Jan 1 2002

Heritage’s Gift Horse

What will foundation gain from training the media?

Reporters on assignment in Washington who need telephone access and email services need look no further than the Media Visitors Center.

Location: the Heritage Foundation.

The conservative foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy also offers journalists free training in computer-assisted research and reporting and hosts regular seminars featuring policy experts on national issues. It is quite open about its mission “to bridge this chasm between conservatives and the media by encouraging a productive dialogue instead of confrontation.”

“Most journalists I know are liberal and there is a feeling that conservatives like to use the media as punching bags,” says Mark Tapscott, director of Heritage’s media center. “That doesn’t mean they can’t be good journalists. Whether [liberals] agree or not, conservatives have a fundamental role in public policy and liberals have an obligation to give conservatives a fair hearing.”

Why is Heritage training journalists when numerous institutions already exist for that purpose? “Many graduates of good journalism schools in the last decade and a half have lacked historical understanding, understanding on basic public policy process, and the importance of the First Amendment,” Tapscott says. “But the decline in the quality of [journalists’] preparation probably mirrors the general decline in the quality of education overall.”

Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group agrees that burgeoning journalists do not receive adequate support to do an increasingly complicated job–and that’s why Heritage’s efforts concern her. “This reflects a much bigger problem. News organizations have abdicated their responsibility to reinvest in their own newsrooms,” says Dorfman. “They’re taking the profits away rather than ensuring that their own people have the skills that they need to do good, investigative journalism. If the newsroom is not going to do it, the Heritage Foundation is going to step in fill that gap.”

Dorfman attributes the disinvestment to the consolidations of news organizations, resulting in increasing pressures to produce profits. “They answer to shareholders rather than the communities they are here to serve by virtue of the First Amendment,” she explains.

And she does worry about the kinds of data Heritage will offer journalists. “I wonder which databases will be exposed, how they will be discussed, and whether they will reflect certain policy options over others,” she says.

Writer and media critic Makani Themba-Nixon charges Heritage with pulling a bait-and-switch. “For Heritage to act as if these issues are value-free, and that this data is not about their larger agenda, is disingenuous,” she says. “Studies are about the questions you ask. Heritage doesn’t want to work with journalists who want to cover funding inequity to urban schools, but those who want to cover school vouchers.”

Tapscott insists that the Media Center is not part of the Heritage spin machine, and challenges anyone to scrutinize its databases. “What we’ve done is methodologically transparent,” Tapscott boasts. “We encourage all the media folks we work with to take it outside to the independent expert of their choosing and ask them to evaluate the quality and credibility of the statistical analysis.”

Not a bad idea–if you can afford it; in 2000, the Heritage Foundation enjoyed an income of almost $28 million. “No one is spending millions of dollars just to help out newspapers,” Themba-Nixon insists. “Heritage seeks to change coverage and providing data is one of many initiatives. Media have to think twice when information they would ordinarily pay for is donated.”

Dorfman agrees. “Most news organizations can afford to bring in organizations, like the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting and Investigative Reporters and Editors, to do in-house training–journalism-based organizations–rather than leave it to a right-wing think tank,” she argues. “These [news] organizations operate at a profit level that far exceeds most industries. They need not be so greedy and respect their role in democracy and the responsibility they have to their communities.”

As for Heritage’s role in the same, Themba-Nixon quotes Edward A. Roberts, Jr.– a Tampa Tribune journalist and Media Center advisory board member–who called the undertaking the “boldest diplomatic gambit since Nixon went to China.”

“A gambit is something you give up to get something else. This is not public enterprise.” she argues. “This is negotiation, and not enough journalist organizations have asked what Heritage wants in return.”

Sofia Quintero is is a writer and activist based in New York City who sits on the board of We Interrupt This Message, a national nonprofit media strategy and training center.