Over the last several weeks, the Palm Beach Post “proudly” 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.
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 ProPublica. We 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.