorialists don’t trim their sails to delight advertisers, but they’re not impervious to their own circumstances. The death of the Marshall Field’s name will bless Chicago newspapers with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising intended to acclimate the public to the very change of identity the papers gently lament. Dear Lord, says a famous old prayer, give me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know when it would be really stupid to even try. That is how the prayer goes, isn’t it?

Read this week’s cover story, in which Tori Marlan writes about a Chicago reservist who spent a tour in Baghdad interrogating Iraqi prisoners and came home despondent and disillusioned. He talks about a war in which young, frightened soldiers who can’t tell friend from enemy flail about lethally, while their officers become increasingly concerned with meeting quotas and covering their butts. Iraq is supposed to be nothing like Vietnam, but this description of life on the ground sounds awfully familiar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Diamond–