Special Report

The Left’s Nonprofit Journalism Empire: Big Philanthropy’s Play


The Left’s Nonprofit Journalism Empire: Social Madness, Local Partisans, and Big Bets
The Nonprofit News Sector | Targets of Liberal Activists
Big Philanthropy’s Play | Selecting for Activists


Big Philanthropy’s Play: Press Forward

At stake in the fight over control of local-media outlets is the power to dictate the terms of coverage and political discourse with the media outlets that opinion polling suggests are most trusted by the public. Polling from the Pew Research Center conducted in 2021 showed that among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike, information that came from local news organizations was more trusted than information from national news organizations or social media.[1] A Gallup survey conducted for the Knight Foundation later in 2021 also found that local news organizations were substantially more trusted than national news organizations.[2]

Retaking control of local and national narratives by controlling local journalism outlets and exploiting their higher trust are attractive propositions for left-of-center activists. To that end, the MacArthur Foundation (2021 assets, $8.7 billion) announced a five-year, $500 million funders’ coalition to “strengthen communities and democracy by supporting local news and information.”[3] The coalition, called “Press Forward,” declared that its mission would be to “enhance local journalism at an unprecedented level to re-center local news as a force for community cohesion; support new models and solutions that are ready to scale; and close longstanding inequities in journalism coverage and practice.”

In a press release, the MacArthur Foundation asserted that “Press Forward is independent of ideology.” That would be surprising if true, given that MacArthur is one of the longest-standing institutions in the overwhelmingly liberal world of Big Philanthropy. One of MacArthur’s most prominent programs, the MacArthur Fellowship or “genius grant,” counts among its alumni such prominent liberal figures as 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, Biden administration acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, labor activist Ai-jen Poo, and radical-left racial theorist Ibram X. Kendi. Perhaps the lone identifiable center-right figure in the award’s decades-long history is community activist Bob Woodson.[4]

Its grantmaking is similarly left-wing. Recipients of MacArthur grants in 2023 include the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-left judicial and legal advocacy organization; Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of left-wing magazine Mother Jones; the New Venture Fund, the largest charitable arm of the liberal “dark money” advocacy network managed by Arabella Advisors; the Center for American Progress, a DC think tank with close ties to the Democratic establishment; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which aided the creation and distribution of Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project; and the charitable arm of the Sunrise Movement, a radical environmentalist group.[5] MacArthur does little that appears to be “independent of ideology.”

Press Forward’s partners list boasted many other big names in liberal grantmaking. They included:

  • The Ford Foundation, one of the largest foundations in the United States and a key funder of left-of-center activism across many issues;
  • The Democracy Fund, a foundation endowed by liberal political donor and eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar;[6]
  • The Heising-Simons Foundation, a foundation led by liberal philanthropists and major Democratic Party donors Liz Simons, the daughter of liberal political donor James Simons, and her husband Mark Heising;[7]
  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a major institutional funder of anti-capitalist and socially liberal causes;[8]
  • The Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-focused foundation that funds left-of-center advocacy and on the board of which Barack Obama sat while an Illinois state legislator; and
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a funder of projects to increase government intervention in the medical system and over personal choices, including a faction of COVID-19 lockdown and mask-mandate fanatics associated with a radical-left organizing center.[9]

The coalition’s fiscal sponsor, the Miami Foundation, has been a major funder of left-of-center initiatives in the journalism space.[10] On its 2021 tax return, it declared a $620,019 contribution to the Institute for Nonprofit News, a coalition of left-leaning news and commentary outlets that includes socialist outlet In These Times, the left-wing Mother Jones, environmentalist Grist magazine and Inside Climate News, and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a partner in the controversial 1619 Project, among others.[11] It also gave numerous smaller contributions to individual left-of-center outlets, including the Texas Observer, Washington Monthly, Washington City Paper, and TYPE Media Center.

Further belying the assertion of non-ideological motivation is the statement given by the MacArthur Foundation’s president on Press Forward’s purpose:

The philanthropic sector recognizes the need to strengthen American democracy and is beginning to see that progress on every other issue, from education and healthcare to criminal justice reform and climate change, is dependent on the public’s understanding of the facts.[12]

A cynic may note that who controls “the public’s understanding of the facts” controls “every other issue.”

State-Level Nonprofit Networks and Partisan Propaganda Outlets

Already existing are a group of state-focused journalism outfits, some of which are all-but-openly partisan and tied to explicitly political advocacy networks. States Newsroom, a coalition of aligned, left-of-center state-focused newsgathering organizations originally created within the multi-billion-dollar Arabella Advisors-managed “dark money” network, has expanded to 38 states.[13] Notable States-affiliated outlets include Michigan Advance, NC Newsline, Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Maryland Matters, and Virginia Mercury.[14]

On its 2021 tax return, States Newsroom made its intentions clear, declaring that its “program service accomplishments” included “hard-hitting reporting and commentary to change the political debate” (emphasis added).[15] It made a six-figure grant to Maine People’s Research Center, a left-of-center advocacy group that provides “progressive coalition services” and coordinates left-of-center state-level activism.

States Newsroom is a large operation compared to its closest right-of-center analog, the Franklin News Foundation that publishes under the “The Center Square” brand. In 2021, States Newsroom reported raising $21.6 million and spending $13.2 million. Franklin News Foundation raised one-seventh that amount ($3.3 million) and spent just under $3.5 million, one-fourth of States Newsroom’s expenditures.[16]

Both ideological sides also maintain what are functionally propaganda arms under the guise of news-reporting outlets. Better known (and, to the extent it can be determined, more extensive) is the liberal “Courier Newsroom,” associated with the “ACRONYM” network of political committees and advocacy nonprofits created by Democratic operative Tara McGowan and reportedly helped off the ground by Laurene Powell Jobs, funder of numerous liberal activist-journalism projects.[17]

Even left-leaning outlets including the Washington Post and OpenSecrets have criticized Courier for promoting liberal partisan propaganda in the skin-suit of trusted local media.[18] In 2021, ACRONYM conducted a corporate reorganization of Courier Newsroom, divesting its own stake and placing the outlet in the hands of the nominally for-profit corporation Good Information, which is reportedly backed by patronage funding from major liberal political donors including George Soros and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman.[19] In 2022, Soros’s Fund for Policy Reform, a large 501(c)(4) advocacy and lobbying nonprofit within the Open Society network, gave Courier Newsroom $2.5 million.[20]

In advance of the 2024 elections, Courier Newsroom is expanding its propaganda empire. Under Kyle Tharp, described by media outlet Semafor as “a veteran of Democratic political campaigns,” Courier Newsroom is staffing up.[21] Semafor called the outfit “part of a broader effort among liberals to create an alternative news ecosystem to counter the strength of conservative media,” and the group was given an interview with President Biden.

Conservatives have created a similar advocacy outlet. Star News Digital Media, which runs the Tennessee Star among other websites to present state-level conservative advocacy.[22] Numerous contributors and organizers who have worked with Star News are reportedly conservative activists or political professionals, similar to the situation at Courier Newsroom on the left.[23] There is, however, little public indication that Star News has remotely the same level of backing that Courier does from its side.


In the next installment, Big Philanthropy seeks further control the talent pipeline of journalists.


Notes

[1] Jeffrey Gottfried and Jacob Liedke, “Partisan Divides in Media Trust Widen, Driven by a Decline Among Republicans,” Pew Research Center, August 30, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/08/30/partisan-divides-in-media-trust-widen-driven-by-a-decline-among-republicans/.

[2] Sarah Fioroni, “Local News Most Trusted in Keeping Americans Informed About Their Communities,” Knight Foundation, May 19, 2022, https://knightfoundation.org/articles/local-news-most-trusted-in-keeping-americans-informed-about-their-communities/.

[3] MacArthur Foundation, “Press Forward Will Award More Than $500 Million to Revitalize Local News,” September 7, 2023, https://www.macfound.org/press/press-releases/press-forward-will-award-more-than-500-million-to-revitalize-local-news.

[4] InfluenceWatch, “Nikole Hannah-Jones.” https://www.influencewatch.org/person/nikole-hannah-jones/; Michael Watson, “Meet Julie Su, the Would-Be Secretary of Forced Social Justice Unionism,” Capital Research Center, May 10, 2023, https://capitalresearch.org/article/meet-julie-su-the-would-be-secretary-of-forced-social-justice-unionism/; InfluenceWatch, “Ai-jen Poo,” https://www.influencewatch.org/person/ai-jen-poo/; and “Ibram X. Kendi,” InfluenceWatch, https://www.influencewatch.org/person/ibram-x-kendi/.

[5] InfluenceWatch, “William J. Brennan Center for Justice,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/william-j-brennan-center-for-justice/; InfluenceWatch, “Mother Jones,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/mother-jones-foundation-for-national-progress/; InfluenceWatch, “New Venture Fund,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/new-venture-fund/; InfluenceWatch, “Center for American Progress (CAP),” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/center-for-american-progress-cap/; InfluenceWatch, “Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/pulitzer-center-on-crisis-reporting/; and InfluenceWatch, “Sunrise Movement,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/sunrise-movement/.

[6] InfluenceWatch, “Democracy Fund,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/democracy-fund/.

[7] InfluenceWatch, “Heising-Simons Foundation,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/heising-simons-foundation/.

[8] InfluenceWatch, “William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/william-and-flora-hewlett-foundation/.

[9] Michael Watson, “Behind the Forever Mask: A Guide to Pro-Lockdown Holdouts,” Capital Research Center, January 6, 2023, https://capitalresearch.org/article/behind-the-forever-mask-a-guide-to-pro-lockdown-holdouts/.

[10] InfluenceWatch, “Miami Foundation,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/miami-foundation/.

[11] Miami Foundation, IRS Form 990, 2021, https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/650350357/202211579349300011/full/; InfluenceWatch, “Institute for Nonprofit News.” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/institute-for-nonprofit-news/; InfluenceWatch, “Grist Magazine,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/grist-magazine/; InfluenceWatch, “Inside Climate News,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/inside-climate-news/.

[12] MacArthur Foundation, “Press Forward Will Award More Than $500 Million to Revitalize Local News,” September 7, 2023, https://www.macfound.org/press/press-releases/press-forward-will-award-more-than-500-million-to-revitalize-local-news.

[13] InfluenceWatch, “States Newsroom (Newsroom Network),” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/the-newsroom/.

[14] InfluenceWatch, “Michigan Advance,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/michigan-advance/; and InfluenceWatch, “Virginia Mercury,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/virginia-mercury/.

[15] State Newsroom, IRS Form 990, 2021, https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/842113822/202222839349301677/full.

[16] Franklin News Foundation, IRS Form 990, 2021, https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/264066298/202213199349316021/full.

[17] InfluenceWatch, “Courier Newsroom,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/courier-newsroom/; InfluenceWatch, “ACRONYM,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/acronym/; InfluenceWatch, “Tara McGowan,” https://www.influencewatch.org/person/tara-mcgowan/; Charles Fain Lehman, “Why Is Laurene Powell Jobs Funding Fake News?,” Washington Free Beacon, June 11, 2020, https://freebeacon.com/media/why-is-laurene-powell-jobs-funding-fake-news/.

[18] Gabby Deutch, “A Website Wanted to Restore Trust in the Media. It’s Actually a Political Operation,” Washington Post, February 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/06/is-it-local-journalism-or-just-local-propaganda/; and Anna Massoglia, “‘Dark Money’ Networks Hide Political Agendas Behind Fake News Sites.” OpenSecrets, May 22, 2020, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/05/dark-money-networks-fake-news-sites/.

[19] Sara Fischer, “Billionaires Back New Media Firm to Combat Disinformation,” Axios, October 26, 2021, https://www.axios.com/2021/10/26/soros-hoffman-disinformation-tara-mcgowan.

[20] InfluenceWatch, “Fund for Policy Reform, Inc.,” https://www.influencewatch.org/non-profit/fund-for-policy-reform-trust/; and Open Society Foundations, “Awarded Grants,” https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/grants/past?grant_id=OR2022-86051.

[21] Karina Tsui, “Liberal Outlet Courier Expands Ahead of 2024,” Semafor, November 12, 2023, https://www.semafor.com/article/11/12/2023/liberal-outlet-courier-expands-ahead-of-2024.

[22] Star News Digital Media, website, https://starnewsdigitalmedia.com/.

[23] Bethania Palma and Alex Kasprak, “Hiding in Plain Sight: PAC-Connected Activists Set Up ‘Local News’ Outlets,” Snopes, March 3, 2019, https://www.snopes.com/news/2019/03/04/activists-setup-local-news-sites/.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
+ More by Michael Watson