Get The Bastards

March 12th, 2008at 11:05pm Posted by Eli

(Write About Stories That Are Several Days Old Day continues at Multi Medium…)

Oh, this is all kinds of awesome. I had heard of ProPublica, but I had just assumed it was going to be yet another Republican hit piece factory. Not so:

Since the late 1980s, [Herb and Marion Sandler] used their wealth to finance a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and Acorn, the grass-roots organizers…. In 2003, they started the Center for American Progress, which is intended to be a liberal counterweight to the heavyweight policy centers of the right, like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. So far, the Sandlers have given around $20 million to the center.


[I]n October 2006, with both of them in their mid-70s, they sold Golden West to Wachovia for $25 billion, reaping $2.4 billion from their stake in the company. They quickly put $1.4 billion into the small foundation they had been using to make their donations, which suddenly made the Sandler Foundation one of the 30 largest in the country. (The Sandlers, who oversee the foundation with three other board members, plan to put the rest of their money into the foundation eventually.) Then they moved into a small suite of offices in downtown San Francisco, hired minimal staff – the Sandlers hate bureaucracy – and got down to the business of giving away their fortune. Starting with, of all things, journalism.


[Former WSJ managing editor Paul] Steiger drew up a proposal for a nonprofit that would employ around 25 reporters and editors and would conduct the kind of ambitious investigations that only a handful of the country’s most prominent news organizations do as a matter of course. Although the Sandlers solicited plenty of other ideas besides Steiger’s, his was the one they loved. They told Steiger that they would finance it, but only if he would run it. After a little soul-searching, Steiger agreed. ProPublica — as it is called — opened its doors in early January and in recent weeks has made its first few hires and named a star-studded advisory board…. It intends to begin producing investigative articles by the summer and then give its biggest exposés, free, to major news outlets like “60 Minutes.” Although there have been nonprofit investigative efforts in the past, nobody has ever proposed a model quite like this before.


It starts with outrage,” Herb Sandler said. “You go a little crazy when power takes advantage of those without power. It could be political corruption — ”

“Or subprime lending,” Marion interrupted.

“The story of subprime is worse than anyone has written so far,” Herb said, shaking his head in dismay.

“It is,” Marion said, nodding in agreement.

…To listen to the Sandlers is to be in the presence of the kind of proud, righteous liberals who went out of fashion a long time ago. Dispassion and irony, the twin shields of the modern age, are not part of their makeup.


What the Sandlers want, clearly, is investigative journalism that leads to change in public policy or finds, as Herb put it to me, “the next Enron.” (“Get the bastards,” he said to me excitedly at another point.) …[I]t is not unlikely that ProPublica’s reporters will choose to go after a target on the left side of the political spectrum, especially if Democrats become the party in power in November. The Sandlers say they’re fine with that. But what if the stories die on the vine as sometimes happens? What if the big media outfits like The Times or “60 Minutes,” which have their own investigative staffs and tend to be proprietary about their work, decline to run ProPublica’s exposés? Will they be fine with that as well?

That last point is what worries me the most. If investigative reporting is drying up due to financial cutbacks, then there could very well be an eager market for independently produced (and funded) exposés. But if it’s drying up because the media don’t want to rock the boat, or displease their Republican corporate masters, or cut into Britney Time, then ProPublica’s distribution will be limited to blogs, alternative media, and probably YouTube.

Which is better than nothing – the blogs might occasionally shame the traditional media into covering their stories – but it sure would be nice if ProPublica had a reliable outlet for their stories. How about it, Mr. Soros?

I also wish they had come up with this idea about seven years earlier – it might have saved this country a whole lot of grief.

(h/t Caro Kay)

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Media

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