Fannie et Freddie étaient les catalyseurs, l’allumette qui a mis le feu à toute la forêt. Il y en a parmi nous qui leur ont tenu tête. Il y en a d’autres qui se sont défilés. John McCain (2e débat)
Il faut débusquer le prochain Enron! (…) Attrapez-moi ces salauds! Herb Sandler (le 9/3/08 au NYT)
Et où, de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique et sous les vivats des médias et des foules qu’ils décervèlent à moins d’un mois d’une élection beaucoup plus serrée qu’on ne le dit, les Démocrates se préparent au hold up du siècle …
Retour, après « l’autre FDR » et via un sketch dévastateur et particulièrement révélateur (même censuré) de la fameuse et traditionnellement « progressiste » émission humoristique de la télévision américaine Saturday evening Live (merci lagrette), sur ces compagnons de route et philanthropes d’un nouveau type qui, tout en faisant des Démocrates le parti des milliardaires, ont largement contribué audit hold up.
Et ce, à coup de millions et via les fondations, cercles de réflexion et blogs qu’ils créent ou subventionnent (Moveon, ProPublica, America Votes, ACORN, Center for American Progress, Human Rights Watch, Oceana et même un… « Center for Responsible Lending »!) mais aussi en se présentant maintenant, via leur candidat, comme les sauveurs de la catastrophe qu’ils ont, après s’en être grassement enrichis, eux mêmes provoquée.
Ainsi, les véritables Soros de l’immobilier que sont les fameux, mais peu connus de ce côté-ci de l’Atlantique, Sandler, couronnés l’an dernier comme les plus grands philanthropes de l’année (plus de 2 milliards de dollars entre Herb et Marion Sandler et le frère de Marion, Bernard Osher!).
Partis d’une petite S&L de la région de San Francisco (Golden West Financial d’Oakland), ce sont eux en effet qui, avec leurs amis des Fanny Mae et Freddie Mac, ont porté aux sommets que l’on sait le système des « prêts pourris ».
Avant de se retrouver, via la vente providentielle de leur entreprise il y a tout juste un an à la tout récemment coulée banque Wachovia (pour la bagatelle de 24 milliards de dollars!), parmi les rares mais grands gagnants de la crise actuelle qu’ils viennent de plus de faire éponger par les contribuables américains …
Les compagnons de route se recyclent
21.01.05Michael Moore : « Sicko »
Après le 2 novembre, il est resté trois jours au lit. Ensuite, il s’est isolé dans sa maison du Michigan pendant un mois et il a commencé à préparer son prochain documentaire, Sicko. Cible : l’industrie de la santé. Inquiets, les laboratoires pharmaceutiques ont prévenu leurs employés de se méfier s’ils aperçoivent un type coiffé d’une casquette de base-ball et porteur d’une caméra.
Espère-t-il passer incognito ? Michael Moore a aussi changé de tête. Début janvier, il a fait travailler un styliste d’origine française. Le 9 janvier, il s’est présenté au People’s Choice Awards avec un look assagi. Plus rien du « col bleu » à casquette : un bouc et des cheveux bien taillés. Fahrenheit 9/11 a été déclaré meilleur film de l’année par le public devant Shrek 2 et Spiderman 2. « Si nous avons devancé de tels superhéros, nul doute que nous allons survivre quatre ans », écrit-il à ses fans sur son site Internet. Moore espère que son film va figurer dans les nominés pour les Oscars, qui doivent être annoncés le 25 janvier. Sur son site web, le cinéaste appelle à manifester ce jeudi « pour montrer à Bush et au reste du monde que le mouvement reste mobilisé ».
Dans ses premières interviews après l’élection, il a estimé que George Bush avait gagné parce qu’il avait « une meilleure histoire à raconter ». A ceux qui ont trouvé que la présence des stars hollywoodiennes avait en fait desservi le candidat démocrate dans les classes moyennes, Michael Moore a répondu que les artistes avaient au contraire permis de limiter les dégâts. « On a évité un raz de marée pour Bush. »
George Soros :
Au lendemain de l’élection, le milliardaire a fermé son site internet en promettant d‘être « de retour ». La revue conservatrice National Review l’a caricaturé en T-shirt avec cette légende : « J’ai dépensé 27 millions et tout ce que j’ai gagné, c’est ce T-shirt nul. » A 74 ans, le milliardaire d’origine hongroise n’en a pas pour autant baissé les bras. Avec son fils Jonathan, les banquiers californiens Herb and Marion Sandler, et un magnat de l’assurance, Peter Lewis, George Soros vient de lancer un projet de think tank. Les participants investiraient jusqu’à 100 millions sur les 15 prochaines années. L’ambition est de créer un cercle de réflexion aussi rénovateur pour le Parti démocrate que ne l’ont été pour la droite l’Heritage Fondation et l’American Enterprise Institute, où se sont développées les thèses néoconservatrices.
MoveOn. org :
le parti est à nous
« MoveOn peut-elle s’en remettre ? », s’interrogeait Newsweek en décembre. L’association, qui était devenue l’indispensable filiale « jeune » du Parti démocrate, a été regardée de haut dès le lendemain de l’élection par l’appareil traditionnel. On lui a reproché de ne pas avoir réussi à vraiment s’implanter dans les quartiers et d’avoir fait illusion grâce aux millions recueillis sur l’Internet.
Le torchon brûle aussi de l’autre côté. En décembre, Eli Pariser, le responsable new-yorkais, a mis en cause les apparatchiks. « Depuis des années, le parti est conduit par une élite d’insiders de Washington qui sont plus proches des lobbyistes du monde économique que de la base démocrate », a-t-il écrit dans un message aux adhérents. L’association entend rester une force de mobilisation rapide : contre la nomination d’Alberto Gonzales au ministère de la justice (avec une publicité) ; contre le projet de privatisation du système de retraites (campagne d’e-mails aux élus) ; pour aider les victimes du tsunami… Le 3 novembre, il lui restait encore un « trésor » de 2,5 millions. Pour Eli Pariser, MoveOn.org a montré que le parti n’a pas besoin de l’argent des lobbyistes. « C’est notre parti. Nous l’avons acheté et nous allons le reprendre. »
March 9, 2008One day in the fall of 2006, Paul Steiger got a call from Herb and Marion Sandler. It came completely out of the blue. At the time, Steiger was the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, the paper’s top editorial position, a job he’d held for 15 years. He’d had his share of great moments, including 16 Pulitzer Prizes, and his share of miserable ones, including the murder of Daniel Pearl and the steady drip, drip, drip of cutbacks and layoffs. A year away from The Journal’s mandatory retirement age of 65, Steiger was just beginning to think about what he might do next.
He knew the Sandlers, but not well. “They were people who were interesting and good sources,” he recalled not long ago. “I would have dinner with them once a year or so.” For most of the time Steiger knew them, they had been running a company called Golden West Financial Corporation, which they had built since 1963 from a two-branch savings and loan in Oakland into the second-largest S.&L. in the country.
Steiger also knew them as “civic-minded people who were kind of partial to lefty or progressive causes.” Since the late 1980s, the Sandlers used their wealth to finance a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and Acorn, the grass-roots organizers. They helped found the Center for Responsible Lending, where they are among the largest benefactors. They are also among the very few philanthropists in the country who finance basic scientific research, at the University of California at San Francisco. And they have set up nonprofits to conduct research into parasitic diseases and asthma. In 2003, they started the Center for American Progress, which is intended to be a liberal counterweight to the heavyweight policy centers of the right, like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. So far, the Sandlers have given around $20 million to the center.
All this they have done relatively quietly. Though hardly without ego, the Sandlers nonetheless shun the kind of publicity that accrues to such better-known philanthropists as George Soros and Bill Gates; indeed, the Center for American Progress is sometimes labeled a Soros-financed operation, even though the liberal financier has very little to do with it. And for years, the Sandlers did their philanthropy more or less out of their back pocket, since they were still running Golden West.
But in October 2006, with both of them in their mid-70s, they sold Golden West to Wachovia for $25 billion, reaping $2.4 billion from their stake in the company. They quickly put $1.4 billion into the small foundation they had been using to make their donations, which suddenly made the Sandler Foundation one of the 30 largest in the country. (The Sandlers, who oversee the foundation with three other board members, plan to put the rest of their money into the foundation eventually.) Then they moved into a small suite of offices in downtown San Francisco, hired minimal staff — the Sandlers hate bureaucracy — and got down to the business of giving away their fortune. Starting with, of all things, journalism.
“They told me they were thinking about spending $10 million a year on investigative journalism,” Steiger recalls. The Sandlers didn’t know precisely what they wanted to do, but they knew they wanted to do something big. “They said they were talking to a bunch of people, soliciting ideas,” Steiger says. “What advice would I give them?”
Steiger drew up a proposal for a nonprofit that would employ around 25 reporters and editors and would conduct the kind of ambitious investigations that only a handful of the country’s most prominent news organizations do as a matter of course. Although the Sandlers solicited plenty of other ideas besides Steiger’s, his was the one they loved. They told Steiger that they would finance it, but only if he would run it. After a little soul-searching, Steiger agreed. ProPublica — as it is called — opened its doors in early January and in recent weeks has made its first few hires and named a star-studded advisory board (which includes Jill Abramson, a managing editor of The New York Times). It intends to begin producing investigative articles by the summer and then give its biggest exposés, free, to major news outlets like “60 Minutes.” Although there have been nonprofit investigative efforts in the past, nobody has ever proposed a model quite like this before.
Like most people outside the Bay Area, I’d never heard of the Sandlers before the announcement of ProPublica. But as I quickly came to realize, its creation was a classic Sandler foray. They chose a path — investigative journalism — that few other philanthropists had trod. Rather than give money to someone who approached them, they did the approaching. Rather than finance an organization that already existed, they started their own outfit. They found a star to run it. They seemed almost to relish the thought that they risked failure with this new, unproven model of journalism, though if truth be told, they don’t think they’ll fail. And they gave a lot of money — $30 million for the first three years, with the expectation of continuing that commitment, if not more, for years to come. It’s hard for philanthropists to make a big difference if they’re not willing to spend some serious money, the Sandlers say.
On one level Herb and Marion Sandler are part of the new wave of philanthropists that Matthew Bishop of The Economist calls “Philanthrocapitalists”: wealthy entrepreneurs who are applying to philanthropy the same principles that made them successful businesspeople. They make big bets, demand results, take risks, want some control over how their money is spent and so on. The quintessential philanthrocapitalist, of course, is Gates, but many others are now following his lead, trying to forge a new kind of activist philanthropy. Even among the philanthrocapitalists, though, the Sandlers stand out. Herb, in particular, can sound nearly contemptuous about how other philanthropies go about their business. Mainly, it seems, they don’t do it the way he and Marion do.
But what makes them so sure their way is better?
It starts with outrage,” Herb Sandler said. “You go a little crazy when power takes advantage of those without power. It could be political corruption — ”
“Or subprime lending,” Marion interrupted.
“The story of subprime is worse than anyone has written so far,” Herb said, shaking his head in dismay.
“It is,” Marion said, nodding in agreement.
We were sitting around a table in Herb’s office talking about what motivated them to put some of their fortune into investigative journalism. But they could have been talking about much of their giving over the years. To listen to the Sandlers is to be in the presence of the kind of proud, righteous liberals who went out of fashion a long time ago. Dispassion and irony, the twin shields of the modern age, are not part of their makeup.
For the most part, Herb did the talking. Sitting across from him, Marion was knitting a red scarf (knitting during meetings turns out to be one of her trademarks), which didn’t prevent her from interrupting him when she wanted to add something. This she did often; invariably Herb would stop talking and defer to her as soon as she began to chime in. Even in their most animated back-and-forth, though, they never disagreed. During the decades they ran Golden West, they had, in theory, distinct roles: Herb was the chief executive and strategist, while Marion ran marketing and “everything having to do with the consumer,” according to Steve Daetz, who is now the executive vice president of the Sandler Foundation. In reality, though, they consulted on everything, and it was often impossible to know where Herb’s thoughts ended and hers began.
Herb Sandler was born poor on the Lower East Side of New York; in the 1950s, he was an assistant counsel on the Waterfront Commission, which famously fought crimes in the port of New York and New Jersey. Marion Sandler came from Maine, where her family ran a hardware and plumbing-supply store. By the time they met — in the Hamptons — she was on Wall Street. Shortly after they married in 1961, they moved to California and then bought Golden West for $3.8 million.
There is no question that the Sandlers had a gift for banking. They ran Golden West as if it were the family store, which, to them, it was. They sidestepped the S.&L. crisis of the 1980s because, among other things, they did not make the imprudent loans that hurt so many others. “They were careful about everything,” says Shelby Davis, the founder of Davis Selected Advisers, Golden West’s biggest shareholder after the Sandlers themselves. “They were frugal. They paid attention to risk management. And they focused on expense management, so they could pass on the savings to their customers.”
They also absolutely reveled in doing things their way, and over time, they became convinced that their way was the right way. There was some self-righteous nose-thumbing to this: occasionally Herb Sandler would testify before Congress against bank practices that outraged him. But they also cared a lot about surrounding themselves with strong, self-confident managers and giving them responsibility. They weren’t afraid of trying things the industry had never tried before. Though they rarely acquired other S.&L.’s, when they did, they undertook a tremendous amount of due diligence. And certainly their track record would seem to justify their confidence in their approach: during their tenure, Golden West’s stock rose at an annual rate of 19 percent, a remarkable long-term record.
That kind of success also breeds the belief that what worked making you rich can be applied elsewhere. And so it was with the Sandlers, when in the late 1980s they started turning their attention to philanthropy.
In 1988, Herb’s brother, Leonard, a New York appellate court judge, died at age 62. Herb and Marion wanted to memorialize him in some way. Many philanthropists would have done so by building a wing on a hospital and having his name attached to it. But as with most of the new philanthrocapitalists, that didn’t interest the Sandlers. Because Leonard Sandler had always been passionate about human rights — as had Herb and Marion — they decided to find a human rights group to support. They settled on Human Rights Watch, to which they have since donated, in the aggregate, around $30 million, making them one of the organization’s largest donors.
What was it about Human Rights Watch that attracted them? To the Sandlers, it was the model of a well-run nonprofit. It was effective. It didn’t waste money. It issued meticulous reports that tracked its results. And it was run at the time by Aryeh Neier, whom the Sandlers trusted. (Neier now runs Soros’s Open Society Institute.) In other words, it was run on the same set of principles as Golden West Financial.
And how did they come to that conclusion? Because they did at least as much research into human rights organizations as they did when they were thinking about making an S.&L. acquisition. And so began their pattern.
“They are keenly interested in the management of nonprofits, and they are struck by how badly managed most of them are,” says Chuck Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, an investigation-oriented nonprofit that got a few small grants from the Sandlers a few years ago. “They have almost a fetish about it. They have an absolute infatuation with focusing on management. Who are the leaders? What is their background? Is it getting bigger or smaller? They rigorously chew over what they are about to do, much more than others do.”
So that’s one part of their philanthrocapitalist approach: they want their money to go to organizations they feel are well run and led by people they can count on to keep them that way. They want some control. This is true, it turns out, even when they’re not the biggest donors. Lewis, for instance, had been running the center for about 12 years when the Sandlers showed up and made a relatively small grant. “Chuck was a terrific leader,” Herb recalls. But the Sandlers felt the center needed a better management structure, and so they began working with him on that. When Lewis decided a few months later that the time had come for him to leave, the Sandlers were furious and took his departure as a betrayal. “We had put in an enormous amount of effort,” Marion says. For his part, Lewis felt he should be able to quit without giving the Sandlers advance notice and was angered by their reaction. There were hurt feelings all around. “They are high-maintenance donors,” Lewis says now.
Not every grantee feels that way, though. “They are not micromanagers,” insists Dr. Jim McKerrow, who runs the Sandler Center for Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases at U.C.S.F. “But at the same time, they want to see how their money is being used, which is why they are opposed to endowments. In my case, they investigated not just what we were doing but me personally. I would get calls from colleagues, saying they had talked to the Sandlers.” Now that he has passed muster, “we get the money every year,” McKerrow says. “But I don’t have to justify a day-to-day budget. Or even a quarterly budget. They give me the money, and they say we trust you to use it correctly. Their commitment by the end of a 10-year period will be $20 million.”
Hence, the next part of their philanthrocapitalist approach: if you’re not satisfied with what’s out there, then you start your own nonprofit. Or at least that’s how the Sandlers approach it. “We were businesspeople,” Marion says. “We’re not afraid of start-ups.” Herb adds, “We look for big holes we can fill,” and sometimes that means beginning something new. The Sandlers’ approach to asthma is one good example: they began looking into asthma research because Marion suffers from the disease and soon came to the belief that the field was stagnant, while the disease, especially in inner cities, was increasing. So rather than give their money to existing research, they started the Sandler Program for Asthma Research, designed to ferret out scientists from other disciplines who might have new ideas and could be drawn into the field with the Sandlers’ money.
Similarly, when they decided to finance progressive ideas, they concluded that the one way to do it was to start their own Washington policy center. Up went the Center for American Progress, which is run by John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
It is hard to know, of course, how much of a difference these efforts will make. As Bishop points out, “You can’t simplistically take a business model into the philanthropic world and expect it to work every time.” The parasitic disease center has a drug in preclinical trials, which is the probably the single most tangible result of their efforts to date. “If that drug proves out,” Herb says, “that alone would justify all our philanthropy so far.”
But other areas are more amorphous. Will the Center for American Progress really change the tenor of American politics? It might, but it might not. For all their talk, the Sandlers are aware that results are often difficult to define, much less measure. In effect, he and Marion are hoping for success rather than demanding it — which is about the best they can do.
ProPublica will offer its own test for the Sandlers’ approach to philanthropy. In the newspaper business, a good story that exposes wrongdoing is something to be proud of, quite apart from whether it produces change or puts someone in jail. But it is clear that the Sandlers have a larger vision for what their new organization will accomplish. “They used to tell me that they weren’t really interested in investigative journalism per se,” Lewis says. “But they saw it as a way to make the world a better place.”
Lowell Bergman, a New York Times and “Frontline” contributor who has long been friends with the Sandlers, says much the same thing. “Herb doesn’t like crooks, liars, predatory lenders and lots of other people that you and I wouldn’t like,” he says. “He would like to put them out of business and throw them in jail.”
What the Sandlers want, clearly, is investigative journalism that leads to change in public policy or finds, as Herb put it to me, “the next Enron.” (“Get the bastards,” he said to me excitedly at another point.) Other people who talked to the Sandlers when they were first soliciting ideas say that they mused about having the organization engage lobbyists to push Congress to make changes after an exposé ran or have journalists testify before Congress. Thanks, perhaps, to Steiger, they are no longer saying that; they have come to understand the importance of journalistic neutrality. Indeed, it is not unlikely that ProPublica’s reporters will choose to go after a target on the left side of the political spectrum, especially if Democrats become the party in power in November. The Sandlers say they’re fine with that. But what if the stories die on the vine as sometimes happens? What if the big media outfits like The Times or “60 Minutes,” which have their own investigative staffs and tend to be proprietary about their work, decline to run ProPublica’s exposés? Will they be fine with that as well?
There is, when you get down to it, something both hubristic and admirable about the Sandlers’ approach to philanthropy. They are not burdened by doubt. They are not afraid of making mistakes. They really do want to make a difference with their money — and they want to spend as much of it as they can while they are still around to watch how it is used.
Which is a problem, given that they gave away only $75 million last year. “We need to get our spending up to between $200 and $250 million a year,” Herb said with a sigh the last time I spoke to him.
Still, don’t call them. They’ll call you.
Joe Nocera is a business columnist for The Times and a magazine staff writer.
What Do Herbert and Marion Sandler Want?
Investigating the funders of ProPublica, the new investigative journalism outfit.
Oct. 15, 2007
The first American press was the partisan press, underwritten and dictated by the political parties. Starting in the 1830s or so, the profit-seeking lords of the commercial press staked their major claim to the news business and established a primacy they have maintained to this day.
The third wave in American journalism—that of the foundation press—may be taking form now thanks to Bay Area billionaires Herbert and Marion Sandler. Waving $10 million that they promise to replenish annually, the Sandlers have founded the nonprofit ProPublica to produce investigative journalism. (Usual suspect the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is also chipping in some money to the ProPublica kitty, as are the Atlantic Philanthropies and the JEHT Foundation.)
Today’s New York Times reports that ProPublica will soon hire 24 reporters and editors to create one of investigative journalism’s largest staffs. Based in New York City and led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, ProPublica promises to produce quality investigative journalism and give it—not sell it—to media outlets.
ProPublica’s Web site claims that the business crisis in publishing has put a crimp in investigative units across the land, and philanthropy is needed to fill the gap. Other nonprofits muckrake, of course. The Center for Investigative Reporting has been doing so for 30 years and the Center for Public Integrity for more than 15. Nonprofits already publish investigative magazines such as Mother Jones. Some newspaper owners have given their properties to nonprofits to maintain independence and quality (the St. Petersburg Times, the Anniston Star, and the Union Leader; see Alicia C. Shepard’s article). In the United Kingdom, a trust exists whose mission is to preserve the Guardian’s financial and editorial independence « in perpetuity. »
But nothing on this scale and with this investigative focus has been attempted before in journalism.
What do the Sandlers want for their millions? Perhaps to return us to the days of the partisan press. The couple made their fortune, which Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion, at Golden West Financial Corp. In recent years, they’ve spent millions on politics. The Federal Election Commission database shows the two of them giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party campaigns. In 2004, Herbert Sandler gave the MoveOn.org Voter Fund $2.5 million, again according to the FEC database. The Center for Responsive Politics Web site reports donations of $8.5 million from Herbert and Marion to the 527 group Citizens for a Strong Senate, in the 2004 cycle. CSS was formed by « a group of strategists with close ties to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, » writes the washingtonpost.com’s Chris Cillizza. American Banker reported in 2005 that Herbert also gave $1 million to the California stem cell initiative and that the pair have also funded the progressive Center for American Progress.
The Sandlers’ enthusiasm for journalism and journalists is late in arriving. Back in April 1992, at the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual convention, Marion ascribed partial blame for the savings and loan disaster to the press. « Where were you when it was happening? » she asked, according to a story by the Chicago Tribune’s James Warren. Her husband accused the press of making « stars out of bums and charlatans » like swindler Charles Keating. « The press is susceptible to the Big Lie, no matter how patently nonsensical, » Herbert said.
What sort of assistance did the Sandlers give the press to get to the bottom of the S&L scandal while it was happening? Um, not much. Warren writes, « Herbert Sandler conceded that, apart from being an occasional anonymous source for one Wall Street Journal reporter, he declined to help journalists as much as he probably should have. »
ProPublica’s Web site vows that its investigations will be conducted in a « non-partisan and non-ideological manner, adhering to the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality. » But philanthropists, especially those who earned the fortune they’re giving away, tend not to distribute their money with a blind eye to the results. How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows? Or takes the « wrong » position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?
If I were a newspaper editor considering ProPublica copy for a future issue, the first thing I’d want is proof of a firewall preventing the Sandlers and other funders from picking—or nixing—the targets of its probes. And if I were an editorial writer, I’d call upon Herbert Sandler to provide ProPublica with 10 years of funding ($100 million), and then resign from his post as the organization’s chairman so he’ll never be tempted to bollix up what might turn out to be a good thing.
I dare you little bastards to query the FEC database for my contributions. Send findings to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in « The Fray, » Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Jack Shafer is Slate’s editor at large.
Pro Publica, nouveau journal d’investigation américain
Delphine Le Goff
25 journalistes, des sujets ambitieux, un site internet à but non lucratif : voilà la recette de Pro Publica, le projet de Paul Steiger, l’ancien directeur de publication du Wall Street Journal, qui sera lancé officiellement à la fin du printemps. Les collaborateurs, recrutés parmi les meilleures plumes du journalisme américain, ne se sont pas fait prier pour rejoindre Pro Publica. C’est que l’investigation est devenue un véritable luxe : crise de la presse oblige, faute de temps et de moyens, les sujets d’enquête sont souvent les premiers à passer à la trappe.
Et c’est bien ce qu’ont remarqué les mécènes du projet, Herb et Marion Sandler. Le couple de septuagénaires, qui finance Pro Publica, a décidé de consacrer 10 millions de dollars par an au journalisme d’investigation. Les Sandler, richissimes philanthropes, ont vendu leur société financière, la Golden West Financial Corporation, pour 25 milliards de dollars, et financent des organisations comme Human Rights Watch. Si les Sandler ont choisi de consacrer une telle somme à l’investigation, ce n’est pas parce qu’ils s’intéressent au journalisme en soi. Ils sont simplement convaincus que l’investigation est utile à la société. «Il faut débusquer le prochain Enron !», résume Herb Sandler, dans les colonnes du New York Times.
Avec 10 millions par an, les journalistes de Pro Publica auront tout loisir de se consacrer à leur travail, sans se soucier de la pression publicitaire ou de la fréquentation de leur site. Et surtout, luxe des luxes : chez Pro Publica, les journalistes comptent s’autoriser à perdre leur temps. Ils pourront passer, sans angoisse, le temps qu’il faudra sur de multiples rendez-vous informels pour soigner leurs sources, ou sur des pistes qui ne déboucheront peut-être sur rien. Et une fois les enquêtes finalisées et peaufinées, Pro Publica proposera ses articles aux autres médias américains. Et ce, gratuitement, bien sûr. Ça ressemblerait presque à de la charité journalistique, mais les journalistes de Pro Publica expliquent qu’ils entendent proposer une offre de complément, des histoires que les journaux n’auraient jamais publiées sinon.
En France, l’ancien directeur de la rédaction du Monde, Edwy Plenel, a lancé le 16 mars 2008 son site d’investigation MediaPart. Ses équipes proviennent, comme celles de Pro Publica, de grandes rédactions parisiennes et partagent l’envie de revenir aux sources du journalisme. Mais, Mediapart a une épée de Damoclès au-dessus de la tête : Edwy Plenel a trois ans, pour séduire 65 000 abonnés, à 9 euros par mois. Tout le monde n’a pas la chance d’avoir rencontré des mécènes du journalisme.