The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity will use a grant of nearly $3 million to take a closer look at the special-interest groups spending money in state elections.
The reporting initiative, “Consider the Source: Who’s Calling the Shots in State Politics?”, is an offshoot of the center’s Consider the Source project, which tracks special-interest spending on national political races. The new spinoff is supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which gave $2.88 million to CPI, among the largest donations in the center’s 15-year history.
The grant will sustain the project for three years, and CPI hopes to secure additional funding to sustain the reporting beyond that time frame. The center will launch a website devoted to the project in September. John Dunbar, deputy executive editor of CPI, will oversee the initiative.
“We’re really seeing there has been a really big push [in special-interest spending] on the state level, in part because there’s so much gridlock in Washington,” said Kytja Weir, a CPI reporter and project manager for the new initiative. “State legislatures are taking all kinds of laws and putting them into effect where the federal government hasn’t been able to make headway. So it is a real hotbed for activity.”
In the project’s first phase, CPI will study patterns in spending on TV ads focusing on November’s state elections. CPI’s website will provide resources and analysis for statehouse reporters at outlets across the country. Following the elections, CPI will track elected candidates and policies they enact to determine whether they align with the interests of their supporters. The center will also examine campaign financial disclosures. CPI will monitor campaigns for all state offices, including races for governor, attorney general and seats in legislatures.
Another Arnold Foundation grant in support of journalism came under scrutiny earlier this year, when a PandoDaily article focused attention on the funder’s backing of a PBS NewsHour Weekend series. The series, “Pension Peril,” focused on the issue of public pensions, and John Arnold had previously funded initiatives to reduce state and federal pensions. After the funding arrangement prompted criticism, WNET returned the $3.5 million grant.
Regardless, CPI was “very comfortable” accepting the Arnold Foundation’s grant because the center is confident about its editorial firewall and its transparency regarding funding sources, said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of CPI.
The controversy over “Pension Peril” was “a WNET issue maybe more than an Arnold issue,” Buzenberg said. CPI receives funding from dozens of different organizations and publicly discloses all philanthropic contributions, Buzenberg said. “All our editorial work, no matter where the support comes from, is ours alone. . . . There are no hidden agreements.”
“We fund organizations that are working to ensure that nonpartisan, unbiased, and accurate information is disseminated to support effective decision-making and government accountability,” said a spokesperson for the Arnold Foundation in a statement. The foundation also is “concerned about the lack of statehouse news coverage,” the spokesperson said. The number of full-time reporters covering state legislatures dropped by 35 percent nationwide from 2003 to 2014, according to a Pew Research Center report released earlier this month.
CPI will also relaunch this fall its State Integrity Investigation, tracking state anti-corruption laws and ranking states based on their performance. The Omidyar Group has committed $800,000 in funding to the project, with the stipulation that CPI must match the support with an additional $400,000. The center secured $300,000 from the Rita Allen Foundation and raised the rest from other donors, according to Buzenberg. Most of the funds will pay for part-time reporters and data reviewers in all 50 states.
CPI ran the project’s previous incarnation in 2011-2012 in partnership with Public Radio International. PRI is not partnering this time, but CPI still hopes to work with public radio stations across the country on statehouse reporting.
“We want the public radio system at the state level to have this work, use this work, do their own reporting on what we find,” said Buzenberg, a former v.p. of news at NPR and senior v.p. of news at American Public Media.
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