Washington Post Farms Out Front Page to Journalist/Activists

The Washington Post features a story on page one today, “As Crisis Loomed, Geithner Pressed But Fell Short” written by Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Jeff Gerth. The Post employs O’Harrow and Jeff Gerth, a former New York Times reporter, now works for ProPublica.

Pro-Publica is a non-profit journalism outfit founded with money from Herb Sandler, the former owner of Golden West, the California savings and loan he and his wife, Marion, sold to Wachovia in 2006. Herb Sandler now chairs Propublica. The Sandlers are also big backers of left-wing groups like ACORN and Moveon.org, as well as major contributors to the Democratic Party and candidates. (See this Pittsburgh Times column by Ed Lasky. UPDATE: And this follow-up column, “Will Herb & Marion Sandler pay a price?“)

ProPublica’s credo is this:

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

That’s as clear of a statement of activist, left-liberal political sentiment as any we’ve seen, and yet The Washington Post finds it acceptable to partner with ProPublica in its journalism. It’s as if the Post were working on bylined stories with Public Citizen or OMBWatch or Americans for Prosperity or the NAM. Our organizations all have some pretty good researchers and writers, but come at news from a clear and honestly stated perspective. So what would be the difference?

ProPublica first caught our attention last year when it embarked on a series of stories attacking the natural gas industry for its use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in development of the Marcellus Shale gas deposits in the Eastern United States. The stories were biased and one-sided, uniformly anti-business, and yet given great play by the Albany Times Union and public radio station and co-reporter, WNYC.  (See Shopfloor,”‘Public Interest’ Reports: Energy Development is Bad,” and “So That’s What ‘Public Interest’ Journalism Means“.) The stories showed a clear bias toward influencing public policy with the goal of limiting natural gas production.

Dave Kopel at the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News wrote on ProPublica’s further poor reporting of the natural gas issue (in the Denver Post) in his media column, “ProPublica’s shaky facts.” As Kopel observed at the VolokhWatch legal blog: “The one article which I examined in depth is not necessarily representative of the overall quality of ProPublica’s work. Nevertheless, the quality control failure on that article would make me very cautious about using ProPublica’s work, if I were a MSM editor. Before using the article, I would probably assign one of my own staffers to fact-check the ProPublica article.”

Seems like good advice, still. From “Disaster Preparedness Pays Off in North Dakota“: “But just hours earlier, the predicted height of the river’s crest had jumped, and Pitts received word that a nearby dyke looked vulnerable.” They’ve since fixed that misspelling, but the word “busses” remains.

ProPublica stories have appeared in many major media outlets — a Los Angeles Times package on psychiatric care, with the Chicago Tribune on a psychiatric hospital — and the Post’s Page One story demonstrates the trend is now-well established, that resources-strapped newspapers are happy to let other people do their reporting for them, especially when it’s free.

This week the news appeared, “Huffington Post to bankroll investigative reporting.” How soon before we see a front page Washington Post story with the byline, “By Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Sam Stein?” Stein’s a good reporter, so no problem.

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