Covering Foundations Just Got Trickier

Expect to see and hear and read media types dissect this bit of news: the Ford Foundation has donated $1 million not to charity but to the for-profit Los Angeles Times.

The donation is designated to cover the costs of hiring reporters to cover Southern California communities, prisons, immigration, as well as to post a correspondent in Brazil.

This raises a big question for Californians: who is going to cover the foundations?

The gift to the Times (where I was a reporter for eight years) is just one example of how foundations are gaining reach and influence over civic and political life in the state.

The largest good government group in California, California Forward, is a partnership of foundations. Much of the most important policy work in important areas such as education and health care comes out of foundations or foundation-funded entities.

And our media in California have come to rely more on foundations.

Public radio stations, some of which are growing rapidly, depend on foundations for support. Most of the money that supports the state's leading investigative reporting entity, California Watch, comes from leading foundations such as Irvine, Hewlett, and the California Endowment -- all of which are big players in the development of public policy in the state.

Much of my own journalistic work has been partially supported by foundations for the past four years, via think tanks and nonprofits for which I work.

As a journalist and a citizen, I'm very glad to see foundations supporting civic life, public policy and media.

The collapse of the business model for media makes such foundation support incredibly important to sustaining quality coverage. But the trend also is a cause of concern.

Even as someone who knows the work of these foundations and some of their staff, I have very little sense of how these organizations work, how they set their agendas, who their decisionmakers are, how they exercise power, how they interact and make deals with powerful officials and institutions.

The public knows even less than I do. That's because California media don't cover foundations and their work routinely, aggresively and critically.

That needs to change. These foundations have deep and profound influence over the nature of political and civic debate in California -- and at a critical time for the state. Leading California media organizations should assign experienced, aggressive reporters to cover these foundations, and how they influence policy.

This will be tricky work, given the conflicts of interest these media organizations may have. But the public needs to know more about these powerful institutions.

And who knows? Maybe a newspaper or media might get foundation support for its foundation coverage.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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