Lefty ProPublica Group Escapes Media Skepticism of Ideological Journalism

May 3rd, 2011 5:19 PM

Among the many ubiquitous recipients of Pulitzer Prizes this year was one organization less famous than the New York Times and the Washington Post. ProPublica, a libber non-profit news outlet, received its second straight Pulitzer, this year's for a less-than-friendly piece on "The Wall Street Money Machine."

ProPublica is an investigative journalism venture funded in large part by Herbert and Marion Sandler, the liberal billionaires who made their forutune in the sub-prime mortagege business, cashing out just before the housing bubble burst. The Sandlers have given to a host of nation's most prominent liberal organizations, including the Center for American Progress and MoveOn.org. In short, they are partisans, and the organizations they fund advance a liberal agenda.

ProPublica is no exception. As columnist Marvin Olasky recently noted, a cursory review of the organization's website reveals that it has little interest in exerting itself in investigations of liberal politicians - let alone the Obama White House (where there is certainly plenty to investigate). Virtually all of their coverage aligns with a liberal take on the day's events.

Yet, a look at ProPublica's website listing of its stories shows pressure on Wall Street but almost no pressure on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Articles tagged "Obama administration" included Nerf ball throws like "Stimulus Spending Likely to Make Administration's Goal" and "Federal Agencies Bolster Transparency Plans." ProPublica did criticize the administration from the left, for not releasing some Guantanamo detainees and closing the prison there.

So ProPublica is a well-funded, well-staffed operation devoted to investigating causes the left does not like. And that is just fine. In fact, it's a novel way to advance an agenda, as Olasky observes. "ProPublica's success will rouse others on the left to spend less on 30-second campaign commercials and more on investigative journalism," he wrote. "Conservative evangelicals should wise up as well."

What is more striking is the media establishment's wholehearted embrace of ProPublica as one of their own. Quality of work aside, the organization was created to serve an agenda, and seems to do so quite well.

A frequent refrain against Fox News and other editorially-conservative news outlets is that they "have an agenda" and therefore shouldn't be treated as legitimate sources of journalism. Whether or not the Fox-haters are correct in their accusations against Fox, few seem to have a problem with partisan left-wing organizations passing themselves off as "legitimate" news outlets.

Nor has the media establishment really accepted any comparable conservative organization in the sense that it has ProPublica. There are plenty of journalistic organizations created and funded by political non-profits - NB sister site CNS News is a good example - that are identified and treated less as traditional news outlets, and more as extensions of their parent organizations and their funders.

The discrepancies in labeling demonstrate the disconnect, and here CNS News is a good example. When it is identified by major news organizations, references invariably include ideological labels - "a conservative website," as the Atlantic described it. CNS reporters have even been identified as "conservative activists."

ProPublica, meanwhile, often escapes any ideological label, such as it did in this Los Angeles Times article - fairly representative of the organization's labeling treatment - which only described the organization as a "nonprofit investigative news organization." Plaudits from Columbia Journalism Review, Old Media's flagship publication, likewise neglected to identify ProPublica's ideological tilt.

One can have an opinion and still produce quality reporting - indeed, many claim that that is the future of journalism in the digital age. But after so many sermons regarding the corrupting nature of ideology on journalism, it's striking to see how readily ProPublica has been embraced. It's hard to avoid the impression that its redeeming quality has more to do with the causes it advances than the work it produces.