Pay-For-Play Journalism is Killing the Media. Good Riddance.

By Cameron English — Aug 30, 2023
Reporters like to portray themselves as truth tellers who hold the powerful accountable. In reality, many of them are hired guns who publish propaganda under the guise of doing journalism. The good news is that a growing number of Americans are abandoning the legacy media for better sources of information.
Image by ColiN00B via Pixabay

Mainstream science reporting is generally awful. Ideological zeal and ignorance on the part of reporters help explain why we're regularly confronted by so much subpar journalism. But we need to factor another important cause into the discussion: an increasing number of news outlets are paid to produce politically skewed coverage on vitally important public health issues. 

The latest example of this outright corruption of the press surfaced in late August when the Washington Free Beacon released its investigation of the Associated Press (AP):

The AP takes in millions more from philanthropies—the Hewlett Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and others—to fund reporting on climate change, such as stories that this summer's heat wave is due to global warming …

The problem is obvious: journalists who sell their coverage to the highest bidder are propagandizing the public for a paycheck instead of informing them. Although this inappropriately cozy arrangement has skewed the public's understanding of many important issues over the years, the problem appears to be resolving as a growing number of Americans lose trust in the media.

Journalism for hire

Here’s the pay-for-play journalism scheme in a nutshell: wealthy, ideological foundations with explicit political agendas contribute millions to ostensibly independent news outlets. Those outlets publish advocacy pieces disguised as genuine reporting, even if that coverage badly misleads the public.

Consider the Beacon’s AP example. “Grant comes as new polling shows strong interest in news coverage on climate solutions,” the Walton Family Foundation wrote in a April 21 press release:

As the world marks Earth Day, the Walton Family Foundation is increasing its commitment to environmental journalism with a $2.5 million grant to The Associated Press. This three-year grant builds on previous support establishing an Environment and Water beat with three dedicated reporting positions. 

Walton’s environmental advocacy includes generous support for groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). That's the same NRDC that in 2018 compared widely-used pesticides to “nerve gases made by Nazi Germany during World War II.” These are not people who want to tell a science-based story about environmental protection, and the same might be said of the AP. In one article from August, for example, the news agency alleged that unreliable heat-death statistics are minimizing the health effects of global warming:

Experts say a mishmash of ways more than 3,000 counties calculate heat deaths means we don’t really know how many people die in the U.S. each year because of high temperatures in an ever warming world.

Left out of the article was any reference to years of research showing that cold temperatures have always killed far more people globally than sweltering summer days, and that heat-related mortality declines following temperature spikes. This is part of a larger trend of improving living standards fueled by economic growth. Wealthy nations invest in life-saving technologies like air conditioning. 

Walton Foundation's 2021 funding to the AP. Source.

These observations turn our response to climate change into a success story. As we get wealthier, extreme weather kills fewer people. AP readers were instead left with the impression that “cities worldwide now must learn to deal with extreme weather,” which of course they’ve been doing with increasing success for decades.

A cog in a bigger machine 

The unfolding AP situation is but one example of billionaires trying to rig science policy debates by paying off almost everybody involved: NGOs, journalists, and even academics in some cases. As I reported in May 2020, The Walton Foundation and other wealthy philanthropies have given more than $800 million to environmental activist groups in recent years. This money finances a wide variety of political initiatives:

  • Phony “investigative reporting” outlets like Environmental Working Group’s The New Lede, headed by ex-Reuters scribe Carey Gillam. Walton gave EWG $325,000 in 2021 alone.

  • Sue-and-settle lawsuits in which agencies like the EPA eagerly comply with the demands of activist groups, circumventing established channels for implementing environmental regulations.

  • Low-quality studies designed to generate alarming headlines and scare politicians into banning or over-regulating perfectly safe products—including baby food.

  • Placing litigators in the offices of state attorneys general to facilitate environmental litigation.

ACSH has long warned about the activist-legal complex undermining American science and industry. What’s increasingly clear is that it’s actually an activist-legal-media complex. Many news outlets pose as sources of unbiased journalism when their real function is to carry water for plaintiffs lawyers and NGOs. 

As the Associated Press pockets millions from an activist foundation and churns out alarmist stories, it claims that "no funder has any influence over AP journalism." The Guardian takes money from animal rights advocates to attack agriculture, then declares itself “free from commercial and political influence.” HuffPost publishes gutter journalism calling ACSH one of “Monsanto’s Spies,” without revealing the author’s ties to the Walton-funded NRDC. These are just a few examples of biased, foundation-funded journalism, but it's a growing problem in the news business, as the Columbia Journalism Review explained in 2019:

Many journalists are sensitive to the way wealthy owners can influence a newsroom ... But it’s not just rich capitalists and venture investors who bring such influence—every form of funding ... shapes the kind of journalism that gets done, and that includes funding from foundations and nonprofits ... And with more media outlets turning to alternative sources of financing ... the issue is likely to get even more acute in the future.

Trust in media is collapsing

This would all be very depressing if it weren’t for one important detail: Americans have caught on to the journalism-for-hire scheme and their trust in the media is plummeting as a result.

According to recent polling data, just 26 percent of Americans view the news media favorably. “Trust in media is so low that half of Americans now believe that news organizations deliberately mislead them,” the AP said of the survey results without an ounce of self-awareness. Among respondents with low trust in the media, 90 percent said that “most news organizations prioritize financial interests over the public interest.”

The survey insisted that the press could regain public trust by “emphasizing transparency and accuracy” and demonstrating “the care they have for their readers, listeners or viewers.” But we’re long past the point of these banal solutions doing any good.

By their own admission, 80 percent of reporters are liable to fall for false information online; their clear ideological bias is another obvious problem. When you consider that many of the outlets they work for are paid to produce slanted coverage, the case for traditional journalism collapses. 

This is doubly so because there is a seemingly endless lineup of experts communicating directly with the public through blogs, podcasts, social media, and websites like ours. Think about it: would you rather learn about pesticides from a PhD chemist or an anti-vaccine chucklehead who writes for the Washington Post? Hopefully, the question answers itself.

 So, yes, many reporters are for sale. But every day, fewer people listen to what they have to say. Good riddance.   

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