Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Right-Wing's Media Machine

by Randolph T. Holhut

The Right has created and funded its own media network
(AR) -- We all know that in politics, you can get quite a lot accomplished with the right amount of cash. But money alone isn't enough. Building an infrastructure that will work as a conveyor belt to churn out ideas and affect government policy is also important.

Conservatives have long known this and invested their money into think tanks and media outlets to get their message across. They have used non-profit foundation money to build an impressive and formidable political infrastructure that is better funded, better organized and has a much bigger base of support than any comparable liberal-left efforts.

Armed with lots of money from wealthy donors and conservative foundations, the Right has created and funded its own media network. According to the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, over $210 million was donated to right-wing causes between 1992 and 1994 by conservative foundations such as the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation.

Of that amount, $80 million went to think tanks and $130 million went for media outlets or academic centers to advance the free market, anti-democracy cause. This doesn't include the hundreds of millions more given by corporations, Christian Right groups such as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, and by foreign interests such as Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

To keep a political movement going, you need to develop talent, and starting in the early 1980s, the Right poured millions of dollars into college campuses to establish right-wing newspapers
The American Spectator -- the magazine that trashed Anita Hill and spread rumor after rumor about President Clinton's infidelity, the Whitewater real estate deals, Democratic Party fundraising irregularities and the "suspicious" death of Vincent Foster -- got $1.7 million in foundation money.

Other conservative magazines -- such as Irving Kristol's National Interest//Public Interest ($1.9 million) and Norman Podhoretz's Commentary ($1 million) -- were also lavishly funded. By comparison, liberal-left foundations during that period contributed a total of just $269,000 to the four major liberal-left publications: The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones and In These Times.

National Empowerment Television, the conservative cable channel founded by Paul Weyrich, got $5 million in foundation money. Another $3.2 million went to pay for the public tv shows of William F. Buckley and Ben Wattenburg. Conservative media watchdog groups such as David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture ($3.3 million), Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media ($365,000) and Robert Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs ($1.2 million) also made out nicely.

All of this pales before what the conservative think tanks got from the foundations. The Heritage Foundation, the most-cited think tank in the news media for two years running, got $8.9 million from 1992 to 1994 and took in an additional $29.7 million in contributions in 1995. The American Enterprise Institute got $6.9 million in the 1992-94 period while the Cato Institute got $3.9 million and Citizens for a Sound Economy got $3.8 million.

The conservative media -- talk radio, the Moon-subsidized Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and magazines such as the American Spectator -- have churned out hundreds of dubious stories that have mercilessly laid into Clinton. They've helped to poison public opinion and deliver a Republican majority in Congress as well as GOP majorities in many of the state legislatures.

The Republicans have been shameless about using the "big lie" technique that Adolf Hitler used so skillfully during his rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. Hitler believed that the bigger the lie and the more often it was repeated, the more likely it would be believed by the masses.

A GOP smear may begin its life in the American Spectator or the Washington Times. Limbaugh, Robertson, G. Gordon Liddy, Ollie North and the rest of the conservative talk show hosts then repeat it on their programs. The Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most shrill attacker of Bill Clinton in the mainstream American press, might give the item legitimacy on its editorial page. The conservative pundits -- such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Cal Thomas -- will discuss it in print and then go on the weekend talk shows to give it even wider play. It doesn't take long for the wild accusations of the conservative media eventually to seep into the mainstream media.

The "controversy" last month over allegations that Clinton sold burial plots in Arlington National Cemetery to campaign donors followed this exact pattern. The story was floated on Nov. 19 when Insight, a conservative magazine that's part of Sun Myung Moon's media empire, released an advance copy of the story from its upcoming issue.

The next day, Limbaugh and Liddy whipped up the talk show yahoos into a lather with the story. The veterans groups howled with outrage. Senator Bob Smith (R-N.H.) called for Clinton's impeachment. Talk of yet another Congressional investigation was tossed about. All of this was dutifully and uncritically repeated in the rest of the press.

As the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. In this case, on Nov. 21, two days after the story broke, the White House released the names of the 69 people that received waivers from the Army to be buried at Arlington.

The only person on the list who was a substantial donor to the Democratic Party, M. Larry Lawrence, got in based on his service in the Merchant Marine in World War II (where he was wounded in action) and as ambassador to Switzerland -- more service than Rush Limbaugh ever gave to his country. The conservatives quickly backed down and the story disappeared from view in the Sunday papers of Nov. 23. In the space of a few days, we got an accelerated textbook example of the big lie in action.

To keep a political movement going, you need to develop talent. Starting in the early 1980s, the Right poured millions of dollars into college campuses to establish right-wing newspapers. It helped the Right gain credibility on campus and provided a farm team for the Right's media apparatus. The Left made no comparable effort, and lost out on an opportunity to develop a new cadre of activists. The people who worked on the right-wing college papers in the 1980s are now in the thick of the conservative movement.

The right-wing foundations put their money into building the intellectual underpinnings of the movement. The philanthropic Left foundations such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation focused other priorities such as AIDS, homelessness, the environment and basically cleaning up the human wreckage that has resulted from the execution of the Right's ideas.

Sponsoring soup kitchens and homeless shelters are worthy causes, but influencing public policy so that there will no longer be a need for them is equally important. Until the Left gets its act together and puts together a well-funded, well-focused, well-executed media strategy to counter to the conservative tidal wave of rhetoric, the Right will continue to have the upper hand in this nation's political and cultural dialogues.

Randolph T. Holhut is a freelance journalist and editor of "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books)

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Albion Monitor December 11, 1997 (

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