Non-profit

Poynter Institute for Media Studies

Website:

www.poynter.org

Location:

ST PETERSBURG, FL

Tax ID:

59-1630423

Tax-Exempt Status:

501(c)(3)

Budget (2016):

Revenue: $5,945,618
Expenses: $5,318,845
Assets: $39,762,709

Formation:

May 29, 1975 as Modern Media Institute

Type:

Journalism School

Publications:

Tampa Bay Times (Florida)

President:

Neil Brown

President's Compensation:

$296,649 [60]

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies is a nonprofit journalism institution located in St. Petersburg, Florida. It owns and controls Times Publishing Company, which publishes the Tampa Bay Times and previously published Congressional Quarterly. Poynter operates the controversial left-of-center PolitiFact fact-checking organization, which was launched by its subsidiary St. Petersburg Times in 2007. Critics have argued that Politifact’s style of “fact-checking” purports to adjudicate whether a particular statement is factually true or false but instead launders biased opinion analysis by making non-factual interpretive and judgment calls, typically in a manner favorable to liberals and Democrats and hostile to conservatives and Republicans. [1] [2]

Leadership and Organizational Structure

According to an analysis in the Columbia Journalism Review, the overlapping ownership and control structure between the Poynter Institute, Times Publishing Company and the Tampa Bay Times is such that “The paper, in effect, owns itself.” [3]

The president of the Poynter Institute is Neil Brown, who had been the editor of the Tampa Bay Times and a managing editor of Congressional Quarterly. [4]

The chairman and CEO of Times Publishing Company, which publishes the Tampa Bay Times, is Paul C. Tash. He is also the chairman of the board of the Poynter Institute. [5]

History

Founding

Journalist and publisher Nelson Poynter founded the Modern Media Institute as a school for journalists in 1975. Upon his death in 1978, his will transferred his controlling ownership of the St. Petersburg Times Company to the Institute.

Renamed the Times Publishing Company, it now publishes the Tampa Bay Times – formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times – and other Tampa-area media brands. The company also owned and published Congressional Quarterly until selling it in 2009. [6]

Congressional Quarterly

Nelson Poynter had founded Congressional Quarterly (CQ) in 1945 as a federal government news and legislative tracking service for local newspapers across the United States. [7] CQ became an influential source of news about Congress and the broader federal government, although an early attempt by editor Thomas Schroth to add analysis to CQ’s factual coverage resulted in Poynter firing him. [8] [9]

In the decades after Poynter’s death, CQ added analysis and opinion to its coverage and its influence grew to the point where long-time “NBC Nightly News” anchor John Chancellor reportedly characterized CQ as having a “Biblical status in Washington and every newsroom in the country.” [10]

In 2009, Times Publishing sold CQ to UK-based The Economist Group, which merged it with its Roll Call publications. [11]

Tampa Tribune

In 2016, Poynter’s Times Publishing Company purchased the Tampa Tribune, its largest local competitor. It immediately ceased publication of the Tribune and laid off almost all its employees, while rolling its subscribers and advertising into the Tampa Bay Times. More than 265 employees unexpectedly lost their jobs, in what 42-year Tribune sportswriter Joe Henderson called a “quick” and “clinical” operation. [12]

Responding to criticism of a nonprofit founded to support journalism purchasing a newspaper with the intention of closing it down and laying off its journalists, Times Publishing Company chairman and CEO Paul Tash attempted to justify the decision by saying, “Whatever is the number of jobs that is lost now pales in comparison to the number of jobs that have been lost already in newspaper publishing generally, because of the economic pressures that have been upon us… It’s also smaller than the number of jobs that would be lost if this kind of unstable situation had continued.” [13] Later in 2016, Tash announced additional layoffs at the Tampa Bay Times, returning the paper to the headcount it had before the Tribune acquisition and effectively completing the layoff of the Tribune’s entire workforce. [14]

Loan Raises Independence Questions

In 2017, Times Publishing announced that it had received a $12 million loan from a consortium of partially anonymous local business owners to assist it in refinancing debt related to the Tampa Tribune purchase, but claimed the deal gave the investors no say in the Times’ editorial coverage. [15] Local politicians and other media in the region publicly questioned Times Publishing’s decision to keep investors in the region’s only remaining major newspaper secret, especially after an investigation by a local Tampa television station unmasked one of those investors as a prominent and controversial figure in the failed construction of a new Major League Baseball stadium and raised questions about the quality of the Times’s coverage of that deal. [16] [17] [18]

Tampa Bay Times Financial Struggles

In 2018, the Tampa Bay Times announced the layoff of roughly 50 employees. A spokesperson blamed tariff increases on newsprint for the dismissals. [19] Shortly before the layoffs were announced, Times Publishing Company CEO chairman and CEO Paul Tash had written a column in the Times claiming the tariffs would cost the paper $3 million per year. Tash listed the names and contact information of the Tampa-area Congressional delegation and encouraged readers to call, write, and Tweet at them to oppose the tariff increases. [20]

Times Publishing also blamed the tariffs for their decision to cease payments to a trust for Nelson Poynter’s 92-year-old widow, Marion K. Poynter. In the early 1990s, Times Publishing reached an agreement with Mrs. Poynter to make payments in return for control of her shares of Times Publishing’s stock, giving its leadership the necessary voting rights to hold off an attempt by outside investor Robert M. Bass to influence the company’s operations. [21] Poynter’s trust sued Times Publishing for nonpayment, claiming it was owed $7.8 million plus interest. [22] The company settled the suit in 2019 for an undisclosed amount. [23] [24]

PolitiFact

In 2007, the editors of the St. Petersburg Times launched PolitiFact as a “fact-checking” election year project, rating the statements of political candidates based on their perceived accuracy. [25] It has since expanded into multiple state editions, as well as launched a “PunditFact” ranking site for political commentators that received its original seed money from left-of-center Craigslist founder Craig Newmark; the left-of-center Ford Foundation and Democracy Fund continue to fund the project. [26] Since 2013, Democracy Fund has donated more than $1,000,000 to PolitiFact, both to the PunditFact project and to grow PolitiFact’s operations in new states. [27]

Poynter took over operation of PolitiFact in 2018 to make it easier for the site to solicit charitable donors for support of its work. PolitiFact says that it receives administrative support, but no money, from Poynter, and is reliant on advertising sales and donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals. [28] Since 2013, Democracy Fund has donated more than $1,000,000 to PolitiFact, both to the PunditFact project and to grow PolitiFact’s operations in new states. [29]

Poynter continues to expand its role in “fact-checking” through the creation of the International Fact-Checking Network and MediaWise, a Google Foundation-funded partnership with Stanford University to teach teenagers how to “discern fact from fiction online.” [30]

Methodological Criticism

Critics from across the political spectrum have said that PolitiFact’s rulings categorize as “true” or “false” many matters that are truly matters of opinion, or for which there is not enough information to make a judgement, or that are simply predictions about whether they will come true in the future. [31]

For example, left-wing MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow took issue with PolitiFact’s presentation of opinions and analyses around President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address as “facts” subject to checking. She criticized the service saying, “You [Politifact] are undermining the definition of the word ‘fact’ in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on fact-ishness, let alone fact.” [32]

Similarly, libertarian Cato Institute health policy expert Michael Cannon, whom PolitiFact had regularly used as a resource for health care-related analysis, withdrew his participation in PolitiFact in 2011 because PolitiFact characterized statements that were at most mistaken – and arguably correct – as “Lies of the Year.” [33]

“In neither the case of ‘death panels’ nor ‘government takeover’ has PolitiFact offered any evidence that the speakers knew or believed their statements to be false,” Cannon wrote. “Until PolitiFact offers such evidence, it has no factual basis for calling either statement a lie. [34]

PolitiFact’s founder Bill Adair has said the site’s editors decided to artificially divide all claims into True or False, “because of fears that we’d end up rating many, many things ‘unsubstantiated.’” [35]

Left-Leaning Bias

Many critics argue that PolitiFact, which draws significantly more of its funding from left-wing organizations than from conservative or centrist groups, has a left-leaning bias in what politicians’ and pundits’ statements it decides to review, and how it reviews them. [36] An independent 2013 analysis from the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University concluded that PolitiFact was three times as likely to rank statements from Republicans as “Pants on Fire,” and twice as likely to rank statements from Democrats as “Entirely True.” [37]

“You Can Keep [Your Plan]”

The PolitiFact team at the St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 2009 for their coverage of the 2008 presidential election. [38] Part of that coverage involved a “True” rating for then-Senator Obama’s famous promise that under his plans for Obamacare, “if you’ve got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it.” [39] PolitiFact’s editors admitted that they based their “True” rating on an assumption that the policy would work as advertised:

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s plan will actually be able to achieve the cost savings it promises for the health care system. But people who want to keep their current insurance should be able to do that under Obama’s plan. His description of his plan is accurate, and we rate his statement True.

The next year, as Obamacare began to move from campaign promises to policy reality and health plans began to face closure, PolitiFact revisited the claim and was forced to admit that “we find Obama’s statement less clear-cut now than it once seemed” just ten months prior. The site re-rated the promise as “Half True.” [40]

Eventually, it turned out that none of those assumptions were true, and in 2013 PolitiFact was forced to rank that same statement as its “Lie of the Year.” [41] In explaining why the statement she had once ranked as “True” was now a lie, PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote, “The promise was impossible to keep” – but did not mention that in 2008, she had assumed the promise would be kept and had certified Obama’s claim “True” as a result.

During the time that Obama’s “impossible” promises were being rated “True,” a campaign assertion by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that Obamacare would involve “mandates and fines for small businesses” was rated “False” by PolitiFact’s editors, even though some small businesses would have to either provide health coverage for their employees or pay into a government pool program to assist such workers in obtaining coverage. The editors argued that while yes, employers who did not offer health care coverage under Obamacare would be forced to pay the government as a result, they considered it false for McCain to call this a mandate or fine because, “being required to contribute to a pool is not the same as paying a penalty for some wrongdoing.” [42]

Jeeps in China

PolitiFact’s 2012 “Lie of the Year” was a campaign ad from now-Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) saying the Obama Administration “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.” PolitiFact’s editors called this statement “brazenly false” and rated it “Pants on Fire.” [43]

Romney’s campaign argued that it was true that in a “prepackaged surgical bankruptcy” structured by Obama’s “car czar” Steven Rattner, Chrysler had become part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which is controlled by the Italian family that founded Fiat. [44] [45] However, PolitiFact’s ruling continued to be the Romney campaign’s ad was “brazenly false” for characterizing the transfer of control to Fiat as a “sale,” because “Fiat paid nothing for Chrysler” in its government-directed takeover. [46] (In 2014, Fiat would in fact pay roughly $4.6 billion for the remaining shares in Chrysler from the United Auto Workers union retiree health care trust, which had received those shares in bankruptcy at the direction of the Obama administration. [47])

PolitiFact’s editors also took issue with the ad’s factual statement that FCA was “going to build Jeeps in China,” because of its editors’ concern that voters might misconstrue that true statement to incorrectly assume production was being shifted to China from U.S. plants. Regardless, in 2015, Italian-controlled FCA began production of the Jeep Cherokee in China, where Chrysler had not been producing any vehicles in 2012 at the time the advertisement ran. [48] In 2016, FCA added production of the Jeep Renegade at a new Chinese plant that has the capacity to manufacture 160,000 Jeeps per year. [49]

Retracted News Blacklist

In April 2019, Poynter posted an “UnNews” list of 515 news websites that it considered “unreliable.” The list quickly came under attack for unreliability and poor methodology, and was pulled down within a few days. [50] In an apology post that replaced the list on Poynter’s website, Poynter managing editor Barbara Allen explained that it had come from “pre-existing databases compiled by journalists, fact-checkers and researchers around the country,” but that “while we feel that many of the sites did have a track record of publishing unreliable information, our review found weaknesses in the methodology.” [51] On Twitter, Poynter apologized again, saying, “We regret that we failed to ensure that the data was rigorous before publication, and apologize for the confusion and agitation caused by its publication.” [52]

Barrett Golding, a producer at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for its controversial “Teaching Tolerance” project, developed the list. [53] Golding’s SPLC affiliation was not noted anywhere on the Poynter site. [54] [55] [56]

Critics of the list quickly noted that while mainstream right-leaning media outlets such as the Washington Examiner and Daily Caller were listed for bias, left-leaning analogues such as Mother Jones or ThinkProgress (published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund) were not. While some high-profile conservative and libertarian sites such as the Heritage Foundation, National Review, and Cato Institute (as well as the left-wing Daily Kos and The Intercept) that had originally been on the list were removed because Poynter staff believed they were “highly politicized” but “mostly not fake,” others remained. [57]

Poynter made it clear that one goal of its UnNews database was to cause financial harm to listed media outlets by providing a blacklist that could automate advertiser boycotts of publishers for reasons that included “some kinds of political messaging”: [58]

Advertisers don’t want to support publishers that might tar their brand with hate speech, falsehoods or some kinds of political messaging — but too often, they have little choice in the matter.

Most ad-tech dashboards make it hard for businesses to prevent their ads from appearing on (and funding) disreputable sites. Marketers can create blacklists, but many of those lists have been out-of-date or incomplete.

Aside from journalists, researchers and news consumers, we hope that the UnNews index will be useful for advertisers that want to stop funding misinformation.

Other Initiatives

Journalist Training: Poynter offers what it claims is the “world’s largest online journalism curriculum,” in addition to a range of in-person training classes and courses at its Florida headquarters and newsrooms around the country.

MediaWise: Launched by a grant from Craigslist founder and increasingly-prominent left-wing donor Craig Newmark and funded by Google.org, this partnership with Stanford University is aimed at educating teenagers on “sorting fact from fiction online” through middle school and high school curricula. The program’s “ambassador” is NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.

International Fact-Checking Network: Through this initiative, Poynter helps train “fact-checker” journalists in other countries.

Funding

Largest Funders in 2018 & 2019: [59]

References

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  2. Williamson, Kevin D. “Politifact and Me.” National Review. February 26, 2015. Accessed May 07, 2019. https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/politifact-and-me-kevin-d-williamson/.
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Nonprofit Information

  • Accounting Period: December - November
  • Tax Exemption Received: July 1, 1976

  • Available Filings

    Period Form Type Total revenue Total functional expenses Total assets (EOY) Total liabilities (EOY) Unrelated business income? Total contributions Program service revenue Investment income Comp. of current officers, directors, etc. Form 990
    2016 Dec Form 990 $5,945,618 $5,318,845 $39,762,709 $39,946 Y $3,421,041 $1,973,372 $55,654 $1,181,911
    2015 Dec Form 990 $7,397,400 $6,511,262 $39,130,584 $34,594 Y $2,160,202 $1,967,453 $65,679 $777,958 PDF
    2014 Dec Form 990 $4,663,417 $6,921,756 $38,241,000 $31,148 Y $1,530,971 $1,651,566 $92,814 $800,468 PDF
    2013 Dec Form 990 $3,816,471 $7,292,390 $40,509,156 $40,965 Y $1,311,081 $1,583,995 $116,105 $798,484 PDF
    2012 Dec Form 990 $5,867,490 $7,615,071 $44,001,610 $57,500 Y $2,925,332 $1,259,535 $199,673 $903,132 PDF
    2011 Dec Form 990 $4,386,603 $8,201,747 $45,746,229 $54,538 Y $1,472,891 $1,093,406 $242,157 $897,795 PDF

    Additional Filings (PDFs)

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