Review: Project Syndicate

3 stars
A loudspeaker for elite viewpoints from politics, academia, businesses and NGOs, including its own funders

“The world deserves access to its greatest minds”, the slideshow begins, showing images of war zones. “Now more than ever the world needs access to reliable information.” The video is a fundraising ad for Project Syndicate, a nonprofit based in the Czech Republic.

The location reflects the organization’s original purpose. Project Syndicate was started in 1995 to help syndicate the views from “leaders and thinkers” from Western and Western-aligned countries to Eastern European newspapers. Today, it explains its model as follows:

News organizations in developed countries provide financial contributions for the rights to Project Syndicate commentaries, which enables us to offer these rights for free, or at subsidized rates, to newspapers and other media in the developing world.

While its tax returns are not publicly viewable, Project Syndicate’s CEO assured me that “it is registered as a public benefit corporation, 501c3 equivalent, in the Czech Republic. As such we register audited financials, board minutes, annual reports, etc every year with the appropriate Czech courts as required by Czech law.” He broke down the revenue composition of the organization as 60% subscriptions, 37% foundations, and 3% donations.

The website lists the Gates Foundation, the European Climate Foundation, and the UAE-based Al Maktoum Foundation as funders. That list is incomplete and may only reflect recent funding; George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, for example, gave $350,000 in 2014.

PS columns are translated by PS into multiple languages, and into many more by the participating newspapers. Each column includes a small speaker bio, but not a disclosure statement like the ones found in The Conversation (which I reviewed here).

Indeed, even funders themselves use PS to get their views out to newspapers around the world. This includes many columns by George Soros and by Bill Gates, two by Melinda Gates, and four by Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Each story includes an author bio, but does not disclose these funding connections.

Beyond its funders, the “greatest minds” whose opinions Project Syndicate spreads around the world include former and current world leaders, experts in academia, Nobel Prize Winners, and for whatever reason, Bjørn Lomborg. Lomborg, whose Ph.D. is in political science, has turned being a contrarian on environmental issues into a career, and his policy work (which many experts have described as scientifically dishonest) tends to be used by conservatives to justify luke-warmism: watered down approaches to solving environmental issues.

Columnists from politics include former UK Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, and former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Some of these folks are life-long public servants, others (like Blair and Fischer) have turned their post-politics careers towards more lucrative objectives. Blair in particular has been busy: consulting for the financial services industry, advising dictators through Tony Blair Associates, making a secret deal with a South Korean oil firm. None of these connections are disclosed in his PS bio, which focuses solely on Blair’s work through NGOs and academia:

Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. Since leaving office, he has founded the Africa Governance Initiative, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and the Faith and Globalization Initiative.

This shows why disclosure statements are important.

By uncritically publishing views by Blair, Gates, Fischer, Brzezinski and other members of political and economic elites, PS implicitly will be less likely to air voices that are highly critical of them. This is not a publication that will give much credence to voices that allege that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal, a claim that even center-left Vox had to agree with.

Nor is it likely to criticize Brzezinski’s own record promoting Operation Cyclone, the massive, multi billion dollar program to arm Islamic extremists in Afghanistan as fighters against the Soviet Union, a program now widely regarded as exemplifying the blowback phenomenon where former allies turn against the state actor sponsoring them.

Indeed, as I write this, Project Syndicate is busy defending Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, with an editorial by Ali Al Shihabi, the “executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a new think tank that will focus on the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula”. Al Shihabi has calmly reassuring words for those disturbed by attacks such as the bombing of a funeral ceremony which led to 140 deaths. Totaling up the human cost of the war so far, he concludes: “For an air campaign waged for nearly two years against an unconventional army, this figure is not particularly high.”

That is not to say that Project Syndicate is a right-wing site. Far from it, its columns tend to occupy the center-left to center-right, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, and that’s following a more international definition of “centrism” than the right-leaning US version.

For example, PS created a special focus section on Donald Trump called “Trump: An American Horror Story”, and the site frequently reports on environmental issues and the international efforts to combat climate change. Here, too, it tends to follow more of a Hillary Clinton vision than a Bernie Sanders one, promoting fracking through several stories including, of course, one by Lomborg, who predictably calls it “this decade’s best green-energy option”.

In fairness, the credentialist centrism that defines Project Syndicate does leave room for a lot of sensible voices, including leaders of various NGOs and generally reasonable politicians arguing for peace, democracy, and apple pie. It has even given plenty of space to prolific progressive firebrand Yanis Varoufakis. But Jeffrey Sachs, who’s stuck with the project the longest as its first monthly columnist, is perhaps the best example of this benevolent form of punditry, the elite-friendly “how about we try this crazy thing” mentality that actually sometimes leads to positive agendas being implemented.

Project Syndicate content is licensed under conventional copyright – the newspaper subscriber model depends on at least some subscribers paying for the content. That said, the content is available online, sometimes in abbreviated form that requires logging in. There’s a small discussion section below each story, which usually receives a small to moderate amount of activity. There is no prominently noted way to submit corrections for any story.

The Verdict

Although non-profit, Project Syndicate is effectively mainly funded by for-profit media. It amplifies the perspective of elite voices across all sectors of society, while concealing conflicts of interest. The lack of obvious disclosure even regarding writers whose organizations are funders of the project, and the use of PR blurbs like Tony Blair’s, is especially iffy.

The bias towards credentialism is likely good for continuing to attract foundation funding and subscribers, but it doesn’t in fact engender a diverse set of perspectives. The Conversation, previously reviewed here, is a more inclusive alternative, in spite of its own selective focus on voices within academia.

Until Project Syndicate addresses some of its transparency deficits and manages to pivot towards a broader definition of “the greatest minds” with less emphasis on credentialism and increased focus on marginalized and underrepresented voices, I cannot recommend it as a source of analysis.

Nevertheless, I personally do follow Project Syndicate on Twitter to get a window into what views are being promoted by elites around the world, but it’s especially important to read it critically and conduct one’s own investigations of an author’s motivations and opposing viewpoints. Three out of five stars.