Is Pro Publica “Awful” and “Leftist”?

Reihan Salam was kind enough to link to Monday’s post comparing the New York Times to Pro Publica, which led Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center to lambast him for promoting what Vadum considers an “awful leftist media outlet.” I’m familiar enough with Pro Publica’s work to know they’re not awful and not particularly leftist, so I asked for details. He pointed me to this CRC report purporting to document the left-wing biases of the organization.

The report is six pages long. It spends the first three pages criticizing its founders, Herb and Marion Sandler, for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis and their left-leaning bias. Not until page 4 of the 6-page report does it get around to telling us anything about the organization’s work. Here is CRC’s evidence that Pro Publica “churns out little more than left-wing hit pieces”:

  • CRC faults Pro Publica’s coverage of the ACORN scandal: “On Oct. 16, ProPublica’s website linked to an ABC News story entitled, ‘Experts: McCain ACORN Fears Overblown.'” And “on Oct. 29, a ProPublica reporter ignored the ACORN voter fraud reports and wrote a story instead about the background of a public affairs group that had attacked ACORN in a prepared advertisement in the New York Times.” The report notes that the Sandlers are supporters of ACORN.
  • According to CRC, Pro Publica focused too much time investigating Sarah Palin’s role in the “Road to Nowhere” and Alaska earmarks.
  • Pro Publica largely ignored the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
  • The report lists various Obama administration scandals that Pro Publica failed to cover. However, it acknowledges that there were stories about Timothy Geithner and Tom Daschle’s tax troubles. Also “ProPublica reporters should receive high praise for their stories on Obama’s stimulus package and banking bailouts, on recent business and financial scandals, and on other issues related to open records and open government.”

And, um, that’s it. Now keep in mind that this is supposed to be the case against Pro Publica. One would have expected them to focus on the worst examples of left-wing bias and downplay their best and most balanced reporting. So it’s truly remarkable that their strongest evidence ranges from actually good editorial decisions (ignoring Jeremiah Wright) to quibbles about story selection (supposedly too much criticism of Palin and not enough of Obama). That’s remarkably weak sauce.

In particular, the CRC failed to find so much as a whiff of actual journalistic malfeasance. Nor is there any attempt at the kind of statistical analysis that could reveal a systematic partisan slant to their work. In short, no evidence that the organization’s work is either “awful” or “leftist.”

There’s a difference between good reporting that happens to be written by a left-leaning reporter (or funded by a left-leaning philanthropist) and partisan hackery. Conservative non-profits like CRC—and conservative media organizations like Fox News—have built an empire on conflating the two. But there is a difference, and it’s important to resist efforts to blur it.

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3 Responses to Is Pro Publica “Awful” and “Leftist”?

  1. Steve says:

    I find this interesting. I has assumed Pro Publica was a solidly left-of-center organization not from their journalism, which I am not very familiar with, but from its Twitter feed, to which I subscribe. If not Pro Publica, whoever is updating it seems solidly left to me, from the standpoint of selecting which stories are linked. I don’t consider this a problem. Just an observation. If Pro Publica is looking to be an unbiased organization, it might want to exercise some balance on Twitter.

    As an unscientific quick check, the latest posts this instant include the Chamber of Commerce allegedly weakening anti-corruption laws, companies with profits stashed overseas, GE and Exxon not paying federal income tax in 2009, and within one hour a story about Bank of American and GE not paying federal income taxes.

  2. Steve, the funny thing about this is that you just came up with a more compelling case for Pro Publica being leftist in a 2-paragraph comment than the entire CRC report.

    My experience mostly comes through their podcast, which seems more balanced to me. In any event, I don’t have a problem with mild left-wing bias in story selection assuming they’re doing good work. If conservatives don’t like it they should create their own version.

  3. Ben says:

    Timothy— I stumbled on your page while trying to look into ProPublica’s leanings, and I appreciate your having come forward to comment on this question.

    The fact that the Sandler Foundation says right up front it advocates for “progressive” causes tips me off that there is more imbalance there than meets the eye. Was it not Woodward and Bernstein who said “follow the money”?

    The fact that you admit to not having a problem with a leftward lean also suggest that there is some bias there but that you simply have your blinders on. The problem with bias is that the offenders rarely see it. If they did, it would not be bias but something worse. If your premise is that some bias is acceptable because the other side is wrong or dumb, then your premise is faulty, and you are the one who needs to be doing the investigating—of your own ethics.

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