This year's Pulitzer Prize announcement on April 18 was largely the same old same old: four prizes for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as the good old boys- and-girls network protected its own established enterprises. The most striking news was that ProPublica, a nonprofit organization only three years old, won its second straight Pulitzer, this time for critiquing "The Wall Street Money Machine."
So what? So goes the future of American politics. ProPublica has rapidly become both a major media force and a harbinger of spring for liberal journalists who only recently thought they faced a perpetual winter. And it's all because a left-wing philanthropic husband and wife have made their second astute bet on long-term institution building.
Herbert and Marion Sandler became billionaires through growing the Golden West Financial Corporation, one of the largest mortgage lenders during the housing bubble and the operator of numerous World Savings Bank branches. In 2006 they sold their company and its portfolio of subprime loans to Wachovia, getting top dollar. Two years later Wachovia was no more but the Sandlers had $2.6 billion.
They put half of that into a foundation with a declared mission—according to its 2007 and 2008 IRS form 990s—of supporting "the charitable, educational, scientific or religious purposes of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Francisco." A 2007 study by San Francisco's Institute for Jewish & Community Research, though, showed only 2 percent of Sandler Family Supporting Foundation donations going to Jewish organizations. IRS filings through the first half of 2009 show that practice continuing.
Instead, the Sandlers tossed millions into the Washington, D.C., Center for American Progress, an organization they and George Soros helped to form in 2003. In 2008 Time stated, concerning CAP's influence in the upcoming Obama administration, "not since the Heritage Foundation helped guide Ronald Reagan's transition in 1981 has a single outside group held so much sway."
At a time when others among the rich threw dollars into television ads for ephemeral candidacies, the Sandlers and their associates had hit the jackpot. And now the Sandlers have won again through their $10 million per year pledge to ProPublica ("for the public").