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More than a Pulitzer

ProPublica's second win and the money behind it is revitalizing liberal journalism

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

This year's Pulitzer Prize announcement on April 18 was largely the same old same old: four prizes for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as the good old boys-and-girls network protected its own established enterprises. The most striking news was that ProPublica, a nonprofit organization only three years old, won its second straight Pulitzer, this time for critiquing "The Wall Street Money Machine."

So what? So goes the future of American politics. ProPublica has rapidly become both a major media force and a harbinger of spring for liberal journalists who only recently thought they faced a perpetual winter. And it's all because a left-wing philanthropic husband and wife have made their second astute bet on long-term institution building.

Herbert and Marion Sandler became billionaires through growing the Golden West Financial Corporation, one of the largest mortgage lenders during the housing bubble and the operator of numerous World Savings Bank branches. In 2006 they sold their company and its portfolio of subprime loans to Wachovia, getting top dollar. Two years later Wachovia was no more but the Sandlers had $2.6 billion.

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They put half of that into a foundation with a declared mission-according to its 2007 and 2008 IRS form 990s-of supporting "the charitable, educational, scientific or religious purposes of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Francisco." A 2007 study by San Francisco's Institute for Jewish & Community Research, though, showed only 2 percent of Sandler Family Supporting Foundation donations going to Jewish organizations. IRS filings through the first half of 2009 show that practice continuing.

Instead, the Sandlers tossed millions into the Washington, D.C., Center for American Progress, an organization they and George Soros helped to form in 2003. In 2008 Time stated, concerning CAP's influence in the upcoming Obama administration, "not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan's transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway."

At a time when others among the rich threw dollars into television ads for ephemeral candidacies, the Sandlers and their associates had hit the jackpot. And now the Sandlers have won again through their $10 million per year pledge to ProPublica ("for the public").

The nonprofit's Form 990 filings show how veteran journalists gained profitable positions: Editor-in-chief Paul Steiger received $585,000 in compensation in 2009 and managing editor Stephen Engelberg $375,000. Tracy Webber, Thomas Miller, and two other senior reporters averaged $205,000. They worked hard for their money, leading the way for 32 full-time reporters and editors to produce more than 225 long-form stories that received play in inner-circle publications such as the two Times and on 60 Minutes.

ProPublica's 990 filings are unusual in that they include bragging. A 2009 boast concerned a ProPublica article that criticized Sarah Palin: "Polls showing a precipitous drop in Palin's credibility were a reflection of the significant impact of this sort of reporting."

The Sandlers themselves go light on self-glorification. Maybe that's because some of their investments-in ACORN, for example-haven't turned out that great, and also because their other big funding project, Human Rights Watch, has been so hostile to Israel that they have been subject to criticism in the Jewish community.

Other Sandler ideological contributions have gone to Moveon.org, the ACLU, and Mother Jones. A positive March/April 2010 Columbia Journalism Review article concluded that Herbert Sandler "remains a believer in meticulously researched, crusading journalism. 'Keep the story alive, pressure people, shame them,' he says."

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.

Not bad: Defend big government (except when it jails terrorists), attack big business, win a Pulitzer Prize. ProPublica's success will rouse others on the left to spend less on 30-second campaign commercials and more on investigative journalism. Conservative evangelicals should wise up as well. 

Email molasky@wng.org

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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