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Observer article sheds light on "independent newsroom"

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It's the new journalism.

For a minimum of $10 million, you too can publish an article on the front page of papers like The Charlotte Observer. Last weekend, the Observer published a piece called "Banks Self Dealing Fueled Meltdown." A byline noted that it was written not by Observer staff, but by an outfit called ProPublica, which the paper described as an "independent, nonprofit newsroom based in New York."

The Observer is one of hundreds of media outlets that ran ProPublica stories or studies in the past six months. Just who are these supposedly "independent" people behind ProPublica?

ProPublica is billionaire Herb Sandler's creation. If you used to work at Wachovia or you watch Saturday Night Live, you know his name. An actor playing Sandler appeared in a skit on the subprime mortgage crisis with a placard that read "People who should be shot." He and his wife are the former owners of Golden West.

"In that long and growing list of people to be mad at for the financial/credit/banking/foreclosure crisis, don't stop with Golden West's Pick-A-Payment mortgage hustlers Marion and Herb Sandler," an Observer editorial read in March 2009. In another article on how the subprime crisis bought down Wachovia, the paper described how the bank's purchase of Golden West led to its downfall.

The Sandlers were the creators of pick-a-payment, or option arm loans. A December 2008 New York Times article described the Sandler's subprime loans as the "Typhoid Mary of the mortgage industry" and "the most destructive financial weapon ever deployed against the American middle class." They made their billions using what the Times called "independent brokers who used questionable methods to reel in borrowers." Two million people wound up in loans so destructive the principal often increased every month despite their payments, trapping them in a financial hole compounded by the decline in housing prices.

The Sandlers pocketed a billion dollars after selling at the top of the market, and Herb Sandler used $10 million to start ProPublica, which he continues to shovel millions into. Had Sandler merely donated to the nonprofit, that would be one thing, but he ensconced himself as chairman of the board.

It's a stunning feat that 18 months after the Observer editorial board trashed the Sandlers, the paper ran a front-page story by ProPublica journalists that essentially blamed banks and bond traders for a large share of the mortgage crisis that launched the national recession. Naturally, the Sandlers, their role in the crisis and the role of others like them who took homebuyers to the cleaners were omitted. It's a story line the Sandlers would no doubt be eager for the public to embrace given their toxic national reputation.

The ProPublica website claims it is "non-partisan and non-ideological," but the folks at Slate had trouble believing that.

The idea of ProPublica as "independent" is a stretch, Slate pointed out, because Herb Sandler has spent tens of millions of dollars on get-out-the vote efforts for the Democratic Party. He also gave the MoveOn.org Voter Fund $2.5 million in 2004, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns. Another $8.5 million went to the group Citizens for a Strong Senate, which has close ties to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

"What do the Sandlers want for their millions?" Slate asked. "Perhaps to return us to the days of the partisan press."

With his money, Sandler has managed to buy instant credibility. ProPublica now has the largest stable of investigative journalists found just about anywhere. Most are former stars from publications like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. ProPublica won its first Pulitzer in 2010. Most of its offerings gore the usual liberal oxes with a slant that is clearly leftward. It donates its work to papers at no cost.

All of which is fine. Papers can certainly run what they want. Just do it honestly. If this is the direction news outlets are going, they should sell it to readers with a disclaimer about where this new journalism product really comes from and who is behind it, rather than hiding behind the "independent" label. Papers like The Guardian and Creative Loafing have been transparent about their leanings and biases for decades. Readers get it, and they appreciate it.

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