Heidi Legg is the lead Research Fellow at the Future of Media Project at the Institute of Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. Here, she presents some new research into US political donations made by media owners and executives.
Media mogul William Randolph Hearst famously declared: “This is my newspaper, these are my views, take or leave it.” Hearst boldly placed his editorials on the front page, with his picture, signed “for God’s sake.” There was no subterfuge.
We now live in a much less transparent time.
This summer, I led a team of students from Tufts and Harvard that dug through the Federal Election Commission (FEC) database to track the political donations at 90 of the top US media news organisations.
The results were surprising. Only 14.5% of the 412 owners, executives, board members, and investors had made donations to individual candidates, traditional PACs or Super PACs from January 2020 to August 2021, trackable by the FEC. Super PACs have the freedom to delay reporting to bi-annual so there may be more to come.
Soros, Bloomberg, Murdoch, Powell Jobs
There were a few notable funders.
The most significant donation record of any media owner was Michael Bloomberg, who donated over $140m during his run for president.
George Soros, one of the major donors to Wikipedia who also funds many new digital media outlets through his Open Society Foundation (see our nonprofit US Media Index), gave $3,679,800 to Democratic candidates.
He was closely followed by Laurene Powell Jobs, who donated over $2m to Democrats. She owns the Atlantic and funds many digital news nonprofits through the American Journalism Project, which her Emerson Collective helped to create.
Bob Iger, executive chairman of Walt Disney and who once ran ABC, gave over $1m to the Dems.
Discovery’s David Zaslav, who is leading a merger with CNN, donated over $240,000 to the Dems.
Billionaire Paul Singer, who reportedly played a key role in the CNN-Discovery merger, balanced things out with his $1.7m to the GOP.
It was no shock to see the GOP fared well from Fox News.
Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan collectively gave over $2.5m, mostly to Republicans and not to be outdone by their son and brother, James Murdoch, who left the family business and donated over $2.25m to the Democrats.
Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy gave $365,000 to Trump and his Win Red, while the Daily Caller’s Omeek Malik donated $150,000.
Henry Kravis and George Roberts, the co-chairmen and co-CEOs of private equity giant KKR (which owns Axel Springer and its subsidiaries including Insider and soon Politico), collectively gave the GOP over $1m.
Marc Rowan over at Apollo Management, the private equity firm that recently acquired Yahoo for $5bn, gave the GOP $1.75m.
Townhall Media co-owner Edward Astinger, a leading evangelical, gave just shy of $30,000 to GOP candidates. Townhall is a leading source for conservative news, podcasts, political cartoons, and breaking stories online.
Tech leaders’ donation figures come up surprisingly short
Overall, only 60 people in media leadership had donated $2,000 or more to a political candidate since January 2020 – a good thing for those who run our media ecosystem to stay out of politics.
But here is where it fell short.
Did Elon Musk, one of the biggest donors to Wikipedia, really give only $40,000 to politics and the DC machine in 2020-2021?
Marc Benioff, the current owner of Time, active in homelessness issues in San Francisco, gave just $5,000 to his SalesForce PAC.
His fellow tech giants – who control much of our information ecosystem – are similarly elusive.
Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, gave but $15,000 in total over the past 20 months through his PACs Blue Origin and Amazon, while his net worth grew to near $200bn.
Susan Wojcicki, a major donor to Wikipedia and CEO of YouTube, only donated $8,000 through Google Netpac.
That’s it? I found these figures wanting.
Is this newly minted class of wealth really absent from politics and political influence? Where do they give money for political gain around regulation and governance?
To figure this out, we are in desperate need of a real-time database for Super PAC spending along with transparency on which media and platform owners fund lobbyists.
The lack of transparency in Super PAC donations loomed as we scoured the FEC database.
It is near impossible to know where the money is spent – think detangling fine copper wire – even if you can run down the roster of donors.
For context, OpenSecrets reported that political spending in the 2020 election reached $14bn, the most expensive election ever. Our system is awash in billions of political dollars. I don’t see how this ends well.
Journalism and politics have long been bedfellows. Ben Franklin owned the Pennsylvania Gazette 50 years before he inked the Declaration of Independence. Hearst inherited the San Francisco Examiner from his father, a Democrat senator from California and then went on to win two terms as a congressman from New York. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, another leading national figure in the Democratic Party and elected congressman from New York, also made his political views known, and his legacy funded the Pulitzer Prize and helped create the Columbia School of Journalism.
Bloomberg and Murdoch donations ‘are now bizarrely comforting’
The Bloomberg, Powell Jobs and Murdoch setups are now bizarrely comforting. At least we know where they stand, in a time when so much funding of media and social media content is hard to track and could even be foreign.
Full transparency of political funding allows journalists inside and outside the newsroom to hold these newsroom and social media platform owners to account.
We need radical transparency from media and social media platforms on which politicians, Super PACs and lobbyists they fund.
Without it, journalists and society don’t stand a chance to hold them accountable when the coverage is of disrepute.
The ludicrous lack of transparency became abundantly clear when we typed in ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ to the FEC system. The one in California is listed only once from 2020-2021 as donating $5,000 through Facebook Inc. PAC in 2020.
Comparatively, Sheryl Sandberg has transparently donated over $500,000, mostly to Democrats and a super PAC called Women Vote! She is consistently listed as COO and her employer as Facebook in FEC filings.
And yet, it was her $2,850 donation to Arizona GOP candidate April Becker that caught our attention. Mark Zuckerberg also gave $3,200 on the same date to April Becker in Arizona.
However, this Mark Zuckerberg was based in Michigan. His occupation was listed as “ass wipe” and his employer as “Pelosi Butts.”
We are being mocked.
Too many people in power are gaming the system.
The government needs to catch up and revamp how we track media money in politics.
Look up your friends and patriots here at FEC. You will see that I gave to Hillary Clinton many times. There is no shame in revealing your cards: I wanted a highly qualified woman president in my lifetime. Now you can read my work with that feminist lens in mind. That is how we build a society of critical thinkers—transparency matters.
Picture credit: Reuters/Mike Segar