LILLEY: Is NJ Spotlight Excessively Deferential to Funder NJEA?

Sunlight Policy Center has noticed a disturbing trend with the news website NJ Spotlight.  Normally when Sunlight submits an op-ed, the editing process is collaborative and quick.  But Sunlight has found a double-standard with NJ Spotlight: our op-eds are receiving excessive scrutiny while certain other op-eds are not.

In the most recent case (which is not the first), Sunlight submitted a well-researched op-ed on New Jersey’s pension crisis.  The piece received layers of scrutiny from NJ Spotlight about the thread of Sunlight’s argument.  On rare occasions, we have had editors ask about the basis for a factual assertion, which we have invariably provided to their satisfaction.  But we have never had an editor like NJ Spotlight’s, who quibbled with the cogency of our argument and dragged out the process for weeks by demanding edits, which were then made, and then demanding more.   Ultimately, Sunlight decided to get it published elsewhere.  So Sunlight went to the Star-Ledger, which printed Sunlight’s original op-ed without objection.

Revealingly, during Sunlight’s travails with NJ Spotlight, NJ Spotlight published an op-ed by Mark Weber (a.k.a., Jersey Jazzman) of New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).  It is quite clear that Weber’s piece was not subjected to the same scrutiny as Sunlight’s piece.  As Sunlight analyzed in great detail, Weber’s piece is substandard research.  His argument that COVID policies in schools have revealed inequities in school funding is based on appearances, suppositions and cherry-picked data.  The factual bases for his conclusions are extremely weak.  There may be a sound argument to make that funding inequities are driving COVID responses, but Weber does not make it.  Even a cursory review of Weber’s piece would have revealed that this was the case.  Apparently, NJ Spotlight did not find that necessary.

Why the double-standard, NJ Spotlight?  Could it be that Sunlight’s mission is to shine a light on special-interest domination of New Jersey politics and on the most powerful special interest of all, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)?  Sunlight’s op-ed focused on the NJEA’s substantial role in New Jersey’s pension crisis.  Is this what drew the excessive scrutiny?

So Sunlight decided to do some research into NJ Spotlight’s relationship with the NJEA.  These are facts:

1) The NJEA is listed as a funder of NJ Spotlight on its website.

2) From 2009 to 2017, the NJEA donated $175,000 to NJ Spotlight and its parent companies WNET and Public Media NJ (which operate NJTV).  NJ Spotlight was acquired by WNET in 2019 and merged with NJTV News in 2020.

3) For 25 years, the NJEA has broadcast a weekly TV show on NJTV (and its predecessor, New Jersey Network) entitled “Classroom Closeup NJ.”  From 2003 to 2019, the NJEA spent over $10 million producing Classroom Closeup NJ, and surely some – and perhaps a great deal – of this money went to NJTV.

4)  The NJEA has been a daily advertiser on NJ Spotlight’s website.

5) The NJEA has sponsored NJ Spotlight conferences.

6)  NJEA Vice President Sean Spiller is on the Community Advisory Board of NJTV.

7) The NJEA is a major funder of NJPP and Weber is a NJEA member.

Of course, Sunlight Policy Center does not have the deep pockets to do any of these things. Unlike the NJEA, we have not set up a funding system whereby millions of tax dollars flow directly to the NJEA via withheld teachers’ dues.  So maybe money talks after all and NJ Spotlight is just making a business decision.

All of which begs the questions for NJ Spotlight: Why the excessive scrutiny for a voice critical of the NJEA’s influence on state politics?  And why the double-standard for Weber and NJPP, the NJEA’s friends and allies?  NJ Spotlight describes its news effort as “trusted” and “trustworthy,” but do double-standards live up to that self-description?

Perhaps NJ Spotlight can explain.

Meanwhile, the Star-Ledger, its owner NJ.com, and other news publications across the state continue to run op-eds from all perspectives, allowing diverse points of view without fear or favor.

What do you think?