The sticky business of foundations funding the news

For years I’ve attended the annual conferences of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an international group that tries to keep the media honest, but the gathering just held in Montreal was unique. For the first time, ONO’s sessions offered simultaneous translation in three languages.

How that little upgrade happened offers an illuminating sidelight to a big problem confronting today’s revenue-starved media industry: Finding money.

Now, having interpreters transformed the character of the ONO meeting, which gathers public accountability officials from news outfits in the Americas, Europe, and Australia. French- and Spanish-speaking attendees were no longer marginalized, and the debates were more fully engaged than ever.

ONO long recognized its future couldn’t be English-only, but it’s perpetually cash-strapped and couldn’t pull thousands of dollars for translation services from a sock drawer. So it went shopping for grants and got two years’ worth, $126,500, which among other things enables its website and conferences to be trilingual.

The money came from the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire financier. Soros is one of this country’s most prolific philanthropists, an enthusiastic donor to educational and cultural initiatives and, notably, to leftist political causes. That has made him one of the most vilified figures in the right wing’s pantheon of evil-doers.

Thus did ONO become a lesser target in the wider shooting war against Soros. Dan Gainor, a writer with the rightist Media Research Center, included ONO in a recent four-part denunciation of Soros’ media giving. (Gainor even listed some of ONO’s individual members, as if the grants put them personally in Soros’ debt.) He didn’t mention how much money was involved or what it was for.

But then, Gainor had bigger quarry, including the $1.8 million Open Society gave to National Public Radio in October, Continue reading “The sticky business of foundations funding the news”