Last month, The Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News and Observer launched a full-frontal assault on North Carolina’s booming poultry industry. The coordinated reporting from the papers charged that the industry is “cloaked in secrecy,” even as the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers themselves decline to share much detail about the special interests that funded the hit pieces.

North Carolina now leads the United States in supplying affordable and protein-rich poultry products for Americans and the rest of the world. Families continue to struggle with the fallout from record inflation and struggle to put food on the table. That North Carolina farmers are stepping up to feed the country and the world should inspire pride.

Over the last month, though, the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers have published at least 14 “news” stories, in coordination, to attack the poultry industry from every angle: zoning, waste removal protocols, NIMBY complaints, statutes and regulations, even the difficulty of tracking down addresses for every farm.

The Charlotte and Raleigh papers say they have been working on the series for nearly a year.

Buried beneath the thousands of words castigating the poultry industry is this short disclosure: “This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program.” 1Earth Fund pays some or all of the salary of the paper’s environmental reporter.

The papers promise that they “maintain full editorial control of the work,” though there is of course no way to verify this.

What is 1Earth Fund, and why is it paying the salary of a Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News and Observer reporter?

An IRS search of every registered nonprofit’s required disclosure, called a Form 990, turns up nothing.

The group has a barebones website, explaining that it funds “scalable communications projects” in the region. Proposals must have a “well-defined plan with clear goals and metrics” and a “robust theory of change.”

One wonders what “well-defined plan with clear goals and metrics” the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers offered the group in exchange for funding to pay its reporter’s salary.

The poultry series quotes trial lawyers and environmental groups, focusing heavily on how laws work in other states. Do the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers — or their donors — have an agenda to change the laws in North Carolina? The story praises a South Carolina Appellate Court decision (Blackmon v. SCDEHC) that, if left in place, would fundamentally change the existence of animal-feeding operations in that state and is expected to impose a mass of new regulations on the industry.

Are the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers — or their donors — laying the groundwork for litigation against poultry farmers, as they did against hog farmers in recent decades?

When the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal asked The Charlotte Observer earlier this year about its relationship with 1Earth Fund, a company executive said, “Our company policy is not to respond to these kinds of inquirers.”

Carolina Journal asked “whether reporters are free to publish pieces that reveal facts counter to the mission of the funding organization.” The paper didn’t respond.

Who funds 1Earth Fund? Did those donors press the Charlotte and Raleigh papers to run a series of hit pieces on the poultry industry, and if so, to what end? Did the papers largely ignore the poultry industry’s positive impacts because it hopes to continue receiving donations from these special interests?

We don’t know the answers to any of the questions posed in this piece, and that’s a big problem. It’s hard to take The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer’s work product at face value when their funding comes from a secretive network of donors and the papers refuse to answer basic questions about them.

The Charlotte and Raleigh papers present themselves as different from outlets like Carolina Journal and N.C. Policy Watch, which have disclosed ideological leanings. The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer are supposed to be above that fray, reporting news objectively without fear or favor to political groups or megadonors.

But since ad-funded revenue has declined over the past 20 years, the Charlotte and Raleigh papers apparently require contributions from outside groups to pay their bills. That’s fine — but donor-funded stories are by definition not objective. The papers aren’t reporting without fear or favor if they can’t even answer whether its journalists are free to publish facts unflattering to its special-interest backers.

But here are some facts that we do know.

When North Carolinians are asked what is most important to them when it comes to agriculture and farming, food affordability and food availability continuously top the list. If the out-of-state special interests have their way, our farms may become an over-regulated nightmare, causing farmers to hang it up for good and driving up food costs in our local grocery stores.

Global food scarcity, though much improved in recent decades, remains a major international challenge.

The Charlotte and Raleigh papers were kind enough to grant Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler one sentence to make this point before returning to its cavalcade of complaints.

Troxler said, “At a time when food insecurity is a growing global issue and when the United Nations anticipates the need to increase food production by 75 percent or more by 2050 just to meet demand, we would hate to see anything damage our farmers’ ability to produce food.”

Amen to that.

Peter Daniel, Sr. has worked in agriculture policy for 45 years. He spent most of that time serving as the right hand to Jim Graham, former Agriculture Commissioner; and Larry Wooten, former NC Farm Bureau President. Daniel continues to serve the agriculture community as Chairman of the NC Ag Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening the economic viability of farmers, businesses, and their communities through strategic communications, organizing, engagement, and political intelligence.