Just when I wanted to believe local newspapers rise above the rest of liberal mainstream media’s sleazy tactics, the once-honorable Palm Beach Post surrenders its editorial integrity to the privately funded online news site ProPublica.
The two of them published a splashy series that masquerades as fair and balanced investigative journalism. It’s called “Black Snow.” The series — paid for by ProPublica, an organization that sparked an FBI probe after publishing the stolen tax documents of private Americans — is written by Palm Beach Post reporter Lulu Ramadan. It looks at one possible impact of burning sugar cane on air quality and local health in the rural communities around the Everglades Agricultural Area.
“Black Snow” is what happens when a newspaper’s revenue is disappearing and its readers along with it; when it’s under new ownership, under new management and trying to stay relevant; when it lays off some of its best reporters and savviest editors or allows them to leave before their time. It’s the cost-saving measures the Palm Beach Post took, including allowing reporter Ramadan to pitch ProPublica a hard-hitting story concept with a foregone conclusion. The endgame was to win a “grant” from ProPublica that would pay her a year’s salary (ie. save the Palm Beach Post cash) and kick in two of its own reporters as assistants. ProPublica’s not-so-objective mission statement is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions …”
The mind boggles trying to imagine how ProPublica financed its contract with the Palm Beach Post. Where did the $100,000 first originate? ProPublica is awash in dark money, funded by groups who are often funded by other groups who are funded by private interests. Might there be a conflict of interest?
The Palm Beach Post claims to be a fair and balanced mainstream newspaper. Yet, it virtually hung a “For Rent” sign on the newsroom door. With “Black Snow” it sold out, surrendered the proprietary fairness checks that come with important investigative pieces.
Rick Christie, at the helm of the Post since January, said of the piece that the paper is “holding the powerful in our communities accountable”. I ask, “Who holds the Palm Beach Post accountable?” In fact, it would not produce the contract between itself and ProPublica. What did they promise to deliver before the “investigation” began?
The Capitolist’s Brian Burgess discovered their ethical malfeasance after catching Executive Editor Christie trying to cover the financial tracks in his July 25 investigative eye-opener, “Palm Beach Post Misled Readers on ProPublica Funded Investigation.”
As he pointed out, reporter Ramadan “was paid to produce a blockbuster story for a media organization that expected nothing less.”
Sadly, these types of private grants are now tied to newspaper survival. By all accounts, it’s the future — Mother Jones, The Marshall Project, Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News among them. According to the Institute for Nonprofit Journalism “nonprofit newsrooms have been launching at a pace of more than one a month in the U.S. for almost 12 years.” It now counts 212 news organizations among its members. But that doesn’t give me much to cheer about. I’ve found such nonprofits are mostly advocacy-focused (one-sided), business-unfriendly and left-leaning in story selection and execution. Fewer than 4 percent disclose their donor list.
If I’m the Sierra Club or an Everglades Foundation-style activist group out to launch another high-profile environmental lawsuit, for instance, I’m going to “donate” to a news nonprofit like ProPublica that can get me inside a newspaper’s inner sanctum without anybody knowing I’m there. And that’s about as dark and ominous as it gets.
For me, “Black Snow” represents everything wrong with today’s journalism, a profession I’ve treasured for the last 60 years. Only 20 years ago, the Palm Beach Post and most newspapers, even smaller ones like ours in Stuart, had a layer of editors pouring over important investigative work like this — work capable of doing real damage or making a positive difference to the community. There was a passion to get it right.
I actually remember when editors punished pretend and malpracticed journalism with a pink slip; when editorial comment was clearly marked and kept separate from news; when both sides of a controversial issue were given equal space for rebuttal on an opinion page. And I remember when ethics and transparency were discussion-group staples at twice-a-year Florida Society of Newspaper Editors meetings and at every city editors and managing editors conference I ever attended.
It will always be hard for me to believe newspapers can’t survive social media and other online competition unless they compromise the profession’s loftiest principles. The Post has always been better than that. Readers need full disclosure. They need to be able to trust the source of their news. Maybe next time.
Nancy Smith has been a newspaper reporter since 1966, first in London, then at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News and later at the News as city editor, managing editor and associate editor. She was executive editor at Sunshine State News from 2010 to November 2019. In 1993-94, she was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors.