A Lesson from the University Mess: Beware the Forces of One Dollar, One Vote
Independence needs to include that from donors
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
One of the few regrets I had in my years raising money at ProPublica was that I was never able to execute on an idea I had for creating named reporting chairs, analogous to named professorial chairs at leading universities. Surely, I thought, we could find a wealthy individual to make a significant multi-year commitment to such a position—and if we found one, we could attract others and replicate the idea, perhaps underwriting a big chunk of our reporting. But I never was able to find that first donor.
In recent weeks, watching the behavior of some of the biggest givers to some of our best universities, I have come to think my great idea may not have been so great after all, and that we may have dodged a bullet in never being able to announce the John Doe Senior Reporter on Healthcare (or whatever).
That’s because, for whatever mistakes the universities have been making (and there have surely been some), I have also been taken aback by the brazen behavior of people like Bill Ackman at Harvard and MIT and Marc Rowan at the University of Pennsylvania, rich men who have insisted that the volume of their voice in governance ought to correspond to the size of gifts they have made.
Earl Warren, after retiring as chief justice of the United States, said that of all the great cases decided on his watch (including Brown v. Board of Education striking down de jure segregation), the most important were those that established a constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.” Today, people like Ackman and Rowan appear to approach the running of universities under a banner of one dollar, one vote.
That’s wrong and dangerous for schools. It would be just as bad, for similar reasons, for journalism. Ackman’s ham-handed attempt to invoke commercial connections and play on the particular sensitivity to even wild allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of Business Insider’s German owners is just one example of why. It’s been especially revealing because the story in question, about his wife’s plagiarism, is one where the facts have not (at least yet) been seriously disputed, and where she has said she regrets what the story revealed.
The essentiality of independence
Like universities, good journalism requires that its work be undertaken independently from how it is funded. As nonprofit journalism has greatly expanded in the last 16 years, it has, thankfully, been able to attract support from many generous people who understand this—who realize that the value they are hoping to underwrite would be fatally undermined by their seeking to direct it. It has been a great privilege of my life to work with quite a few such people.
But, at least in this respect, the rich are no different from you and me and the rest of us. There are many who value independence and self-restraint, who conduct themselves with modesty and recognize the limits of their competence. And then there are others who do not, who believe that their good fortune, sometimes even just their luck or inheritance, qualify and entitle them to expertise in any field on which they momentarily alight.
The problem is real
Some years ago, for instance, in the early years of ProPublica, a prospective donor approached us about underwriting the creation of an internship, enhancing our small staff, which we needed. But as we continued the conversations about the proffered gift, he then told us we ought to fill the role with a particular young woman of his acquaintance. When we told him that that was not the way we hired people, the conversations ceased and the gift never materialized.
Nor is all of the bad behavior that of the donors. More recently, I heard about a mechanism at a nonprofit news organization through which staff, including reporters, were urged to identify possible contributors, including sources and subjects of reporting. I have been told by some nonprofit leaders that savvy players set editorial direction by going where the hot money is. All of that is appalling.
I know that universities—and newsrooms—need lots of money to do their crucial work. I know why schools have named buildings, and chairs, and even entire institutions after benefactors. But the message they have been sending with that has clearly left too many donors drunk with their own influence, or at least the influence to which they believe they are entitled. We need to be careful, in building nonprofit journalism, not to make the same error.
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