Journalism in Chicago is changing before our eyes. With the merger of WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times, and the newspaper’s pending conversion to not-for-profit status, nonprofit journalism now is becoming the dominant model for text-based reporting.

From Block Club Chicago to Injustice Watch to Cicero Indipendiente to a possible conversion of the Chicago Reader, reporters for nonprofits are covering the city’s neighborhoods and byways in ways not matched even when five print newspapers scrambled for scoops.

The Better Government Association is nearly a century old, which means we’ve been around the longest of the group. Nonprofit is in our DNA.

That’s why it was concerning last week—not just to the BGA, but to all news nonprofits and to all who read, see or hear nonprofit news—to see how Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign staff responded to a BGA investigation of the governor’s blind investment trust.

In an apparent effort to cast doubt on why we published the story, Pritzker’s campaign spokeswoman pointed out that in 2020, the BGA had received a $100,000 donation from Pritzker’s political nemesis, Citadel founder Ken Griffin—an amount that was about 3 percent of our annual budget.

There is nothing new about journalists taking criticism from those we cover. What’s novel and troubling here is the presumption that journalists working at nonprofits are unduly influenced by the people whose donations fund their work.

It’s typical for people who are subject of investigative reports to hit back hard. But there is a danger to all of us, not just journalists, if this sort of deflection becomes commonplace, if politicians, public officials and people in power are allowed to use baseless innuendo to question the very legitimacy of nonprofit news.

When cries of “fake news” first were heard, they started small, then grew into a threat to the very idea of truth itself. Likewise—if we let it happen—evidence-free insinuations about supposed quid pro quos between newsrooms and donors could become an acid that erodes public trust in nonprofit journalism itself.

Do we really want to live in a city or state where politicians can de-legitimize hard-hitting stories merely by reciting names on a donor list? The impact on accountability journalism, and on our community, could be devastating.

Consider the specific story at issue. On Friday, the BGA published an investigation into decisions Gov. Pritzker made in establishing a blind trust that in 2020 purchased stock in Centene Corp., a major state contractor. This happened despite Gov. Pritzker’s pledge during the campaign to purge his personal portfolio of companies with state contracts. When Pritzker signed a state-mandated economic disclosure form in May of 2021, the Centene holding was listed, making Pritzker aware of it.

The BGA story was carefully reported by David Jackson, one of the state’s top investigative journalists. Jackson has spent a career holding institutions accountable—earning a Pulitzer at the Washington Post for reporting about police shootings; qualifying as a Pulitzer finalist four times; revealing sexual abuse of students in Chicago’s schools and threats to safety in state nursing homes. At the BGA, he has uncovered self-dealing at Loretto Hospital and picked apart failings in the state’s Medicaid system.

Does anyone, even on the governor’s staff, honestly believe such a high-caliber journalist would do the bidding of a former BGA donor? Of course he would not. Yet that’s what Gov. Pritzker’s campaign spokeswoman strongly implied while seeking to discredit Jackson’s story.

If ever the subject of a nonprofit investigative report should try such a deflection again, the public and all journalists can simply do what we’ve always done: Ask for proof. Then, when none emerges, get back to questions about the reported facts. Ignore the attempted distraction.

Questions also were raised about a Chicago Tribune column I wrote, breaking news that Griffin will back Aurora mayor Richard Irvin in the Republican primary for governor with an initial $20 million contribution.

Read the story, and search in vain for any sign of Griffin somehow controlling the narrative. OK, the story quoted Griffin. It also quoted Democratic consultant David Axelrod raising questions about Irvin’s capabilities as a campaigner. It quoted Pritzker’s spokeswoman calling Irvin “an empty suit.” It raised questions about whether Irvin can even win the Republican primary, much less beat Pritzker.

To suggest some sinister Griffin influence on that column is to ignore the words in plain sight. In a quarter century of opinion writing in Chicago, I can’t recall writing a more just-the-facts piece. 

The BGA is my second nonprofit employer, after the Chicago News Cooperative. I have written opinion columns at two for-profit Chicago newspapers and reported and edited at two global news organizations. I have experienced firsthand improper efforts to influence coverage at commercial news outlets. It never leached into our coverage, but it was there.

Never at either nonprofit has undue pressure even come close—not from donors, not from board members, not from anyone else. 

The BGA has policies and procedures in place to ensure the integrity and objectivity of our news. They are rigorously enforced. Nothing is more important to our mission. The crusading coverage at other nonprofit news organizations shows they can make similar affirmative statements.

A final point worth noting: Any time public officials or others claim nonprofit news outlets are controlled by their donors, they also are calling into question the motives and actions of the donors themselves.

Gov. Pritzker knows better, of course. He gave $309,000 to the BGA in the years before he ran for public office. He knew then, as he knows now, that donors just don’t throw their weight around that way. Any claim that they do besmirches the foundations, wealthy individuals and even grassroots supporters who have contributed to a surge in Chicago’s nonprofit news.

Nonprofit journalism is here to stay. It is fair game for criticism, just as commercial journalism always has been. Tension between the press and public officials will always exist. The stakes are high, the complexity great, and no one benefits when fanciful notions about undue influence are dragged into the fray.

David Greising

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative...