Poynter sometimes describes itself as a “school for journalists,” and its reputation is exactly that. It is a non-profit school based in Tampa Bay that also owns the Tampa Bay Times. Which is why it is news that they are taking money from the notorious right-wing donors, the Koch Brothers. Per Poynter:
The Poynter Institute, a global leader in journalism excellence, and the Charles Koch Institute (CKI), a champion of free speech and collaboration, announce the Poynter-Koch Media & Journalism Fellowship.
Charles Koch became the 8th richest person in the world by owning a company whose business model is atmospheric suicide, and he used the profits to purchase a political party in order to protect his homicidal profits. No matter what Poynter does with the money, this is a bad look for them. Either they are letting the fox into the henhouse and letting a political kingmaker influence their fellowship, or they are helping to legitimize a man with one of the most transparently destructive agendas in politics.
At first glance, it sounds like Poynter is taking Charles Koch’s money, and doing normal school for journalists stuff with it. Per Poynter again:
Approximately 45 early-career journalists will be admitted to the yearlong program designed to encourage entrepreneurial journalists and storytellers. This career accelerator focuses on the pillars of First Amendment law, foundations of a free press, media ethics, reporting/storytelling techniques and digital literacy, including best practices in social media. Faculty include NPR’s Ashley Messenger and former CNN White House correspondent Dan Lothian. Other industry experts will lead sessions.
To dig deeper on some of those “other industry experts,” I’ll turn the microphone over to Sludge Senior investigative reporter, Alex Kotch.
Poynter has been through this before. Last year, they had to write a post titled “What we do with money from the Koch Foundation.” It included emphatic statements like this:
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.
Even if that’s true, there is still the issue of legitimization here. So much of what Poynter is teaching about journalism with Charles Koch’s money is ultimately under siege from a Republican Party funded in part with Charles Koch’s money. Poynter is lending their reputation to someone who is beneath them, and providing some measure of political cover to Charles Koch in the process. Sure, Charles Koch can bankroll an insurrection in the GOP that inevitably elects Donald Trump as its leader, but he gives money so a few scores of young people can learn journalism—in summation, Charles Koch is a land of contrasts.
A handful of billionaires are holding us and the planet hostage, all in servile fealty to the almighty dollar. Poynter does important work, and there is no doubt that dollars can help create progress, no matter where those dollars come from, but at what point do we begin fighting back against these familiar adversaries? Can we even fight back? How can anyone ask a non-profit to turn down a donation from a billionaire?
Life in America is a series of surrenders we call compromises, where the most consistent outcome is a few get more, and many receive less. While Poynter receives some money to fund journalism education (and to not fund journalism education for the few poor souls who get sentenced to work in the right-wing Pepegulags), the Koch brothers gain an unearned legitimacy. The cost of these fellowships is the equivalent of change the Koch brothers find under their couch, and they have spent infinitely more on influencing a kind of politics that stands opposed to the journalism taught by Poynter. At its very core, journalism is about revealing truths that power does not want to be revealed, and a journalist teaching outfit taking money from one of the world’s richest men who has spent a fortune on his immense hidden power is a depressingly accurate summary of what America’s political life in 2019 is like.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.