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Sept. 10, 2009, 3:38 p.m.

Nonprofits with a perspective hiring journalists: A sign of things to come?

Here’s a press release headline that’s likely to be recycled many times: “Nonprofit Institute Hires Investigative Journalist.” Just add the names of the nonprofit and the journalist, and you’ve got another story about the future of watchdog journalism in the post-newspaper era.

Now here’s a test: What if the institute in question is a right-wing think tank that gets its money from a national group dedicated to cutting health and welfare programs and to opposing safety and environmental regulations? Is that okay? Is it still journalism?

That’s exactly the situation in Phoenix, where the Goldwater Institute recently hired former newspaper reporter Mark Flatten to “research, investigate and expose government corruption and abuse,” according to a statement from CEO Darcy Olsen. A news article notes that the money to hire Flatten came from the State Policy Network, which describes itself as “the capacity building service organization for America’s free market, state-focused think tank community.”

So what exactly is Flatten up to? Is it journalism? Or is it advocacy?

According to Flatten, it’s old-fashioned journalism. In the news article published earlier this week by Cronkite News Service, Flatten described his new job this way: “I’m an investigative reporter: a finder of fact…fair, accurate, not skewing things, telling it like it is.”

No doubt, Flatten is calling them as he sees them. He has spent 20 years covering state government and in 2004 was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame at the Cronkite School at Arizona State. Unless he breaches some kind of journalistic standard, he should be taken at his word — no differently than Paul Steiger, whose ProPublica depends almost entirely on $10 million a year from Herb and Marion Sandler. The Sandlers, who made their fortune in banking, are major Democratic donors who also helped start the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

Flatten’s situation also raises a broader question about the role of mission-driven, policy-oriented nonprofits: Where does an organization draw the line between reporting facts and promoting its agenda?

This is a question that won’t soon go away. The reason is simple: Many such nonprofits have money, and lots of it. That’s because many have broad membership bases with wealthy supporters who are educated and passionate, and their missions include informing public debate. These groups typically have relied on newspapers to do their spade work, so when newspaper coverage evaporates, they have a clear interest in ensuring that the work of journalists goes on. They run the gamut from international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, which is getting into the journalism business (as recently chronicled by David Westphal) to membership organizations such as AARP, one of my employers, which already publishes the world’s largest-circulation magazine.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. A number of journalism nonprofits — from Kaiser Health News to Investigate West — have assembled or are assembling advisory boards of respected journalists to help assure that standards are maintained. Many, like ProPublica, also disclose who gives them money — and how much.

But the hard truth is that there is no way to stop a journalist — or an organization that employs journalists — who is determined to try cloaking ideology or self-interest in the guise of objective reporting. Works of journalism ultimately must stand or fall on their own merits, and so must their publishers. Both must earn credibility the old-fashioned way.

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2009, 3:38 p.m.
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