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MacArthur's non-denial


Geoff

Geoff Dougherty

February 22, 2012 @ 6:33 PM

Yesterday, I advanced the theory that the MacArthur Foundation yanked funding from the Chicago News Cooperative because MacArthur has close ties to City Hall, writes large grants to programs at the Chicago Public Schools, and is likely uncomfortable with backing a news organization that might report critically on those programs.

The post seems to have kicked off a vigorous discussion, which is great. Foundations are far too frequently allowed to make these kinds of decisions without any kind of scrutiny or accountability.

The foundation issued a statement this afternoon that says, in part, 

We are sorry to see the CNC come to an end in its present form and hope that it is successful in maintaining some elements of its work in the future. MacArthur is committed to continuing our 30-year history of support for non-profit journalism because informing the American public matters as much now as it ever has.

I've appended the full text to the end of this post.

Jim O'Shea, the CNC's founder, says MacArthur did not interfere with the work of his reporters: 

Even a cursory amount of reporting would show that to be totally untrue. No one at the foundation ever complained or interfered with our coverage in any way. 

Both of these responses deftly swerve around the issues I raised yesterday. I never suggested that MacArthur had called O'Shea to complain about CNC's reporting on a particular story, nor that MacArthur was uninterested in national journalism funding. I suggested that MacArthur is inextricably bound to City Hall, and that paying for investigative reporting aimed at City Hall was consequently something that made the foundation uncomfortable.

I also noted that the foundation's stated reason for delaying CNC's grant renewal—that CNC's lack of tax-exempt status could cause problems with the IRS—didn't hold water. So far, neither O'Shea nor MacArthur has tried to augment this wisp of an excuse. 

I've asked MacArthur's spokesman, Andy Solomon, to let me know if the foundation has held up funding for any other grantees due to the same IRS concerns, and also for a list of grantees who are receiving MacArthur funds despite lacking tax-exempt status. 

That should be revealing. I'll update accordingly.

Meanwhile, there seems to be some confusion about the exact status of MacArthur's grant to the CNC. 

Last week, the Reader portrayed the funds as something of a done deal, noting that "O'Shea was counting on a substantial grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which had helped put CNC on its feet in the fall of 2009 and had already given it a total of a million dollars."

My piece yesterday followed the same lines, saying that the foundation had "failed to come through with a promised grant payment." 

Now O'Shea says the foundation "never reneged on any commitments to the CNC."

I've e-mailed O'Shea and to ask for a definitive answer on exactly what the status of the grant was. 

Here's the full text of MacArthur's statement: 

The MacArthur Foundation supports the production and distribution of news and documentary programs for television, radio, and the Web that help inform the American public about important domestic and international current affairs and policy issues. We provide grants to about 15 national news organizations ranging from NPR and the PBS NewsHour to Investigative News Network. None of these organizations receives all of its support from MacArthur; many receive far less than $500,000. In no case do we monitor or get involved in any editorial decisions at these organizations.

We provided early support to the Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), awarding its first grant very quickly in order to help it make its deadline to start publishing in The New York Times. We did so because we believed it was important to back an experimental new model for substantive local news coverage, however risky that model might have been. Since CNC started in 2009, we provided a total of $1 million in grants. We were working on a renewal grant to CNC when it notified us that it was closing. While we had not yet recommended a specific amount, whether our funding came in the form of project support or general support would have had no bearing on the size of our grant.

CNC had other funders, both national and local. We do not know whether any of them were asked for emergency support. We do know that CNC was testing different approaches to raising revenue in addition to foundation grants. The slow economy may have contributed to the lack of immediate success of some or all of those efforts.

We are sorry to see the CNC come to an end in its present form and hope that it is successful in maintaining some elements of its work in the future. MacArthur is committed to continuing our 30-year history of support for non-profit journalism because informing the American public matters as much now as it ever has.

 

 

 

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