By David Gordon, Associate Editor and Board Chair
Writing the current “Editor’s Pick” article on Free Speech Week events at UW-Stout raised a number of questions about what to include and what to emphasize.
Most arose because the UW-Stout’s Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation (CSII), which is sponsoring those events, is funded by the Charles Koch Foundation. This immediately red-flagged the question of whether to note that connection in a story whose main focus was elsewhere.
But things weren’t quite that simple.
At first glance, there was a bit of irony in Koch money being used to discuss and promote free speech. And, given the strong reactions – both ways – that many people exhibit toward the Koch brothers, I wondered whether mentioning one of them as the source of the Center’s funding would overshadow the information that is the real point of the story.
Another factor – as is often true in reporting on complex or controversial topics – was that initial reactions often overlook much of what lurks below what seems simple on the surface. And there’s also the problem that the old adage about “reporting both sides” of an issue doesn’t really apply when there are more than two sides to an issue.
What was clear was that CSII’s source of funding couldn’t be ignored, because it’s relevant for some people and had stirred some passions when the grant was first announced. But the funding point couldn’t be overemphasized, either.
It was equally important to mention the safeguards that were built into the contract between UW-Stout and the Charles Koch Foundation to ensure the university’s independence, and to note that well over 300 other universities have received funding from the foundation, apparently while maintaining their independence.
Possibly the most important factor in this equation, though, is our desire to be open to differing points of view and our commitment in the CVPost’s mission statement to “set a standard of civility” that others might emulate. Our policy in regard to the “Commentary” section goes further, and states that we intend to expose our audience “to ideas, opinions and thoughtful analysis that they wouldn’t necessarily seek out on their own” in regard to life in the Chippewa Valley.
That policy statement continues:
“We hope to prevent our audience members from constructing, in (legal scholar Cass) Sunstein’s words, a ‘Daily Me’ account of the world around them by ignoring everything that doesn’t fit with (their) preconceived ideas.” Or, as others have put it, we want to take our audience out of their ideological “silos” or “echo chambers” and help them think about unfamiliar and even uncomfortable ideas that may provide them with a grain or more of truth or, perhaps, wisdom.
Looking More Closely at the Charles Koch Foundation
All of this seemed to call for somewhat deeper look into the Charles Koch Foundation. I had learned fairly recently that the Koch brothers and I agreed about “corporate welfare” being a poor idea (though we may well define that term differently). But I was surprised to learn, for example, that since 2014 the foundation and Koch Industries have contributed $25 million to the United Negro College Fund “to support students interested in studying entrepreneurship and developing their own unique talents.”
Of course, Koch donations have also helped to finance groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its efforts to draft and implement state legislative proposals with a decidedly conservative or libertarian bent. Between 2005 and 2011, ALEC received nearly $350,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation.
But the foundation’s website also notes that it supports “research on criminal justice reforms that emphasize human dignity and enhance public safety.” Those reforms – which have often drawn bipartisan support – are aimed at reducing recidivism rates, lowering barriers into the workforce for former prisoners and eliminating major criminal penalties for minor criminal acts, especially as those penalties impact low-income minority communities.
More to the point regarding the UW-Stout programming is this very clear statement on the foundation’s website: “A free press and a civil exchange of ideas are key to a tolerant society. We support research and educational programs that support these values.” And in the same vein: “The freedom to hear and be heard and a willingness to entertain ideas that challenge the status quo is essential for social progress.”
This online research reassured me that there were probably no strings attached to the funds that established the CSII. It seemed to me that mentioning the connection wouldn’t taint the Center’s reputation and would, perhaps, give the foundation some deserved credit in circles where that is a very scarce commodity.
At a minimum, including information about the funding source might encourage anyone reading the story to think twice about the CSII-Koch connection, and provide context which those readers could use to make up their own minds.
At rock bottom, what this really comes down to is the need for people to realize that, in public life, almost everyone – and every institution – can’t be easily categorized. It’s easier, of course, to put labels on people or organizations (or concepts and ideas) than it is to spend time and effort figuring out the details that make them more complex.
Labels are really a nicer sounding way of saying “stereotypes.” And if there are ever going to be any meaningful conversations about what’s important in our society, we need to move beyond the easy labels or stereotypes which make it all too easy to avoid examining anything that’s unfamiliar and perhaps unsettling.
To put it slightly differently, we need to learn more about – rather than trying to avoid – anything that originates not from our own comfortable, like-minded group of friends and acquaintances, but rather from “the other.”
UW-Stout’s Free Speech Week, and the Charles Koch Foundation funding that supports it, is one good place to start.
Note: the story which led to this column can be found by clicking here.