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Ron Arnold: A journalism nonprofit's nonagenda agenda

The Center for Public Integrity says it is "nonpartisan and does no advocacy work," but it accepts funding from foundations with very open agendas. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Among the standout names of outfits recently whacking the Donors Trust is the nonprofit investigative journalism organization known as the Center for Public Integrity. To many, the group's name seems presumptuous and agenda-laden, despite its insistence that it is "nonpartisan and does no advocacy work."

Because most of CPI's funding comes from wealthy foundations, it's possible to investigate the investigators through the IRS Form 990 reports of its donors. Those handy documents publicly reveal everything about every grant to CPI, including the grant description -- what the money is for.

The bulk of those descriptions reinforce CPI's assertion with such purposes as "general support" and "operating support," meaning to pay the crew, pay the rent, keep the lights and heat on, and feed the office cat. In other words, no agenda there.

Then there is the $75,000 from President Obama's old board of directors home, Chicago's Joyce Foundation, which was given to CPI to "fund a series of investigative reports on the gun industry lobby in America." Among Second Amendment defenders, the Joyce Foundation is known as the Gun Control National Bank ($12 million to anti-gun groups since 2003). That sounds like an agenda.

There's also $150,000 from the Public Welfare Foundation (based on the fortune of the late Texas newspaper owner and Democratic activist Charles E. Marsh) for "regulating worker exposure to chemicals" -- which, when you think about it, sounds like advocacy for an anti-industry agenda.

I found 19 specific-purpose grants that sounded agenda-laden, ranging from funds for land use critiques, to anti-mining, anti-coal, anti-fishing and anti-telecommunications company stories. I found more than three times that many election reform grants out of 317 total grants. Not big in numbers, but possibly big as regards the question of "advocacy" and "agenda."

The key question here isn't whether you like what CPI does (they have a ton of awards), or whether it's lopsided toward the left (even the progressive media criticism organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting called CPI "progressive"). The real question is, who's running the show? There's supposed to be "an absolute firewall" between a nonprofit's fundraising officers and the program officers (the news section in CPI's case). In philanthrospeak, is CPI taking "prescriptive grants" that demand specific performance?

That would be a journalistic showstopper. And some of the foundations that fund CPI are notorious for making prescriptive grants. Does CPI have that absolute firewall between all its money and all its news?

I asked CPI Executive Director Bill Buzenberg that exact question. At first he gave me the answer to a number of other questions. After realizing I hadn't made myself clear, I asked, "Who initiated the transaction? You or the donor?" His answer was emphatic and considerably more detailed than I expected.

Buzenberg told me, "Our development officer (chief fundraiser) talks to donors, visits donors, has donors visit us, and she familiarizes them with our investigations. I go with her and I talk to the donors, too. If they find things we target that they like, the money side makes all the grant arrangements and the news side does what it would do, grant or no grant. Some foundations have offered us money that we refused because we don't work on what they wanted. We are not investigators for hire."

I asked, "What don't you work on? That would reveal your agenda."

Buzenberg said, "Look at the topics we work on. If it's not there, we don't work on it."

Do the folks at CPI have an agenda? Buzenberg insists they don't. I think they do, but at least it's theirs and not some ideological philanthropist's.

But they are indeed taking money. Of CPI's total $63 million revenue between 1998 and 2011, $42.2 million, or more than two-thirds, came from foundation grants.

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.