To Fix Our Political System, Nonprofits Must Push for More Open Media

October 30, 2013 | by Vince Stehle

Published in (Chronicle of Philanthropy)

No matter how distressing it was to watch the federal government grind to a halt this month, it has been encouraging to hear a growing chorus of foundation and nonprofit leaders call for intensive efforts to fix our broken government.

But we won’t make any progress on that goal until we change the way media and politics intersect, so it’s time for everyone in philanthropy to make that a high priority of their advocacy.

As long as shadowy donors are able to make undisclosed and unlimited contributions to sway elections and as long as those donations are used to fill our airwaves with false and negative messages, fixing our political system will be impossible.

Yet very little grant money goes to dealing with such issues. While overall spending by foundations on media projects has increased, just under 4 percent of all media grants in recent years have gone to efforts that focus on media policy advocacy.

The reason for changing the balance—and putting more grants into advocacy and shaping policy—are clear when looking at what happened in the 2012 election cycle.

In the first presidential campaign after the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision, political contributions across the United States at all levels of government reached $10-billion, according to Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, by John Nichols and Robert McChesney. And the vast majority of that money goes to finance the broadcast of political advertisements.

In the presidential race, that influx of money has resulted in a bumper crop of negative advertisements. From June until November of 2012, more than 1 million television ads were placed by the two major candidates, their party committees, and supporting interest groups, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. That figure represents a 40-percent increase over the 2008 election cycle; more important, the ads in 2012 were increasingly negative, with fully 65 percent of them focusing solely on the opposing candidate. By contrast, in the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, less than a quarter of the ads were negative.

“It will come as no surprise to those who have been bombarded with advertising in key markets, but 2012 is another record-setting year in terms of the amount of negativity we’re seeing in the presidential race,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which has been supported with grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

That’s why it is equally important for nonprofits to press for sensible changes in media policy, like the campaign by Common Cause to call on the Federal Communications Commission to require that television stations disclose the identity of sponsors of political advertisements.

If the Supreme Court is going to permit a flood tide of political contributions, voters should at least know who is paying for them. Federal rules require disclosure of the source of funds for political ads, but nobody has enforced those requirements for more than 20 years, according to Michael Copps, former commissioner of the FCC.

Writing in The Nation, Mr. Copps stated, “When our public dialogue is short-circuited by deep-pocketed individuals, corporations, and other groups operating on the smug premise that elections should be bought by the power of big money rather than fought over the power of ideas, something is amiss in our democracy.”

That isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who is one of the principal architects of the pointless and reckless government shutdown, recently engaged in another act of obstructionism when he placed a hold on the nomination of Tom Wheeler to take up the vacant position as leader of the FCC. Senator Cruz says he relented only after Mr. Wheeler promised he would not immediately pursue changes in the way the commission enforces disclosure of political contributions. The Senate voted this week to confirm Mr. Wheeler’s appointment.

The FCC is not the only media-policy issue nonprofits should focus on to enhance our political culture. And there are many organizations working successfully to advance the public interest in media and telecommunications.

Groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge have spearheaded efforts to demand that access to information remain open for all citizens through advocacy for an open Internet, among many other issues. Often referred to as net neutrality, the principle is that all content carried on the Internet should be permitted to flow freely to all customers. Of particular concern now is a case before the D.C. Court of Appeals in which the telecommunications giant Verizon is challenging the FCC and its rules requiring Verizon to treat all content and customers equally rather than providing preferential treatment to privileged customers and publishers.

Big media companies often prevail in Washington, where they enjoy a vast advantage in resources for lobbying and advocacy. But there have been several notable victories for public-interest advocates.

A signal achievement in media-policy advocacy has been the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, which requires the FCC to expand licenses for low-power FM radio stations for nonprofit community groups. The leading advocate for low-power expansion has been the Prometheus Radio Project, which continues to provide guidance to nonprofit organizations that want to obtain a radio license.

One other bit of good news: The FCC has extended the deadline for nonprofit groups to apply for these low-power radio licenses to November 14, thanks to the government shutdown: One small bright spot in an otherwise bleak disruption of the workings of the federal government.

“MEDIACRACY” – A Dialogue with Experts on the Troubled Intersection of Media and Democracy


November 7, 2013 @ 1:45 – 4:00 pm.

Philanthropy New York

79 Fifth Avenue, 4th Floor, NYC or via Livestream.

Register now to attend in person.

Access the Livestream. Tweet along with hashtag #PNYEvent

Democracy and media are inextricably connected – one cannot have an informed and engaged electorate without robust access to information and guarantees of free expression.

While we have a growing array of communications choices at our fingertips, what we read, watch, hear and see is increasingly created and distributed by an ever-shrinking number of corporate media giants. Media consolidation in radio, TV, newspapers, and online has enormous implications for the quality of news and information available – especially at the local level. The fight between locally controlled, independent voices and telecom goliaths is taking place across the country and across all media formats. Even so, there have been some successful organizing efforts by media policy reform activists, supported by a dedicated cadre of grantmakers and individual philanthropists.

This fall Low-Power FM radio is celebrating a long-fought victory to expand local radio while consumer activists closely watch a case between Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission over open Internet principles. At the same time, Free Press, the largest media policy coalition, is celebrating a decade of fighting for diverse and free expression.

Join us for a lively discussion with a terrific panel of experts and practitioners to learn about the critical role that funders play at the local, state and federal level to ensure that our media system serves our democracy.


  • Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commissioner; Special Advisor, Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, Common Cause
  • Helen Brunner, Director, Media Democracy Fund 
  • Robert McChesney, Professor of Communication, University of Illinois; Co-Founder, Free Press
  • Vince Stehle (Moderator), Executive Director, Media Impact Funders

Register now.


For more information on media and democracy read Vince Stehle’s recent Chronicle of Philanthropy piece on the topic.

“No matter how distressing it was to watch the federal government grind to a halt this month, it has been encouraging to hear a growing chorus of foundation and nonprofit leaders call for intensive efforts to fix our broken government.

But we won’t make any progress on that goal until we change the way media and politics intersect, so it’s time for everyone in philanthropy to make that a high priority of their advocacy.” Read more.


In addition to this briefing, Bob McChesney and Michael Copps, both Free Press board members, will be participating in that organization’s 10th anniversary celebration from 6:30 – 9:00 pm at the Press Lounge (653 11th Avenue, between 47th and 48th). Help Free Press celebrate their first decade and the future of media, technology and democracy. RSVP to



Molto + Media: Digital Media and Arts Organizations

Media Impact Funders is pleased to share Molto+Media: Digital Culture Funding, which offers a glimpse into the many ways that technology and media are transforming arts organizations, often with the help of philanthropic investment. 

Cultural organizations have long maintained partnerships with public media outlets and depended upon commercial media to publish information to stimulate audience interest and demand. Now, arts organizations are using digital media to connect directly with their audiences, to enhance the artistic experience and to improve data management. Read the Digital_Culture_Funding_Report

Below is a snapshot of the data from the report. Click on the image below to download the report.


Expanding Coverage: News and Information to Improve Community Health

Expanding Coverage report_cover

The report explores the unprecedented opportunity newsmakers have to engage with traditionally under served communities in new and powerful ways to redefine coverage and nurture new storytellers. The report is a result of a symposium held December 4-5, 2012 at the University of Southern California, co-hosted by the Annenberg School of Journalism, The California Endowment and Media Impact Funders.

The discussions brought together dozens of media and foundation leaders from across the country to share ideas on how funders and journalists can collaborate to take advantage of the creative disruption ushered in by the digital age.

Read the report here.

Bezos and Buffett in the News Business Is Good for Nonprofits

Bezos and Buffett in the News Business Is Good for Nonprofits

Via the Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders

When Jeff Bezos announced last week that he would buy The Washington Post,many people derided the sale price as essentially an act of charity: At $250-million, the price Mr. Bezos paid was a lot higher than the newspaper is actually worth.

Such punditry obscured what was so important about the sale for the nonprofit world. The transition at the Post was just the latest sign of the rise of a new class of newspaper investors who are determined to return news organizations to their important role in serving the information needs of communities.

The sale of the Post came just days after the investor John Henry, known better as the owner of the Boston Red Sox, purchased The Boston Globe and followed the lead of Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway bought 28 newspapers last year.

The welcome investments come after a sharp decline in newspapers over the past decade that has deprived society of vital information. The news industry’s tailspin has been particularly damaging to nonprofits, which depend on a healthy media ecosystem to illuminate public debate on pressing social issues.

Even though the amount of content and commentary has exploded online, the layoffs of thousands of professional journalists around the country has meant that some very important issues are not getting the kind of vigorous and careful reporting that is essential in a democracy.

The troubles at the nation’s newspapers have sparked a concerted response from foundations.

In addition to longtime journalism supporters like the John S. and James L. Knight, Robert R. McCormick, and Scripps Howard foundations—which were created largely from newspaper fortunes—other philanthropies have stepped up to fill information voids.

The California Endowment, for example, has supported the Reporting on Health Collaborative, a project that aims to strengthen health journalism at a half-dozen newspaper and radio outlets in the Central Valley of California. The health-reporting collaboration has focused special attention on the spread of valley fever, a mysterious fungal disease that has been spreading quickly in the Southwest.

Almost immediately, the attention in several news outlets has resulted in aggressive government action to step up research on the disease. And state officials signaled their concern by putting a halt on prison transfers among particularly vulnerable inmates, which were causing the disease to spread fast.

Projects like the health collaborative can have a great impact when they “engage communities, bring people together, and start conversations without slipping into advocacy,” said Michelle Levander, who organized the collaborative as part of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships program at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications.

Another strong leader in promoting health journalism has been the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has moved past its role of simply providing grants and fellowships to spur coverage of health policy. Now it also directly carries out journalism activities through its Kaiser Health News service, which provides original and independent reporting on a broad range of health issues, including insurance, health policy, and healthcare costs.

Kaiser Health News makes its content available free to media outlets and the public. It is distributed through partnerships with prominent news organizations, includingThe Atlantic, Forbes, McClatchy-owned newspapers, NPR, and The Washington Post.

One of the big casualties of coverage in shrinking newsrooms has been environmental reporting, a beat that is disappearing even as the urgency of ecological concerns is increasing.

A small nonprofit news organization, InsideClimate News, has undertaken a valiant effort to fill the gap. With a budget of less than $1-million, the seven-person staff has taken on some of the most complicated and contentious environmental news stories, including reports on nuclear energy, gas drilling, and energy pipelines, an arcane subject that many mainstream news organizations have ignored.

InsideClimate News was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its diligent pursuit of news about a particularly gruesome pipeline disaster near Kalamazoo, Mich. InsideClimate News is the smallest of three online news organizations to win the Pulitzer for national reporting so far. And it is an honor that has to be shared, in part, with the perceptive grant makers at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who helped start the organization.

Foundations are not just supporting nonprofit journalism but also providing grants to commercial outlets so they can focus on reporting they might otherwise scrap because of financial woes.

The Ford Foundation last year provided a grant to the Los Angeles Times to expand coverage of immigrants, the state prison system, and other topics. The grant maker also provides money to The Washington Post to expand government-accountability reporting.

All of these examples—and far more—demonstrate that nonprofit media organizations and grant makers can’t achieve their goals unless they have healthy commercial media partners to reach the broadest audience with critical information.

Equally important will be for foundations, nonprofits, and the new breed of newspaper investors to appreciate the importance of independent journalism.

Grant makers need to respect the editorial independence of the media organizations they support, and media investors need to restrain themselves from interfering in editorial decisions if they are to preserve the credibility and integrity of their enterprise.

Warren Buffett understands this important delineation. In his most recent annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Mr. Buffett states categorically that the newspapers acquired by Berkshire “will be independent in their news coverage and editorial opinions.”

To underscore the point, he noted that “I voted for Obama; of our 12 dailies that endorsed a presidential candidate, 10 opted for Romney.”

Mr. Bezos says he understands this as well. In a letter to employees of The Washington Post, he wrote, “So, let me start with something critical. The values of the Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners.”

Let’s hope he maintains that high standard. And while we’re at it, grant makers who support media projects should make that their standard, too.

Media Focus: Race and Injustice

Media Impact Funders, The Atlantic Philanthropies and Philanthropy New York convened a funder gathering and livestream to discuss the acclaimed Ken Burns Film, The Central Park Five, on June 15, 2013.

The story of the Central Park Five is one scarring New York history; a case of injustice for five teenagers of color who were wrongly convicted of raping a Central Park jogger after being tricked into confessing by the police. This tragic story showcases many issues addressed by philanthropy for decades, including race, class, policy and juvenile justice.

The dialogue featured filmmakers Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Raymond Santana, a victim from the case; Annmarie Benedict, Program Executive at The Atlantic Philanthropies; discussion leader Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow!; and session moderator Vince Stehle, Executive Director of Media Impact Funders.

Read the Storify here.

Explore educational resources surrounding the film.

Watch the video from the livestream.


Read Vince Stehle’s opinion piece on about the Trayvon Martin ruling, and what funders can and should do to address racial injustice — from Stand Your Ground laws to media portrayals of men of color.

Read Vince Stehle’s blog post on media projects keeping race and justice issues in the spotlight.

There are many compelling media explorations of race and injustice – from documentary films like The House I Live In, Slavery By Another Name and The Interrupters to the Harper High radio series on This American Life and  major feature films like Snitch and Fruitvale Station to humorous companion campaigns like Lock It Down America!  (click on the image below).

We’d like to hear your thoughts on this critical set of issues. Feel free to leave a comment below and share examples of media projects you’re involved with, provide support to or simply something you’ve seen.


‪Foundations + Public Interest Media Interview

At the studios of Democracy Now! in Manhattan, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with our Executive Director Vincent Stehle about how the media landscape has changed since our organization was founded in 2006 and new tools to track media funding, the fuzzy line between “money and influence” that media funders have to navigate, and the need for foundations to create a rapid-response mechanism “to respond to major threats and opportunities in a more timely fashion.”