We tracked media owners’ political donations: Here’s what we found6 min read
Something we can likely all agree on is that trust in media is at an all-time low and Americans want reliable, nonpartisan news.
Spurred by the rapid proliferation of social media platforms, with questionable content, and a former president who pummeled our free press repeatedly, it’s no wonder Americans are left wary and our information ecosystem is in shambles.
Add to that the billions of dollars from super PACs used to fund political content pushed by new digital channels and influencers. It’s a mess.
In May, I published an ownership index of the top 176 U.S. media organizations. The index was more popular than anticipated. Why? Transparency matters. Transparency is what journalists and journalism have long been about. Journalism is not meant to be public relations for political parties. It is intended to be the backbone of our civilization and functioning governance.
Sure, Henry Luce, the iconic publisher of Time, Fortune and Life magazines, put his thumb on the scale. His well-documented views were not secret. Even his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, herself a Republican member of Congress, chastised him publicly for his relentless coverage in Time of Barry Goldwater’s GOP nomination for president.
I wrote about why I got a COVID shot:Then I was fired from my job.
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.
How did media owners donate?
We now live in a much less transparent time. This summer, students from Tufts and Harvard universities spent time digging through the Federal Election Commission database with me. Using the original ownership index, we tracked the political donations at 90 of the top U.S. news organizations.
The results were surprising. Only 14.5% of the 412 owners, executives, board members and investors had given to individual candidates, traditional PACs or super PACs from January 2020 to August 2021, as tracked by the FEC. Super PACs have the freedom to report only twice a year, so there may be more to come.
Only 60 people in media leadership had donated more than $2,000 to a political candidate since 2019.
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But here is where it fell short. Did Elon Musk, one of the biggest donors to Wikipedia, really give only $40,000 to political leaders and causes in 2020-21? Marc Benioff, the current owner of Time who’s, active in homelessness issues in San Francisco, gave only $5,000 to his Salesforce.com PAC. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, gave but $15,000 over the past 20 months through his PACs Blue Origin and Amazon while his net worth grew to near $200 billion. Susan Wojcicki, a major donor to Wikipedia and CEO of YouTube, donated only $8,000 through Google Netpac.
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.
There were a few significant funders:
Donors to Democrats
►George Soros, a major donor to Wikipedia who funds many new digital media outlets through his Open Society Foundation (see our nonprofit U.S. Media Index), gave $3,679,800.
►Laurene Powell Jobs donated over $2 million. She owns The Atlantic, could still be the largest shareholder of Disney/ABC and funds many digital news nonprofits through the American Journalism Project, which her Emerson Collective helped to create.
►Robert Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Co. and who once ran ABC, gave over $1 million.
►David Zaslav, who led the merger with CNN and Discovery, donated over $240,000.
►James Murdoch, who left the family Fox News business, donated over $2.25 million.
►Afsaneh Beschloss, NPR Board of Directors, gave $614,300.
►Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave $500,000 mostly to Democrats.
►Pamela Wasserstein, owner of Vox and New York magazine, gave $8,100.
►Mashable’s Vivek Shah gave $30,800.
►Barry Diller, owner of The Daily Beast and Investopedia, gave $120,000.
►Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, gave $6,000.
►Eric Zinterhofer, board member of Univision, gave $102,000.
Donors to Republicans
►Billionaire Paul Singer, who claimed, post the CNN-Discovery merger, that his activism brought the deal about, balanced things out with his $1.7 million.
►No surprise, Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan collectively gave over $2.5 million, mostly to Republicans.
►Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy gave $365,000 to Donald Trump and his super PACs.
►The Daily Caller’s Omeed Malik donated $150,000.
►Henry Kravis and George Roberts, owners of Business Insider and the German news empire Axel Springer and who recently purchased Politico and co-founded KKR Private Equity, collectively gave over $1.2 million.
►Marc Rowan at Apollo Management, the private equity firm that recently acquired Yahoo News for $5 billion, gave $1.75 million.
►Edward Atsinger, a leading evangelical and co-founder of conservative Townhall Media, gave about $30,000.
►Hilton Howell of Gray Television gave $17,600.
►Philip Anschutz, owner of the Washington Examiner, gave $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 once offered to do anything for Trump, must not have meant with cash, donating $6,800 to the GOP and $5,800 to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer.
►James Zelter, co-president and CIO of Apollo Global Management that owns Yahoo News, gave $35,900 to Republicans and $25,200 to Democrats.
It raises the question: Does super PAC funding, often with a hefty and opaque line-item labeled “media spend,” fund some of these outlets? What does “media” constitute?
According to OpenSecrets, an independent nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics, as of last week, 2,276 groups organized as super PACs have 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 gobsmacking. They received collectively more than $3 billion ($3,427,543,995) in the 2019-20 presidential election cycle and showed independent expenditures of more than $2.1 billion. That leaves $1 billion unaccounted for.
Revamp tracking of media donations
The lack of transparency in super PAC donations loomed as we scoured the FEC database. It is nearly impossible to know where the money is spent, even if you can run down the roster of donors.
For context, OpenSecrets reported that political spending in the 2020 election reached $14 billion, the most expensive election ever. Our system is awash in billions of political dollars. I don’t see how this ends well.
The most significant donation 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 bizarrely comforting: 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 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.
In a digital age, there are many new ways to influence. Craig Newmark has donated close to $100 million to journalism schools, content moderation research, new digital media outlets and journalists, as have Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and big foundations like the Knight Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Open Markets Institute and Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund.
Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg fund swaths of lobbyists in Washington. Sinclair Broadcasting and Nexstar executives give to the National Association of Broadcasters. Yet, we know little about their political views or how that money is being spent.
If the medium controls the message, then we are asking these questions to make out your character, media owners.
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 at the FEC.
Heidi Legg is the lead research fellow at the Future of Media Project at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. She has written extensively about the news media.