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For those unfamiliar, ProPublica is a somewhat recently-launched non-profit whose stated mission is to be the nation’s authority on professional, investigative reporting by "producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them." The catalyst behind ProPublica's endeavor is what it sees as a void in investigative journalism across mainstream media outlets – a discipline engaged by a free press to ensure a just and transparent society. Yet one of the organization's key founders and major financial backers supports interests aligned with what would appear anathema to ProPublica's stated principles – namely, George Soros' Media Matters – an organization with a long and controversial past that has, even recently, come under fire for seeking to silence press with which it is ideologically opposed. Headed by Paul Steiger, former editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, ProPublica's reports have a long reach despite their non-profit origin. With nearly 100 partnerships at various news outlets including the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and the L.A. Times, many of ProPublica's investigative reports touch a broad and diverse audience, thus helping to shape the nation's daily narrative.
It comes as no surprise then, that critics might be unsettled by what they view an obvious conflict created by the incongruent interests of ProPublica's Chairman.
Herbert Sandler, Chairman and key funder of ProPublica and funder of Media Matters
Herbert Sandler and his wife Marion are perhaps most infamous for their role in the 2008 subprime lending crash which led to a controversial Saturday Night Live skit suggesting the couple actually "be shot." The sketch was subsequently pulled from the network's website and instances of the video are now difficult to come across online. The Sandlers rose to power after founding Golden West Financial (formerly a Savings and Loans operation). In the early 1980s, the couple's World Savings Bank became the first to sell the controversial home loan option now dubbed Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARM) and reportedly marketed subprime mortgages aggressively to unsavvy buyers across the country. The risk with any adjustable rate mortgage is that buyers are enticed by low initial interest rates which can and usually do rise, thus increasing the homeowner's monthly payment substantially, often to a point where default is the only option. After decades in the industry, the Sandlers eventually sold their former S&L to Wachovia in 2006 for $24 billion -- a hefty profit. The move raised questions over the Sandlers' motivations and, in retrospect, some consider it to have been "convenient timing" for the couple. In the end, the purchase did not prove lucrative for Wachovia and the acquisition led directly to the financial institution's collapse just two years later. Due to what many considered an obvious scam, rarely across media are the Sandlers painted in a favorable light. Even Time Magazine included the couple in its "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis" list:
And they pushed the mortgage [ARM], which offered several ways to back-load your loan and thereby reduce your early payments, with increasing zeal and misleading advertisements over the next two decades. The couple pocketed $2.3 billion when they sold their bank to Wachovia in 2006. But losses on World Savings' loan portfolio led to the implosion of Wachovia, which was sold under duress late last year to Wells Fargo.
Below is a screenshot of the controversial Saturday Night Live sketch. One of the other "characters" depicted in this same skit was none other than George Soros:
Meanwhile, Sandler is Chairman of the board of ProPublica, a non-profit organization producing original, investigative content to be shared with some of the grandest media platforms in the business. Since its founding in 2007, Sandler marked his support by pledging an initial donation of $10 million with similar continuing annual contributions to the organization. The issue, many argue, is that Sandler also happens to be a key supporter and financial donor to several George Soros-initiatives, including Media Matters -- a group that has consistently come under fire for seeking to silence the very free-press ProPublica claims to stand for. Needless to say, since its inception, many moderate and conservative voices have expressed skepticism over ProPublica in light of the ideological bend of its founding-father. An editorial in Investor's Business Daily asked if "a couple of left-wing billionaires" could "really be sincere about creating a 'nonpartisan,' 'non-ideological' center for investigative reporting."
The article went on to ask if the pair was just "paying more to drive the media agenda further left" given the Sandlers' penchant for funding "leftist causes and the Democratic Party." The couple have garnered their place in the top tier of donors, giving MoveOn.org $2.5 million in 2004 alone. That was reportedly as much money as their "philanthropic ally" George Soros contributed to the organization personally.
Through their charity, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, it has also been reported the couple gave at least $5,723,222 to the ACORN network -- the disgraced and now defunct community organizing group made infamous for registering the deceased to "vote Democrat" in the 2008 election. The Sandler's charity gave $4,498,222 to the American Institute for Social Justice since 2003, $700,000 to Project Vote in 2005 and $525,000 to ACORN 2000–2001 according to Activist Cash. This of course excludes any personal contributions made by either Marion or Herbert. The Sandlers have also made substantial contributions to the Center for Responsible Lending, an ACORN ally that champions the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The Sandler foundation has given the Center at least $11,200,000 since 2005. Activist Cash describes the Center for Responsible Lending as a: "'consumer advocacy' front-group that lobbied for expanded subprime lending while promoting its funders’ business interests."
The Blaze also obtained copies of The Sandler Foundation's 990 tax returns dating back to 2005 and the list of liberal organizations and leftist causes to which the foundation contributes are vast. From the Center for American Progress to the ACLU, far-left J-Street to Soros' Tides Foundation and Media Matters, below are a mere fraction of the Sandler Foundation's contributions in 2009 alone:
Media Matters Most of those who follow The Blaze are likely familiar with Media Matters, the self-proclaimed media watchdog group that abandoned a traditional monitoring platform to become an unabashed attack apparatus poised to counter any conservative media voice it deems unpalatable. In fact, throughout the Obama presidency, Media Matters, joined by the Center for American
Progress, has been coordinating strategy with the White House through participation in a weekly conference call. Another report also noted that in early 2012, as the presidential election season was gaining momentum, Media Matters was planning to spend $20 million – double the organization’s reported $10 million annual budget – on "efforts to influence media coverage prior to the election." "This was a fulfillment of David Brock’s spring 2011 pledge to enlist Media Matters into a campaign of 'guerilla warfare and sabotage' against Fox News," Discover the Networks reported. Brock’s vitriol for Fox network was so untamed in fact, that Media Matters considered harassing individual Fox News employees "with yard signs in their neighborhoods, hiring private investigators to dig into their personal lives and retaining a 'major law firm' to study legal action against the network." Pointing to this apparent vendetta, Brock co-authored a book titled The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine that was released in February 2012. Glenn Beck has also discussed Media Matters leftist agenda in depth on GBTV. Beck and other members of the media who do not subscribe to a left-wing agenda have frequently noted that one of the classic tactics of progressivism is to silence any and all differing viewpoints -- especially within the media. So egregious has Media Matters behavior been in fact, that in March 2011 Politico.com reported that while the organization was originally "launched as a more traditional media critic," it "has all but abandoned its monitoring of newspapers and other television networks and is narrowing its focus to Fox and a handful of conservative websites, which its leaders view as political organizations and the 'nerve center' of the conservative movement." Ironically, Media Matters does not view MSNBC or The New York times as "political organizations" worthy of condemnation.
With its long and checkered history, many would ask if Media Matters is the kind of organization that embodies or is best-aligned with those seeking journalistic integrity – in this case, Herb Sandler and the ProPublica editorial board.
Comprising some of the industry's most seasoned newsmen, the ProPublica leadership is indeed formidable. Paul E. Steiger, editor-in-chief, CEO and president of the organization, formerly served as the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal from 1991 to 2007. Ironically, according to his bio, Steiger is also a member of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides free legal assistance to journalists. He also served as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described as a New York-based nonprofit that "advocates for press freedom around the globe."
Stephen Engelberg serves as ProPublica's managing editor, a position he formerly held at The Oregonian. Engelberg is a longtime investigative reporter, mainly with The New York Times where he worked for 18 years.
Richard Tofel is the organization's general manager. According to his bio, Tofel's responsibilities lie in all of the organization's "non-journalism operations, including communications, legal, development, finance and budgeting, and human resources." Formerly the assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal he previously served as vice president of corporate communications for Dow Jones & Company and an assistant general counsel of Dow Jones.
Conclusion Launching a new endeavor, especially a non-profit, is a process often riddled with administrative challenges and financial hurdles. While in its nascent stage, it is thus not unreasonable to understand why a fledgling organization might be open to receiving funds from any number of seemingly-reputable sources. However, when journalistic integrity through investigative reporting is the cornerstone of an operation, there appears to be a certain level of hypocrisy in partnering with a duo who simultaneously endorse an organization that routinely seeks to silence media voices (operating within a free press) with which it disagrees. A glance at ProPublica's investigations on a range of topics including fracking, Freddie Mac and the foreclosure crisis, redistricting and Super PACs, offer what appears to be a critical eye on issues pertaining to both right and left ends of the political spectrum. However, a deeper look into the organization's foreclosure-related investigations reveal little to no information on the Sandlers' role in the 2008 market crash. This is perhaps not coincidental. What seems most noteworthy to some critics, however, is that neither Steiger nor ProPublica's partner newspapers have yet to disclose the Sandler's involvement in the very stories ProPublica produces. Ironically, some are quick to forget the Sandlers were vilified by members of their own political and ideological base for their role in the housing market debacle. Why is it then, that those very members of the liberal establishment now seem to laud the Sandlers as noble for funding an outlet that claims to be dedicated to truth-telling?