Why is the Knight Foundation Giving a $700K Grant to Viacom? So MTV Can Sell Ads and Collect Data?

The Knight Foundation’s “News Challenge” has announced its grants. But one which raises questions is the $700k grant to Viacom’s MTV. First, the idea that one of the most financially-successful media corporations, with billions in annual revenue, requires a grant for public service boggles the mind. But beyond the pure outrage of Viacom seeking a grant (and taking money away from a well-deserving non-profit or start-up), are the questions which Knight and Viacom must address. The 700 K grant is for a MTV project that will “cover the 2008 presidential election with a Knight Mobile Youth Journalist in every state and the District of Columbia who will create video news reports specifically for distribution on cell phones. The weekly reports will be voted on by the public, and the best will be rebroadcast on the MTV television network. By enabling young adults to report on issues that interest them and distribute those reports on their most commonly used digital medium, the cell phone, MTV hopes to compel leading presidential candidates to address issues important to this demographic and to mobilize you adults to register and vote.”

What happens to all the data Viacom collects from young users? Will it be stored in Viacom’s data-mining operation for subsequent targeting? What kind of behavioral profiling or other data collection techniques will be used? Will MTV “serve” ads to these users? Will these ads be based on the data collection? What will MTV do with such revenue?

You get the picture. The Knight Foundation should be calling on the major news and media conglomerates to support projects which illustrate the potential of the new media to serve democracy and journalism. It should not be funding the fabulously wealthy to do what they long ago should have done with television–and should be now be doing with new media: financially supporting public interest programming.

PS: Note to enterprising journalists. Viacom, we believe, has pursued the foundation grant-seeking route before, to good results for it’s already fattened bottom line. There’s a bigger story here.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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