A regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times is criticizing the paper for funding the salaries for its education journalists through donations from foundations that fund efforts in the field, stating that the decision “inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs.”
On October 29, The Washington Post reported that the Los Angeles Times' “Education Matters” local education reporting project, which launched in August, is funded by three philanthropic foundations with extensive ties to education reform efforts in the Los Angeles area. Then-publisher Austin Beutner, the Post reported, spearheaded the project, accepting enough funding from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, K&F Baxter Foundation, and the Wasserman Foundation “to cover the salaries of two education journalists for at least two years.”
Eli Broad, chairman of the Broad Foundation, has also recently offered to buy the Times from its current owner, Tribune Publishing, in a move that would return the paper to local ownership but could also further conflict-of-interest concerns.
The Post noted that recent education coverage in the Times has not been consistent in disclosing its connections to the Broad Foundation. An article breaking the news of the Broad Foundation's plan to expand charter schools in Los Angeles in September included a disclosure that the foundation funds “Education Matters.” However, an editorial supporting the plan did not. According to the Post, the LA Times' managing editor has stated that funders have no editorial control, and has already made efforts to add disclosure statements to stories that directly report on Broad and others.
On November 4, American Prospect executive editor and frequent Los Angeles Times opinion writer Harold Meyerson responded to the Washington Post article, outlining the disclosure issues he believes the Times will now face in their local education reporting:
Whatever possessed [then-publisher Austin] Beutner to accept funding from partisans in an ongoing battle that the Times was already covering in its news pages and editorializing about in its opinion pages--and not just funding, but funding specifically targeted at covering that very battle? Would he have accepted funding from either Catholic Charities or Planned Parenthood to bolster the Times's coverage of the battles over abortion and reproductive rights? Would he have accepted funding from the local teachers union, or a pro-union foundation, to cover the same beat that the Broad and Baxter money are now funding? I suspect he would not--and that what made the Broad/Baxter money different in Beutner's eyes was that he felt comfortable with their positions, and probably believed that their commitment to charter schools was widely shared throughout the city's power elites--of which Beutner was a member in very good standing.
[A]ccepting funds to cover the very beat in which his funders were inevitably going to be the subject of the paper's coverage was not his right, and is profoundly damaging to the Times. It inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs.
As a longtime Los Angeles journalist before I moved to D.C., I know a number of the Times's reporters and editors who cover this topic on the news and opinion pages. They are among the most principled journalists I've ever known. Howard Blume, my onetime colleague at the L.A. Weekly, included an acknowledgment of the Broad Foundation's funding of Times education coverage in the story in which he broke the news about the Foundation's plan to increase the number of charter schools. Howard's work aside, it's not clear that the paper's management felt such disclaimers were even necessary until the Post story ran last Friday. Presumably, such disclaimers will now have to accompany the scores of stories about the future of L.A. schools that Howard and his peers will be turning out over the next several years, to the point where the disclaimers will become something of a standing joke. Howard and his paper need this like a hole in the head. [The American Prospect, 11/4/15]