From time to time, events at the highest levels of legal and political decision-making in Washington shed light on the importance of nonprofit media and the critical role of philanthropy in the support of journalism.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Curtis Flowers for the brutal murder of four people inside a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. Even before the high court’s decision, the Flowers case has been notorious for the fact that he has been tried six times for the same crime — twice ending in a mistrial with hung juries and three times having been thrown out over one form of prosecutorial misconduct after another. That dubious distinction caught the attention of reporters at American Public Media’s podcast series, In the Dark, who devoted Herculean effort to excavate the facts of the case for its award-winning second season.
Among the many exculpatory revelations contained in the gripping series, dogged reporting uncovered the prosecutor’s history of rarely seating black jurors, which contributed to the strong impression that Flowers was prosecuted unfairly. This pattern of racial discrimination was cited in briefs before the Supreme Court, which vacated the conviction based on the unfair practice of jury selection.
The Flowers decision is notable for several reasons, but especially for the composition of the 7-2 majority, with Brett Kavanaugh authoring the court’s ruling and Clarence Thomas writing a scathing dissent. Among his arguments, Thomas criticized the court for taking up the case in the first place, suggesting that it only did so because the Flowers case had attracted significant media attention.
Indeed, the court probably was influenced by the extraordinary reporting by the team at In the Dark. And that offers an important lesson for journalists and grantmakers who might consider support for media: this work can have a profound impact on justice and policy in America.
Two years ago, at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2017 Conference in Boston, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson offered an inspiring call to action for philanthropy to confront injustice in America’s unparalleled system of mass incarceration, especially the inequality that exists in death penalty cases. As he often does, Stevenson implored his comfortable audience to “get proximate to the problems,” illustrating his message with vivid examples from his own career as a lawyer and advocate for death penalty defendants.
Stevenson also suggested that one of the most important things for philanthropy to support is helping to change the terms of debate. “If we are going to advance justice, we must change the narratives that sustain inequality and injustice,” he said.
For philanthropy, journalism can be the shortest path to both getting proximate and confronting false and deeply entrenched narratives.
Last month, at CEP’s 2019 Conference in Minneapolis, at a session on podcasting and philanthropy, attendees heard from In The Dark co-creator and senior producer Samara Freemark, who discussed what it takes to find the truth in a story like the Flowers case, beset by shoddy police work and prosecutorial abuse, and deeply shrouded in racism.
It’s complicated, arduous, and expensive, she explained, requiring several members of the team to travel to Mississippi — some living there for longs stretches, slowly and carefully digging out the truth.
More and more, it falls to strong nonprofit news outlets like Pro Publica, The Marshall Project, and American Public Media to tell these critical stories. In large part, they are supported by individuals — viewers and listeners who make small contributions. But, increasingly, they also rely on foundation grants to carry out their vital work.
For funders who might consider support for journalism like this, two critical and related points must be understood: 1) journalism can have a huge impact on civic affairs; and 2) journalists have to approach each story with fairness and independence.
Journalism is not a jukebox, where you drop a coin in and pick a story that you want to hear. Journalists need to have the freedom and integrity to pursue the story — wherever it may lead.
In one episode at the end of season two of In The Dark, co-creator and lead reporter Madeleine Baran explains how good reporters approach this question.
“As reporters, you’re trained to be skeptical,” Baran says. “Our job as reporters is to be reporters. We are not activists for one side or another. We are not involved in protests or anything like that. It’s really important, the way we look at our job, for a reporter to be independent. We report the facts, and what happens with those facts in a democracy after that, what people decide to do…is up to those people to decide.”
Perhaps prophetically, Baran concludes, “It’s our job to expose an injustice. Everyone else’s job is to figure out what to do with that.”
Last week, the Supreme Court decided to do its job and overturn the injustice that put Curtis Flowers on death row.
Vince Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a member of CEP’s Board of Directors. You can find him on Twitter at @VinceDaily.