What The LA Times Should – And Shouldn’t – Do With Its Education Coverage

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Let’s take another look at the ongoing issue of the LA Times taking money from the Broad Foundation and others who are interested in pursuing a specific education agenda in LA and elsewhere.

As you may recall, the paper’s initial disclosure about the funding behind it’s much-expanded education team was a bit murky, and there were some questions about whether the disclosure policy was robust enough.

The current disclosure statement goes like this: “The Times receives funding for its digital initiative Education Matters from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.”

There have also been concerns about the paper’s education coverage, and its editorial page positions. (A big feature about the new head of DFER in the early days of the new launch made some observers squirm.) And of course there’s the open question of whether Eli Broad is going to buy the LA Times outright, which would create additional issues.

But the latest volley of concerns comes via Diane Ravitch’s blog, and features the opinion of a former journalist named Peter Sussman who apparently helped write the 1996 version of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. 

Sussman’s complaint doesn’t seem related to a specific issue of coverage or disclosure, but rather fundamental nature of the philanthropy-newspaper relationship. In this blog post (LA Times Has a “Massive Conflict of Interest”), Sussman is quoted making the case that the LAT situation is clear-cut and problematic: “With this kind of entanglement with the subject of its news stories, the Times has given up the right to expect any trust or credibility for its journalism on education. They are trapped in a massive conflict of interest, and no amount of pro forma disclosure will fix that.”

More about that in a minute.

As in the past, critics seem to confuse newsroom coverage and editorial positions taken by the paper. Writes Ravitch: “The editorials in the Times have been very enthusiastic about Eli’s plan to open 260 new charters for half the students in the Los Angeles public schools.”

However, at the LAT and at most other papers, these two parts of the paper are developed independently. The editorial page is where the paper takes a position on an issue. The news page is where reporters cover the story but do not take a position.

There’s also the issue of a double-standard.  Where are the objections from Sussman and Ravitch to the Ford Foundation funding the LAT, or the Robert Wood Johnson funding for PBS health care coverage, or Gates Foundation funding for the NPR education team?  If outside funding with a vested interest is an issue for the LA Times, it’s an issue for everyone else, right — regardless of funding source or the position being taken?

All that being said, this is not a simple or easy issue to resolve, and disclosure statements and aggressive coverage (which the LAT seems to be providing) only get you so far.

Additional steps that the paper could consider taking include signing onto some sort of code of ethics regarding editorial independence (if such a thing exists), or publishing all or part of the agreement between the foundations and the paper regarding editorial independence. (News outlets seem remarkably casual about transparency and accountability sometimes, though they spend their days demanding it from others.)

The paper theoretically could recuse itself on some topics, as is sometimes done in a legal setting,  end the relationship with Broad et al entirely, or add some progressive funding sources to the mix (Ford, Schott?).

Other than that last option, most of these ideas adjustments seem unlikely or unworkable, and it’s unclear that critics would be satisfied by anything other than a reversal of positions from the editorial page.  (Speaking of which, veteran editorial page writer Karin Klein and education editor Beth Shuster have both recently taken a buyout. Veteran journo Bob Sipchen is currently editing the education team since Shuster’s departure. Klein is penning education editorials as an independent contractor.)

The main thing that the paper can and should do is to continue to cover LAUSD education issues in a tough, fair way — neither softening its coverage to appeal to funders nor ratcheting up the skepticism in order to avoid appearing to do so.

I’ve asked journalism experts at the Poynter Institute and elsewhere for their take on this, and will let you know what they have to say. The LA Times itself says that it has no further comment on the topic.

Disclosure: This site is funded by the AFT and the Education Post (among whose funders is the Broad Foundation).

Previous posts: All The More Reason For The LA Times To Err On The Side Of Caution (Re Disclosure)WashPost Raises Disclosure Issues – LA Times RespondsHigh Hopes & Expectations For The LA TimesWhat About the Ford Foundation Funding the LA Times?

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.