Let’s Talk About Funding Journalism
As the founding editor of The Public Source, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about funding. How to remain principled, yet ensure the viability of this publication. How to secure fair living wages and working conditions for my colleagues while avoiding the patronage of establishment political parties and business interests. How to continue to produce quality local public interest journalism — that is costly and labor intensive — without sponsored content, ads, clickbaits, or paywalls.
When this publication was founded in January 2020, we set some red lines. We would not accept money from anyone who jeopardizes our editorial independence and we would only take funds from donor organizations that share our values to a certain extent. We also made a list of funders we would not associate with under any circumstances, no matter how desperate.
So I was intrigued when I came across Al-Akhbar's promotional material announcing the release of a hefty dossier earlier this year on the "fighters of the soft war" in Lebanon (disclosure: I was formerly employed by Al-Akhbar English). The dossier tackles the mechanics of regime change and democracy promotion, a worthwhile endeavor, but also drifts into unsubstantiated conspiracies that mystify hegemonic interventions across the Global South.
Western funding of local NGOs ought to be critiqued, of course, and there is much to be said on who gets funding and for what purpose. There is a reason programs like Countering Violent Extremism, for example, suddenly dominate the work of many organizations then disappear without a trace, or why individual rights have occupied such a privileged place in advocacy circles at the expense of collective liberation.
But what I found troubling about Al-Akhbar's ongoing series is that it repeats tired insinuations that local NGOs are collaborators and their workers native informants, and offers little to no data that can't already be found on the platforms of both foreign donors and their local recipients. It should be noted that the newspaper is not as forthright about its own sources of funding.
It's widely accepted by now that the NGO-ization of social movements is part of the neoliberal project that started in the 1980s. As Arundhati Roy eloquently articulated so many years ago, "corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance's way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies and then try to control them from within," adding that, "it’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs."
In Lebanon, where we are living through a severe economic crisis under desperate conditions, there is no doubt that so many of us remain docile in part because of this outbreak.
But let's get back to my main preoccupation: funding journalism. It is important to consider who is privileged to pursue this craft, who gets to climb the ladder, and most crucially who sets the agenda.
In an absolutely delicious TV moment from 1996 between a defensive BBC journalist and Noam Chomsky elaborating on his book, "Manufacturing Consent," the journalist indignantly asks Chomsky, "[but] how can you know that I'm self-censoring?" To which the latter calmly responds, "I'm sure you believe everything you're saying, but what I'm saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting here today."
With few exceptions, such as reporting under totalitarian regimes, media is the perfect vehicle for propaganda as it can be transferred seamlessly without violence or even the need for censorship. And regardless of which end of the spectrum a publication's editorial line falls under, all funding comes from politically motivated sponsors, both foreign and local. It would be foolish to believe otherwise.
In Lebanon, a few dynasties tightly control mass media while the state actively obstructs the entry of newcomers. The unfortunate reality today is that foreign-funded independent platforms, such as this one, offer not only some respite from the incessant noise emitted by mainstream outlets — but provide alternative readings that are essential to the public's ability to understand and navigate through the country's overlapping crises.
In the absence of public funding, our resistance to corporate sponsorship, and our selective fundraising process, we are left with few means to pursue the public interest journalism we are devoted to.
At the start of the year, two years after launching this publication, we took some time to reflect on our work and to reimagine the role we ought to be playing in these dark times.
After a brief hiatus, we are returning today as a bi-monthly publication for uncompromising journalism and critical commentary from the left, featuring long-reads and visual experiments, chronicling the crisis; reviving lost histories of struggle, and dreaming up new ways of seeing.
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