Correction 12/3/10: Knight Kiplinger of the Kiplinger Foundation wrote to make clear that the foundation is rooted in journalism (the Kiplinger business publications), making it a journalism organization. I’ve corrected the text below.
I think it was Charles Darwin who said, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
Which brings to mind the National Press Foundation. Yesterday, I criticized the foundation for taking funding from Pfizer for its “all-expenses-paid” annual cancer conference for reporters.
This morning, I looked at the press foundation’s donors. In its 2009 annual report, the foundation said “nearly 300 journalists benefitted from our training in Washington, around the world, online and through webinars. And it boasted that “in one of the tumultuous years in the U.S. media business, we did all this without charging journalists a dime, with programs that received some of our highest evaluations ever.”
How did the National Press Foundation do it?
According to disclosures on its website, it raised about $800,000 in 2009, and just over $1 million the year before. “We are funded by more than 80 journalism organizations and journalists: concerned foundations, corporations and individuals: as well as our program Fund, Endowment Fund, and Annual Awards Dinner.” That sounds legit–until you take a look at how much the donors contributed.
The largest donors–listed in the “Chairman’s Circle,” with contributions of $100,000 or more–are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And Pfizer.
In the $50,000-$99,999 category, we find the Global HIV Vaccine Initiative, a consortium of NGOs and others. And Merck.
Next ($20,000-$49,999), we find Gilead Sciences, Honda, Prudential, Allstate, and The Kiplinger Foundation. We’ve moved away from the pharmaceutical industry, but we are still deep in corporate territory.
Note that The Kiplinger Foundation is the only journalism organization yet to appear.
Continuing down the list, we see, among others, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, PhRMA (the drug makers’ trade group), and, finally, our first journalism organizations, in the $10,000-$19,999 category: C-Span, CBS News, and Gannett.
When we get down to the small change, we see a few more journalism organizations, including The Washington Post, USA Today, and my former employer, The Associated Press–but they are far outnumbered by corporations and industry trade groups.
With donations listed only in broad categories–possibly modeled on government financial disclosure forms–it’s impossible to tally the pharmaceutical contributions. So I’m going to fudge it: Let’s put Pfizer’s contribution at $100,000, even though it could have been far more. In the next few categories, we’ll put contributors in the middle of their categories. For example, we’ll peg Merck, which gave $50,000 to $99,999, at $75,000. If we continue to do the same thing with Gilead, AstraZeneca, Bristol, PhRMA, and add them up, we get a total pharmaceutical contribution of $225,000–a substantial share of the press foundation’s budget. The contribution of journalism organizations is far smaller.
When the National Press Foundation says in its annual report that it is funded, in part, by “concerned corporations,” it’s right on the money. You can bet that Pfizer, Merck, and the others are concerned about what appears in the press!
And here was a surprise: The National Press Foundation says that The Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, which recognizes young science writers, “will be presented by the Evert Clark Fund and the National Association of Science Writers, in conjunction with the National Press Foundation.” Further, it notes that the award will be handed out “during the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in New Haven, CT.”
I help to organize that annual meeting, and as a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, I have handed the Clark/Payne award to recipients at previous meetings. It’s a sign of how complicated and inbred these financial relationships have become: I find myself indirectly connected to NPF–and, I suppose, indirectly connected to Pfizer’s funding.
The National Press Foundation’s next medical reporting program will cover Alzheimer’s disease, Dec. 5-8 in Washington, D.C.–and it’s underwritten by Pfizer.
You might wonder whether funders, such as Pfizer, have any say over who’s on the program. “None,” the press foundation says. “We have a strict set of guidelines…”
Does that make it O.K., then, to accept travel, food, and lodging to cover one of these programs?
Not unless you believe that Pfizer is giving the National Press Foundation $100,000 or more out of sheer civic-minded generosity, with no agenda whatsoever. Pfizer expects a return on that money–as it does on any investment it makes. Indeed, the law requires that Pfizer act in the interests of its shareholders. It cannot give away money without expecting something in return. And it hasn’t done that here, either. (As Chief Tracker Petit pointed out in a comment on my post yesterday, the problem isn’t covering these conferences; we go to corporate press conferences all the time. The problem is taking the money.)
The foundation is proud to say that it never takes a penny of government money. “We wholeheartedly support the idea that news organizations need to be totally independent of government of any kind,” it says. By saying so, the foundation underscores my point: The source of the money matters.
The National Press Foundation apparently feels strongly that the press should be totally independent of government of any kind–but not of corporations.
– Paul Raeburn