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Ford’s late 1990s turn to media policy issues was, in a sense, a revival of its decades-long commitment to mass media themes. But the recent wave of media democracy funding was, above all, a break with its past—an implicit repudiation of the Cold War propaganda research and the mixed record in broadcast reform. From a media justice perspective, the foundation’s twentieth-century interventions in media policy and communication research had been accom- modationist at best, and very often much worse. With past performance as our guide, we would expect more of the same.
The lesson of Ford’s recent history is that past performance should not be our guide. Lentz—with the notable help of Ford figures like Alison Bernstein, Andrea Taylor, and Margaret Wilkerson; other funders including Charles Benton and David Haas; and key movement allies like Gene Kimmelman and Nan Rubin—managed to commit the foundation to media justice principles. Yet there is a small but growing literature that attacks foundation support for media democracy on just these grounds. Michael Barker, for example, points to foundations’ “historical hegemonic role” in his high-octane denunciation of media reform philanthropy.120 Observes Bob Feldman, another critic, “Since [foundations’] creation, an important goal has been to channel all protest and dissent into activities that do not threaten the wealth and power of the large corporations, or their access to the resources and markets of the world.” Why, asks Feldman, “would the liberal foundations want to fund the left?”121
Barker and Feldman catalog foundations’ misdeeds, citing scholarship from the beholden foundation tradition I invoked earlier.122 Barker, noting that foundation endowments derive from “the world’s most rapicious [sic] capitalists,” asserts that there is an “inherent contradiction of progressive activists receiving significant support from liberal elites.” Both critics concede that Ford and others have recently funded radical media justice groups but argue that foundations are acting on “ulterior motives” (Barker) to co-opt “formerly radical” (Feldman) organizations. Writes Barker, “although liberal foundations effectively exist to maintain the capitalist status quo, this does not prevent them from supporting a limited number of activists who are seeking radical social change. In fact, sponsoring radicals is integral to their overall mission, as arguably it allows them to keep a close eye on the ideas of radicals, while simultaneously enabling them to improve their progressive PR credentials (thereby helping deter critical investigations of their work).”
Having established liberal foundations’ “antidemocratic credentials,” Barker concludes that Ford and the others must be behaving badly again.123
The Ford case shows, to the contrary, that there is nothing like an iron law of foundation conservatism. It is true that foundations are risk-averse, but windows of progressive intervention are possible, given the right confluence of people and enabling conditions. The claims of Barker and Feldman—and by extension the beholden foundation tradition as whole—depend on an argumentative bait and switch in which a reading of the past substitutes for current analysis and future prognosis. Ford’s Cold War history should not blind us to the foundation’s media justice present.
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