David Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute following reporting by BuzzFeed News about conflicts of interest between the star New York Times columnist and funders of a program he led for the think tank.
Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the Times, said in a statement that editors approved Brooks's involvement with Aspen in 2018, when he launched a project called Weave. But current editors weren't aware that he was receiving a salary for Weave.
"The current Opinion editors were unaware of this arrangement and have concluded that holding a paid position at Weave presents a conflict of interest for David in writing about the work of the project, its donors, or the broader issues it focuses on," Murphy said.
She said that Brooks resigned his position at the institute and will remain a volunteer for the project.
“Going forward, the Times will disclose this unpaid relationship,” Murphy said. “We are also in the process of adding disclosures to any earlier columns in which David refers to the work of Weave or its donors.”
Brooks’s resignation comes after BuzzFeed News discovered further evidence of conflicts of interest and entanglements with corporate and billionaire donors to Weave.
Brooks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
BuzzFeed News first revealed that Brooks never disclosed to Times readers that he takes a full-time salary for his work on Weave, or that its funders include Facebook, the father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and other wealthy individuals and corporations. Brooks recently wrote a blog post for Facebook’s corporate website in praise of Facebook Groups, a product that has often been a fount of misinformation and hate speech.
Brooks's behavior raises thorny ethical issues for the Times. By appearing in videos for Weave funders, he's lending the paper's credence to entities in which he has a stake. The revelations of these entanglements have angered the Times’ newsroom, where reporters, who are typically not allowed to maintain outside jobs that would be perceived as jeopardizing their news judgment, have reported critically on Facebook. Murphy told BuzzFeed News that Brooks did not inform the paper that he was blogging for Facebook or that Weave received funding from the company. His Weave salary was revealed by BuzzFeed News earlier this week.
Over the past 24 hours, BuzzFeed News discovered new evidence of potential conflicts. On March 15 of last year, as Americans faced a deadly pandemic, Brooks appeared on Meet the Press and offered some advice.
"We need to take moral steps to make ourselves decent neighbors to each other as we go through this thing. I think people should get on Nextdoor, this sort of ‘Facebook for neighbors,’” he said.
Left unsaid by Brooks was that Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, had donated $25,000 to Weave. A day before his appearance on the nationally televised NBC program, Brooks also tweeted to his nearly 250,000 followers, “If you know someone who lives alone, ask them to join NextDoor.”
Another new revelation: Last month, Brooks appeared in a Walton Family Foundation video and did not disclose that the organization, run by the billionaire family who founded Walmart, also funds his project.
Brooks’s failure to disclose these conflicts of interest added to the string of ethically questionable actions by the columnist and author related to his work on Weave.
The Aspen Institute told BuzzFeed News that Facebook’s funding of Weave ended in 2019. However, Facebook is listed as a financial supporter of a project that Weave helped launch and run in 2020, #WeavingCommunity During Crisis. The Aspen Institute said in a statement that the funds were managed by its partner, the Listen First Project. Still, Facebook's financing of a Weave partnership means that Brooks had a connection to the company when he blogged for its website and appeared in a video it produced.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Nextdoor spokesperson confirmed the company’s partnership with Weave but declined to give further details.
After declining to say if it would release information about all Weave donors, the Aspen Institute provided BuzzFeed News with a list of Weave funders Friday night.
Brooks has not responded to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News. He made his first public comments about the growing scandal during his weekly Friday segment on the PBS NewsHour on March 5. While defending his work on Weave, Brooks made two false statements.
Asked about his failure to disclose that Facebook helped fund Weave, Brooks said that "we totally did disclose it because everything is public.” The Aspen Institute has only publicly posted a list of Weave donations from 2018. Facebook is not on the list, and Brooks did not acknowledge taking a donation from the company to Times readers or to his current bosses at the paper.
Brooks also falsely stated that "the Aspen Institute is completely transparent about who the donors are, and so we released the donors." Ultimately, the Aspen Institute didn’t release its 2018 figures until asked by BuzzFeed News.
Nick Massella, a PBS NewsHour spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News that the program was “aware David was working with the Aspen Institute on this project but not of its funding nature.” Massella did not respond to a request for comment about Brooks’s false statements on the show.
Brooks did not respond to a request for comment about his appearances on the PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press.
BuzzFeed News first asked the Aspen Institute to disclose a full list of Weave funders on March 4. It declined to say if it would. But after Brooks’s appearance on the PBS NewsHour the next day and another inquiry from BuzzFeed News, the institute released what it said is a complete tally of Weave donors.
They include billionaires, their family members, and other philanthropists, like Jacklyn G. and Miguel A. Bezos, the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; the Resnick Foundation, the nonprofit of POM Wonderful founders Stewart and Lynda Resnick; the Einhorn Collaborative, the nonprofit of hedge fund manager David Einhorn; financier Robert K. Steel and his wife, Gillian; investor John B. Fullerton and his wife, Jessica; the Penner Family Foundation, the nonprofit of Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner; TPG Capital Founder James Coulter and his wife, Penny; cannabis entrepreneur Pete Kadens; the Crown family, which is led by businessperson Lester Crown; and the Walton Family Foundation. Weave’s corporate sponsors include Allstate, Walmart, Facebook, M&T Bank, and Nextdoor.
Brooks has written frequently about income inequality for the Times.
“Some people who talk about inequality focus on the top 1 percent, and if you want to go after the hedge fund billionaires feel free,” he wrote in an April column. “But as inequality is actually lived out, it’s the 20/80 gap that is most glaring and most unjust.”
Nextdoor declined to say how much money it gave Weave, but the Aspen Institute told BuzzFeed News that “Nextdoor provided $25,000 to support several events, including a three-day national gathering held in Washington, DC.”
The Aspen Institute previously said that Facebook gave Weave $250,000 in December 2018 and told BuzzFeed News that “Weave has received no other funds from Facebook.”
But in 2020, Weave was one of two organizations that launched the program #WeavingCommunity During Crisis, and Facebook is listed among the project's financial donors. A review of the Twitter accounts for #WeavingCommunity and Weave show that the organizations repeatedly promoted Facebook as a tool to connect communities. In one example, Weave lauded a program that gave Facebook Portal video conferencing devices to seniors in nursing homes.
“The grateful reactions have ranged from ‘tears of joy’ to an overwhelming sense of relief,” Weave tweeted.
In his Friday appearance on the PBS NewsHour, Brooks, the author of books including The Road to Character, said that he would address “concerns” about his work with Weave. But he rejected the idea that he had done anything wrong and had misled the audience about what had been publicly disclosed about Weave’s funding.
In a May 2019 appearance on the PBS NewsHour, Brooks talked about the importance of ethical standards in journalism.
“The one thing legacy media has is, we have basic standards below which it's unimaginable to sink ... ,” he said. “And if you do make an error, you correct it.”
An Aspen Institute statement was added indicating that funding for #WeavingCommunity was managed by the Listen First Project.