Posts Tagged ‘Kelly McBride’


Bad communication, an apology: examining Koch sponsorship

Heading into this year’s national Excellence in Journalism convention, a few SPJ chapters criticized the national board and headquarters because the Charles Koch Institute was sponsoring a Freedom of Information Act session.

I didn’t mind the sponsorship, which appeared to mesh with an SPJ policy approved in 2003.

However, SPJ failed to give critics (and all SPJ members) accurate information — particularly about whether the Charles Koch Institute planned the session it sponsored. For that, I apologize. (Note: This piece reflects my views — not the SPJ board or anyone else.)

SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio hinted at this in a column posted Oct. 24, writing that because of “a flurry of emails … some SPJ national board members became convinced that sponsors were not, in fact, involved in planning sessions.”

That characterization is technically true, but further explanation and context is in order.

In August, the Chicago Headline Club contacted SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and then-President Rebecca Baker with concern about the Charles Koch Institute as an EIJ sponsor. This prompted thorough discussion by the SPJ and SDX boards and McKenzie of this and other sponsorships.

Tarquinio, as president-elect, agreed to form a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations by Dec. 1. That effort is underway. All SPJ members have been invited to take a survey on sponsorship questions. An online conversation will be held Nov. 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Irwin Gratz, a past SPJ president and incoming president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation Board), tracked down the approved 2003 policy and shared it with the boards during our discussion. Many of us weighed in on how the Koch sponsorship aligned with that policy.

Some key points:

  • “No money will be accepted from domestic or foreign governments, or from political organizations.”
  • “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program. All convention programs will be on-the-record. People and organizations with positions directly opposed to those of any contributor may be invited to appear.”

This is the 2003 SPJ convention sponsorship policy

Since the policy was approved in 2003, SPJ has had plenty of turnover in its headquarters staff and on its board. As a result, it looks as if, when the Koch sponsorship was proposed and accepted, no one was aware of that policy.

(The task force has found that the SPJ board in 2008 approved an update to the policy. The two key points above did not change, but others did.)

A collective failure in communication compounded the problem. The SPJ and SDX boards reviewed the 2003 policy as if it governed the Koch agreement. Regional directors sent messages explaining and supporting the Koch agreement to all chapters, based on the same understanding.

Separately, though, our staff was proceeding differently with Koch and other sponsors, who were, indeed, allowed to plan sessions they sponsored.

It’s a legitimate question whether the 2003 policy applies now, since it was approved when SPJ held its own conventions, without partners (i.e., RTDNA) we have now. We can no longer say “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program.”

Certainly, the policy needs to be re-examined and updated, which the task force is doing.

But the failure to provide accurate information was wrong, and we have ourselves to blame.

When I asked during the board’s Sept. 30 meeting if Koch planned the session it sponsored, Tarquinio said, “They did not plan it, but obviously we spoke with them and the process was a little [I’m not sure of the word she used here] this year because, as many of you know, Alison did have to step in for our program manager, who left in the middle of EIJ.”

(The sponsorship discussion during the Sept. 30 meeting is posted here, starting at about 45:40.)

McKenzie then told us that sponsors at that level picked from a choice of sessions. (McKenzie said that level was $25,000, but it actually was $20,000, according to the sponsorship task force.)

“They and any other sponsor at that level can plan their panel,” she said. “It’s their panel. It’s a sponsored panel.”

She said she chose the moderator, plus one panelist. Koch chose the other two panelists. “I reviewed their description and tweaked it, and sort of changed it a little bit,” McKenzie said. “So I was pretty heavy-handed in putting their panel together.”

She continued: “My understanding is, in the past, it hasn’t worked like that — that the sponsor pretty much picks, chooses the panel, chooses the description. I just was very involved in this particular panel.”

When I asked about the 2003 policy that said SPJ controls all aspects of the program, McKenzie said, “I was not aware of our policy at the time.”

Board member Lauren Bartlett mentioned “talking points” our headquarters staff gave the board on Sept. 24 about the Koch sponsorship, including this:

  • The institute doesn’t control anything about the session. It did not pick the topic or select the speakers, who are independent from the Koch foundation.

“No, that was inaccurate,” McKenzie told us.

Collectively, we failed and I understand the frustration of the Chicago Headline Club and others.

There is room for reasonable debate about appropriate sponsorship limits. But facts matter, too.

The Chicago Headline Club told its members that “the Charles Koch Institute, for example, is part of a secretive and complex family of groups whose goal is to advance the Koch brothers’ political ideologies.”

I note that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Charles Koch Institute is legally prohibited from political advocacy (although I was called “naïve” to think this limitation is meaningful or obeyed).

Also, the Charles Koch Institute has a record of funding journalism efforts — such as with The Poynter Institute and the Newseum — that align with SPJ’s mission.

For example, from the Charles Koch Institute’s website:

Civil debate and the free exchange of speech and ideas — on our college campuses, in the arts, and in the press — allow us to challenge both ourselves and the status quo. In order to protect good ideas and speech, we must protect all ideas and speech, so long as they do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.

Also:

The Media and Journalism Fellowship program is for aspiring and entrepreneurial journalists and story tellers. Our program offers media and creative professionals the opportunity to refine their skills while learning about the crucial role of free speech and a free press in our society.

The Poynter Institute was in a similar situation when it accepted money from the Charles S. Koch Foundation (the same organization, despite the variation in the name) to strengthen student publications.

Kelly McBride wrote about why Poynter was comfortable with the arrangement:

We pick the schools. We set the curriculum. We hire the faculty. We occasionally update our contacts at the Koch Foundation about our progress. I can personally attest that over the last year our contacts at the Koch Foundation gave us complete independence to run the program the way we saw fit. …

As an ethics specialist, I’m confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line.

If SPJ has the same firewall, I am comfortable with the same approach.

I don’t agree with all of the points raised by SPJ chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. For example, Chicago insists that the SPJ Code of Ethics applies here. I disagree — the code is a set of guidelines for journalism, not deciding conference sponsorships.

Still, I apologize that we gave critics, and others, wrong information.

I couldn’t attend the FOIA session at EIJ because it conflicted with a national board meeting, but the Charles Koch Institute posted this about it:

At its 2018 Excellence in Journalism Conference last week, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion on use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Panelists included National Public Radio science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce and Jesse Franzblau, a policy analyst at Open the Government (OTG) — an organization that works to promote government openness through the use of access to information laws.

Starting with the premise that FOIA has allowed journalists to shine a light on government for more than 50 years, panelists explained how journalists can navigate FOIA for their benefit; how to find the right information and to isolate good stories; and how to ensure that they get the timely and complete answers from state officials.

The discussion coincided with OTG’s release its citizen’s guide to “America’s Forever Wars and the Secrecy that Sustains Them.” The project, which OTG policy analyst Emily Manna describes as helping the public understand FOIA’s role in “bringing transparency to issues vital to the public’s understanding of military and national security programs,” is supported by Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute.

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