Thursday, September 29, 2005

Public Editor Tackles Farm Aid Story

Well, the Tribune's Don Wycliff doesn't really tackle the story, but he sort of forces it out of bounds. His analysis comes a bit late considering the the original article ran almost two weeks ago, but it's better than nothing. Let's start with this:

The story does not say that grantmaking is Farm Aid's only programmatic activity; in fact it says quite the opposite. But it implies that only grantmaking is or would be a legitimate activity...
This ignores the comparison of grants to the standard for program expenses, which makes it sound as though the two numbers are equivalent measurements. The story may say "quite the opposite" about Farm Aid, but it is buried several paragraphs further down. And Wycliff surely knows that not everyone reads through an entire story to see if it contradicts itself later. I would like to hear from Naomi Levine, who was paraphrased (not directly quoted) as saying, "An organization should be giving away at least 65 percent of its revenue to be considered performing adequately." I'll bet that "giving away" isn't really what she said, or at least not what she meant. Plenty of worthy charities don't "give away" most of their money. Does a food pantry or a homeless shelter give money away? No, they use the money to provide food and shelter to the needy. At least Wycliff notes the false implication that grantmaking is the only good thing a charity can do. Next...

Jim Kirk, the Tribune's associate managing editor for business news, said the story accepted the grants/expenses dichotomy as legitimate for purposes of the Farm Aid story. It did so, he said, because grants are a relatively straightforward thing, while an organization can shove all sorts of spending under the category of "expenses," whether or not it is legitimately related to the organization's purposes and the expectations of donors.
So Kirk is saying that the inappropriate comparison is in fact "legitimate" because Farm Aid might be hiding something in its expenses? That assumption sets the bar pretty low for journalistic integrity, doesn't it? And again, would Ms. Levine agree with this "dichotomy?" (I'd ask her, but I'm sure she has better things to do than correspond with the 79,471st most popular blogger in the world.) To his credit, Wycliff goes on to note that Kirk's claim is specious because it assumes that grant recipients don't waste any money themselves and that Farm Aid isn't doing good work with the money that doesn't go to grants.

Wycliff's summation is probably the best admission we'll get from the newspaper that their story was garbage:

The Tribune's story told readers something interesting about Farm Aid. It's not clear that it told them anything very meaningful or important.
That begs the question, If something is not "very meaningful or important," is it news? I don't think so. Then why report it?

There are two problems caused by the original story. First, Farm Aid has been sullied in the minds of readers who don't pick apart stories the way I do, especially those who only read the first few paragraphs. Second, those readers might decide to judge all charities by the misleading standards used in the article. Quite frankly, that would hurt a lot (probably a majority) of the organizations out there. While I am glad to see that somebody at the Tribune is willing to publicly acknowledge some of the Farm Aid story's troublesome aspects, I lament that most readers will never see this follow-up.

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - Hmm, maybe I was too easy on Wycliff. Check out the latest from Jack Siegel at Charity Governance:

UPDATE 09/29/2005 - The always insightful Michael Miner takes apart the Tribune's story in this week's Chicago Reader. He even talks to Naomi Levine. Guess what she said...

She told me she didn't remember talking to the Tribune and knew nothing about Farm Aid, wasn't sure she'd ever heard of it. You did speak to the Tribune, I told her, and they reported you said 28 percent was too small a cut of a nonprofit's revenues for donations. What about 75 percent of its expenses going to grants and programs?

"It seems OK to me," Levine said. "If they're giving that much in grants and programs, it's a respectable number."

In Levine's defense, I imagine that the reporter approached her for a general number without mentioning what he was saying about Farm Aid or how he was going to twist her words to imply something else. Or maybe he plucked it out of some other interview in a secondary source. Who knows? Whatever he did, he sure screwed it up.

UPDATE 10/04/2005 - Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar finally gets her say in Voice of the People. She points out the mistake of comparing grants to the program expense standard, then goes on to discuss the concert:

The story unfairly compared Farm Aid to another benefit concert. Every benefit concert has different goals and a different financial structure. Farm Aid's concert raises funds, promotes food from family farms and highlights the importance of family farming. The concert galvanizes gifts and generates revenue. The concert has consistently achieved these goals. (I condensed these sentences into one paragraph.)
Mugar makes a good point. Perhaps Mr. George should have thought about Live 8. The sole objective of that concert series was to raise awareness with no fundraising expectations whatsoever. Farm Aid falls somewhere between Live 8 and the Bridge School concerts and shouldn't be compared to either of them.

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