We can probably all agree that trust in the media is at an all-time low and that Americans want reliable, non-partisan news.
Spurred on by the rapid proliferation of social media platforms, with questionable content, and a former president who has pummeled our free press repeatedly, it’s no wonder Americans are wary and our information ecosystem is in ruined.
Add to that the billions of dollars in super PACs used to fund political content pushed by new digital channels and influencers. It’s a mess.
In May, I published a property index of the 176 major American media organizations. The index was more popular than expected. Why? Transparency matters. Transparency is what journalists and journalism have long been. Journalism is not meant to be public relations for political parties. It is intended to be the backbone of our civilization and our functional governance.
Of course, Henry Luce, the iconic publisher of Time, Fortune and Life magazines, put his thumb on the scales. His well-documented opinions were not secret. Even his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, herself a Republican member of Congress, berated him publicly for his relentless coverage of Time of Barry Goldwater’s GOP nomination for President.
I wrote down why I received a COVID injection:Then I was fired from my job.
Media mogul William Randolph Hearst said: “This is my journal, these are my opinions, take it or leave it. Hearst boldly put his editorials on the front page, with his photo signed “for the love of God.” There was no subterfuge.
How did media owners donate?
We now live in a much less transparent era. This summer, students from Tufts and Harvard universities spent time digging through the Federal Election Commission database with me. Using the original property index, we monitoring political donations in 90 of the major US news agencies.
The results were surprising. Only 14.5% of the 412 owners, officers, board members and investors had given individual applicants, traditional PACs or super PACs from January 2020 to August 2021, according to the FEC monitoring. Super PACs only have the freedom to report twice a year, so there may be more to come.
Only 60 media heads had donated more than $ 2,000 to a political candidate since 2019.
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Corn this is where it failed. Did Elon Musk, one of Wikipedia’s biggest donors, really only give $ 40,000 to political leaders and causes in 2020-2021? Marc Benioff, the current owner of Time, active in the fight against homelessness in San Francisco, gave only $ 5,000 to his Salesforce.com PAC. Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, has only donated $ 15,000 in the past 20 months through his Blue Origin and Amazon PACs while his net worth has reached almost $ 200 billion. Susan Wojcicki, one of Wikipedia’s top donors and CEO of YouTube, donated just $ 8,000 through Google Netpac.
I found that these numbers were missing. Is this newly created wealth class really absent from politics and political influence? Where are they giving money for political gains in regulation and governance? To understand this, we desperately need a real-time database for super PAC spending, as well as transparency on which media and platform owners fund lobbyists.
There were a few major funders:
Donors to Democrats
►George Soros, a major Wikipedia donor who funds many new digital media through his Open Society Foundation (see our U.S. Nonprofit Media Index), donated $ 3,679,800.
►Laurene Powell Jobs has donated over $ 2 million. She owns The Atlantic, may still be Disney / ABC’s largest shareholder, and funds many digital news nonprofits through the American Journalism Project, which her Emerson Collective helped create.
►Robert Iger, executive chairman of Walt Disney Co. and who once ran ABC, has donated over $ 1 million.
►David Zaslav, who led the merger with CNN and Discovery, donated more than $ 240,000.
►James Murdoch, who left the Fox News family business, has donated more than $ 2.25 million.
►Afsaneh Beschloss, NPR Board of Directors, donated $ 614,300.
►Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave $ 500,000 mainly to Democrats.
►Pamela Wasserstein, owner of Vox and New York magazine, donated $ 8,100.
►Vivek Shah from Mashable donated $ 30,800.
►Barry Diller, owner of The Daily Beast and Investopedia, donated $ 120,000.
►Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, donated $ 6,000.
►Eric Zinterhofer, Univision board member, donated $ 102,000.
Donors to Republicans
►Billionaire Paul Singer, who claimed after the CNN-Discovery merger that his activism made the deal possible, balancing things with his $ 1.7 million.
► No surprise, Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan have collectively donated more than $ 2.5 million, mostly to Republicans.
► Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy has donated $ 365,000 to Donald Trump and his super PACs.
►Omeed Malik of The Daily Caller donated $ 150,000.
►Henry Kravis and George Roberts, owners of Business Insider and the German information empire Axel Springer and who recently bought Politico and co-founded KKR Private Equity, collectively donated over $ 1.2 million.
►Marc Rowan of Apollo Management, the private equity firm that recently acquired Yahoo News for $ 5 billion, gave $ 1.75 million.
►Edward Atsinger, a leading evangelist and co-founder of Conservative Townhall Media, donated around $ 30,000.
►Hilton Howell of Gray Television donated $ 17,600.
►Philip Anschutz, owner of the Washington Examiner, donated $ 168,500.
►Farris Wilks, investor in the Daily Wire, gave $ 416,800 to Trump Victory and Club for Growth Action.
►Frederick Smith, who runs the billion dollar Sinclair media empire that has already offered to do anything for Trump, must not have meant with money, by donating 6,800 $ to the GOP and $ 5,800 to Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
►James Zelter, co-chairman and CIO of Apollo Global Management, owner of Yahoo News, gave Republicans $ 35,900 and Democrats $ 25,200.
This begs the question: does super PAC funding, often with a heavy and opaque item titled “media spending”, fund any of these outlets? What constitutes the “media”?
According to OpenSecrets, an independent nonprofit that tracks money in US politics, last week, 2,276 groups organized in super PAC reported their numbers. The names of the super PACs (Win Red, Dirt Road, Fair Fight, Follow the North Star, Security is Strength) are almost comical, even if the totals are mind-boggling. They collectively received over $ 3 billion ($ 3,427,543,995) during the 2019-20 presidential election cycle and posted independent spending of over $ 2.1 billion. That leaves $ 1 billion without an account.
Redesign of media donation tracking
The lack of transparency in super PAC donations loomed as we scoured the FEC database. It is almost impossible to know where the money is being spent, although you can check the list of donors.
For the context, OpenSecrets reported that political spending in the 2020 election reached $ 14 billion, the most expensive election ever. Our system is inundated with billions of political dollars. I don’t see how it ends well.
The largest giving record of any media owner was Michael Bloomberg, who donated $ 140 million during his run for president.
The Bloomberg, Powell Jobs, and even Murdoch setups are now eerily heartwarming: at least we know where they stand, and the money is domestic.
Full transparency of political funding allows journalists to hold newsroom and social media platform owners to account. We need radical transparency from the media and social media platforms that politicians, super PACs and the lobbyists they fund. Without it, journalists and society have no chance to hold them accountable when coverage is discredited.
In the digital age, there are many new ways to influence. Craig Newmark has donated nearly $ 100 million to journalism schools, content moderation research, new digital media and journalists, as has Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and large foundations such as the Knight Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Open Markets Institute and Pierre Omidyar Democracy Fund.
Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg fund many lobbyists in Washington. Leaders of Sinclair Broadcasting and Nexstar donate to the National Association of Broadcasters. Yet we know little about their political views or how this money is spent.
If the media is controlling the message, then we’re asking these questions to distinguish your character, the media owners.
Too many people in power are playing with the system. The government needs to catch up and revamp the way we follow media money in politics.
Look for your friends and patriots at FEC.
Heidi Legg is the Principal Investigator of the Future of Media Project at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. She has written extensively on the news media.