Palm Beach Post misled readers on ProPublica funded investigation

by | Jul 25, 2021



Over the last several weeks, the Palm Beach Postproudly” published a series of articles in partnership with the not-for-profit journalism organization ProPublica. The Post says the partnership was formed to “investigate” and “understand the impact” of the agriculture practice of burning sugar cane on “air quality and local health.” But in the articles, explainers, and other content produced by the Post, readers weren’t given the full story about the funding and focus of the project.

The finished product of the Post’s partnership with ProPublica, an interactive online story entitled “Black Snow,” was written by Post reporter Lulu Ramadan and published on July 8th. From a sheer production standpoint, it’s one of the sleekest, flashiest digital news stories you’ll ever see. From the ominous, black-on-white color scheme and dramatic photos, to the fly-in maps, animated graphs, and fancy digital design, the Post’s readers will be so dazzled by data and stupefied by “science” that they might forget to ask if the investigation was fair or objective.

It wasn’t.

Documents and evidence obtained by The Capitolist reveal a troubling and obvious controversy: the reporter, Ramadan, with the full backing of the Palm Beach Post, pitched a story concept with a preconceived outcome to ProPublica in an attempt to win grant funding that would pay her for a full year to produce the story.

When the grant was approved, both Ramadan and the Post were likely obligated to deliver results in exchange for a guaranteed salary from ProPublicaWe say “likely” because the Palm Beach Post has ignored requests to publish the grant application and related documents – including exactly what Ramadan was required to deliver.

This is exactly the opposite of the way investigative reporters used to work. With budget-conscious editors breathing down their necks at each new development, investigative reporters were constantly forced to justify the next phase of their investigations with hard facts and compelling evidence, or they abandoned the story. A limited budget and a responsible editor enforced objectivity through the steadfast pursuit of the truth. If a story didn’t look like it would pan out, it was abandoned and the reporter moved on to something else.

That is not what happened here, though the Post desperately wants its readers to think otherwise.

ProPublica’s own news release more than a year ago made it clear that Ramadan and two other grant winners would be paid a full year’s salary to “investigate wrongdoing and abuses of power in their communities.”

That’s an important phrase that implies a conclusion from the very start. Ramadan wasn’t given the grant to conduct an “objective and fair investigation.” She was paid to produce a blockbuster story for a media organization that expected nothing less.

It is difficult to imagine how Ramadan would have explained to ProPublica or the Post that her year-long “investigation” yielded no results. How would that conversation have gone?  “Sorry, we worked extremely hard to find evidence of wrongdoing and abuses of power, but there’s no real story here. Thanks for the financial support?”

That’s simply not plausible.

Logic and available facts tell us that the fix against the sugar industry was in from the start. It appears that from the moment the grant was awarded in the spring of 2020, Lulu Ramadan and the Post would have been on the hook to deliver a hard-hitting story to ProPublica.

It seems likely and logical that Ramadan didn’t set out to conduct an investigation. She set out to gather information in support of the narrative she’d already chosen, and that ProPublica had paid for and was expecting. Could there ever be any doubt about the conclusion? Did Ramadan, the Post, or ProPublica have any controls in place to ensure the investigation was objective or fair?

To date, neither Ramadan, the Post, nor ProPublica has shared a shred of evidence to support the notion of an objective investigation.

For its part, ProPublica makes no secret of the outlet’s activist, anti-business agenda. Their website says their mission is:

To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.

Their mission statement says nothing about objectively seeking truth. They want to effect change. That’s the very definition of activism.

Their modus operandi is to identify a target, develop a narrative, secure funding, and then systematically gather information in support of that narrative, while ignoring mitigating information that doesn’t support the story. They then present their foregone conclusions using slick, interactive graphics and highly-produced content to maximize the impact of their work. They’re very good at telling a story, but not necessarily at telling the truth.

But what about the Palm Beach Post? The paper at least claims to be a champion of transparency. Their editorial standards page states, in part:

We will explain to audiences our journalistic processes to promote transparency and engagement.

So far, they have not done so. Yes, they’ve patted themselves on the back for this story, trotting out Ramadan and her assistants for Pulitzer Prize auditions thinly disguised as discussion panels about how they produced the story. Ramadan is proud of the way she won the confidence of local citizens and asked them to report smoke sightings and share how the sightings made them feel.

But when we asked the Post for a copy of the original grant application and any grant contract or agreement, along with the list of expected deliverables from Ramadan, we got no response.

Those documents should have already been published so that their readers can better understand exactly what was promised in exchange for the payoff from ProPublica.

We also wanted to know why the Post was publishing misleading information about the funding and resources used to produce the story.

In a July 8th column, the Post’s executive editor, Rick Christie, strongly implied to the Post’s readers that the newspaper had been the driving financial force behind the so-called investigation. He wrote:

“You see, at The Palm Beach Post we also allocate and spend a great deal of our resources (again, time and money) on enterprise and investigative journalism.” Rick Christie, July 8, 2021

While his statement might be true in a general sense, in the context he was writing about – Ramadan’s investigation – it was completely false, and most readers would have inferred that the Post “spent a great deal of resources” on Ramadan’s story, too. Yet the vast bulk of the funding for the Post’s “investigation” didn’t come from the Post at all. It came in the form of what the Post has frequently described in stories about other non-profit groups as “dark money,” cash whose original source is vague or unclear. ProPublica says the cash came from a grant courtesy of the Knight Foundation, but Christie implied it came from the Post.

We sought clarification from Christie during a phone call with him on July 20th, asking about the financial aspects of the ProPublica partnership he’d boasted about. Initially, Christie seemed caught off guard by the question, then stated that the Post split the costs of the reporter, Lulu Ramadan, with ProPublica, attempting to claim that half of her salary had been paid by the Post. During that initial phone call, Christie also emphasized that he had only taken over as managing editor in January, and therefore had no role in the Post’s decision to partner with ProPublica, which began at least nine months earlier.

Ten minutes later, he called us back and confirmed that Ramadan’s entire salary had been covered for a full year by ProPublica.

So the Post actually saved money on the deal, contrary to what he’d told his readers on July 8th.

It’s no wonder trust in the news media has reached an all-time low.

With the savings from Ramadan’s salary, the Post says it did pay for cheap air quality monitors and supplied them to Ramadan, who then trolled for sympathetic volunteers by using targeted text messages, surveys, and loaded social media messages asking residents to report smoke sightings and share how they feel. Ramadan also appears to have targeted people with existing breathing complications to amplify their voices and images in her story.

She also asked residents to install the cheap air monitors outside their homes, on porches and patios, some undoubtedly near barbecue grills and dryer vents, garages or workshops. Over a short span during the height of the sugar cane harvesting season, Ramadan collected the “data,” then applied some “science,” formed her “conclusions,” and published the results of her joint “investigation.”

ProPublica got exactly the story it paid for.

But “Black Snow” is not an objective or fair examination of facts. It’s agenda-driven journalism, backed by a newspaper that wasn’t up front with its own readers about how or why the project was funded and managed.

The Post owes its readers an apology for attempting to pass the story off as a product of traditional, old school investigative journalism, and for misleading them about exactly who paid for the project. They should provide full and transparent disclosure of the grant application, and the expected deliverables from Ramadan so that readers can judge the merits of the project for themselves.

15 Comments

  1. Bruce S

    It would have been nice to actually expose how this was “not an objective or fair examination of facts” by challenging any of what was revealed. Instead, you complain endlessly about the lack of journalistic integrity without demonstrating any of your own.

    Reply
    • Strawman Debunker

      So the Capitolist catches the Palm Beach Post lying about its work and this “Bruce” guy wants to put the Capitolist on trial…

      Reply
    • george227

      I noticed they could not dispute the facts uncovered, but whine about other stuff.
      Reality is catching up with the uneducated, the evangelicals, the Trumpistas, the Putinistas.

      Reply
    • independence01776

      Tried to find the evidence as well. They listed none. The question now is why did the Capitolist write this long rebuke of the Palm Beach Post practices without providing any evidence or facts the affirm the headline. Is the Capitolist paid to write stories on behalf of businesses that have been exposed by other journalist?

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth M Calvert

    OK, this is officially click bait. Dazzling headline with nothing in the actual story. You made accusations that the story was inaccurate, but were not able to produce any evidence, which could be there. Sounds like editorial pressure to write headlines that dazzle readers at the expense of substance. The same accusation as the editorial makes against another publication. Did the grant application say, produce this headline or we will take our money back? Reporters have always been under pressure to produce results that editors want to see. No different than the Capitolist, apparently, but it did not get a grant.

    Reply
  3. Billy Fedupski

    All those words, but not a single one disputing the Palm Beach Post/Politico exposé. Not one word of denial that existing air quality monitoring is a joke (one monitor that has been broken for years). Not one word disputing the scores of personal testimonies from doctors and residents who are the victims. You are so full of Big Sugar you’re liable to get diabetes and heart disease

    Reply
  4. Steve

    Ok so I read all this banter and must have missed the “real” story?

    Reply
    • Cap Stan

      You chose to ignore it, “Steve.”

      The story seems fairly obvious. The Post lied to its readers that they invested their time and resources to conduct an investigation but it didn’t.

      The truth is that they sold one of their reporters to an activist media outlet, pocketed the salary savings, and published the results of the activist media outlet as if it were authentic hard hitting journalism by the Post.

      We could dive into the substance of “Black Snow” at length, but the entire story is nothing but a journalist spending a FULL YEAR assembling one-sided bits of information to support her preconceived notion of what the story should be.

      If you think that’s how journalism should be, keep subscribing to the Post.

      Reply
      • Elizabeth M Calvert

        your main objection seems to be that they accepted grant funding for one of their reporters and s/he spent a lot of time on this story (can’t recall gender of reporter) Newspapers are grant funding reporters all over the country in the form of Report For America. Whether newspapers deserve this philanthropy is another debate, in that they are generally for-profit institutions and if they are family owned, they do not have to report their finances. Non-profits that receive grants have until recently had to lay out all of their finances, because philanthropists don’t always like to give their money to other rich people. That could be changing with journalism.

        Reply
  5. Jim

    I’m still looking for the facts of the case. If an activist exposes a polluter, they did their job. If a publisher takes credit not due, another expected event took place. If the sugar industry wants to defend themselves, bring out the facts on the case. If the investigation has holes in it, defend yourself. Right now, I plan to look up that article with all the flash and see it for myself. I hope there is a substantive response soon! It would warm my soul to know the sugar industry is actually treating our south Florida environment well.

    Reply
  6. chuckgcs

    Sadly, this is the way of the world. Money talks, and controls “research” results. During my life I have programmed a number of “computer models”, such as those used to “prove” man-made climate change. The outcomes of every model were predestined to support whatever contention the paying entity desired. If I was foolish enough to provide a model that incorporated all facts and data instead of cherry-picking that which would supply the desired outcome, I would have quickly become known as someone who could not be relied on to supply the requesed product. Science by consensus is not real science, it is the prime example of “go along to get along”.

    Reply
  7. Harold

    I’m interested in hearing from The Capitalist what prompted their reporter to write this critique. How did that process go — starting with the person suggesting or assigning the story and what that person’s motives are. I think The Capitalist owes that to its readers.

    Reply
  8. Mark

    So, why are we so concerned with how the reporter gets paid or makes a living rather than using your valuable time to dispel or otherwise challenge the reporters findings? Is there something inaccurate or non-factual in her reporting? If the information is wrong or false, say so with your own set of facts. Investigative journalism is just that, investigating and reporting.

    Reply
  9. Eric

    The leftist fake news at it again ..!
    The progressive media is all 🐂💩
    That is why I chose a year ago to cancel my subscription to their distribution of crap by not paying for it anymore .!
    Best thing my decision to do this as I have less 💩in my life since the removal of its pages to the cat litter box where it belongs .

    Reply
    • george227

      Thanks for showing us your level of thought.

      Reply

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