Yahoo! Donation Prompts Fellowship Controversy

A recent decision by the Knight Fellowship at Stanford to take a million dollars from Yahoo! has resulted in arguments among alumni of the program. The fellowship is for journalists working in countries with censorship or other obstacles. But Yahoo's affiliate in China has offered up information to Chinese authorities that put at least two journalists in prison.

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Yahoo! has announced it will fund an international reporting fellowship under the auspices of the Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. This follows criticism of Yahoo! for handing over information to the Chinese government, information that helped put dissidents in prison.

The company's actions in China have some alumni of Knight questioning the decision to take the money. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Although Yahoo! is known primarily as an aggregator of news, it's made some efforts to produce it as well.

Mr. KEVIN SITES (Correspondent, Yahoo!): Now there's a procession where the bodies are carried to the cemetery. And even before it begins there is chaos as a tire explodes nearby and the men think they're being attacked by the Israelis. They begin to fire their weapons in the air.

SYDELL: Kevin Sites, a former NBC and CNN war correspondent spent a year visiting the world's war zones and reporting on them for Yahoo!'s Web site. But while Yahoo! was offering up uncensored coverage to American audiences, it was cooperating with censors in China.

According to human rights groups, Yahoo!'s affiliate there gave information to authorities that helped them identify and jail three dissidents and a journalist. All four had put information online deemed criminal by the Chinese government.

Last week Yahoo! announced that it was giving $1 million over ten years to the Knight Fellowship program. The money would be used to bring a journalist from a country where there are restrictions on the press to Stanford for the academic year.

Mr. DON BISHOFF (Former Knight Fellowship Recipient, Stanford University): I think my objections are basically that it's tainted money.

SYDELL: Don Bishoff is a retired columnist from the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, and a former Fellow in the Knight program. The fellowship admits some twelve working journalists annually to spend an academic year at Stanford. The announcement of Yahoo!'s funding sparked criticism and debate among former fellows.

Bishoff thinks that Yahoo! is trying to whitewash its actions in China.

Mr. BISHOFF: I don't think you let Yahoo! off the hook this quickly and this easily. This just happened within the past year or so, and it seems to me that Yahoo! has not necessarily seen the error of its ways.

SYDELL: Yahoo! maintains that it had to act as it did in China because it must follow the laws of any country in which it does business. Srinija Srinivasan, vice president and editor of Yahoo! Network, says Yahoo!'s presence in China is helping to get information to the Chinese people. Information, she says, is at the core of its mission, and that is why they are funding the fellowship.

Ms. SRINIJA SRINIVASAN (Vice President and Editor, Yahoo! Network): So we want to find ways, every way possible, to take action, to ease our resources, to promote our core values, and that includes the free expression of ideas. And we think that that's going to promote a freer press.

SYDELL: A lot of thought went into the decision to take the money from Yahoo! for the fellowship, says Knight Director Jim Bettinger. Bettinger felt that taking the money did more good than harm.

Mr. JIM BETTINGER (Director, Knight Fellowship Program, Stanford University): We looked at what it could mean to an international journalist in a country under siege. The fact that there are no strings attached, this is something that will be good for our program and will be good for the journalists that it will reach.

SYDELL: Many former Knight fellows ultimately came down in support of Knight's decision. Author and independent journalist Peter Sussman says almost all money is tainted.

For example, the patriarch of the Rockefeller family, John D. Rockefeller, who created a vast foundation, was accused of being a robber baron. And these days, says Sussman, many news organizations are part of big corporations with other interests.

Mr. PETER SUSSMAN (Former Knight Fellowship Recipient, Stanford University): All money is tainted, even for a journalist who receives his or her paycheck from a newspaper with ads from companies that may be doing social irresponsible things.

SYDELL: The John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford has already accepted its first Yahoo!-funded fellow: Imtiaz Ali, a reporter with the BBC Pashto Service in Pakistan.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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