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August 4, 1999
Democrats' Dilemma: Deeper than Al Gore

By Robert Parry

Texas Gov. George W. Bush thrashes Vice President Al Gore in poll match-ups by whopping double-digit margins.

The news media puts Gore down as a boring candidate burdened by "Clinton fatigue" and paying the price for President Clinton's personal misconduct.

Bush also thumps Gore in another critical category: early campaign cash. The son of the former president retooled his father's political money-machine to spew out the record sum of $36 million by early July.

Gore lags far behind with about $18 million, while facing a reasonably well-financed challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who collected some $11 million.

Yet, for all these early negatives, the overall predicament might be worse for the Democrats and Vice President Gore. Beyond Bush's money advantage and concerns about Gore's political baggage, the Democrats also face what might be called a vast "media deficit."

With the investment of billions of dollars over the past quarter century, Washington's conservative media-political apparatus increasingly dictates the terms of the national debate in the mainstream as well as the right-wing press.

That new reality could prove decisive if the presidential race narrows in the fall of 2000. Though rarely counted in the money-in-politics calculations, conservative funding invested in the day-in-day-out business of media and politics dwarfs the sums raised by individual candidates, even Bush.

This disparity is also one that Democrats and so-called "progressives" have failed to address during the 6 years of the Clinton administration. If anything, the so-called "conservative labyrinth" of media, think tanks and attack groups is now more deeply entrenched than ever.

Limited studies of this "Right-Wing Machine" indicate that conservative funders have invested hundreds of millions of dollars a year to build a huge echo chamber consisting of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, Web sites, national radio programs, television networks and publishing houses.

Churning out information that resonates through this echo chamber are dozens of think tanks, pressure groups and public relations firms.

Beyond this “positive” spending, the Right supports narrowly focused organizations that mount harsh personal attacks against political adversaries or drain their financial reserves by filing civil suits against them. Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch has pioneered the civil-suit strategy both to tie down opponents and pry loose information.

Footing the bill for many of these right-wing organizations are conservative foundations that have consciously nourished this political apparatus for decades. Though right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife is often singled out as the chief benefactor, he is actually only one of many.

In a 1997 study, Sally Covington of the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy examined the spending of 12 "core" conservative foundations from 1992-94. Her tallies showed that these foundations directed some $210 million into conservative organizations in that period alone.

Covington's study reviewed grants from such foundations as the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch brothers' foundations, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Scaife family foundations.

From 1992-94, these foundations gave a variety of conservative recipients sums that overwhelmed what was available to their scattered “progressive” counterparts.

While launching a conservative cable TV network called National Empowerment Television, Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Research and Education Foundation got $5 million in grants. Among conservative magazines, Irving Kristol’s National Interest/Public Interest pulled in $1.9 million. The American Spectator and the New Criterion grabbed $1.7 million apiece.

The conservatives played both good cop and bad cap with public broadcasting. The dozen foundations donated $3.2 million for public TV programs featuring such conservatives as William F. Buckley and Ben Wattenberg. But another $3.3 million went to David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which publishes Comint, a magazine that seeks to purge remnants of liberalism from public stations.

Other media “watchdogs” were well fed, too. Robert Lichter’s Center for Media and Public Affairs gobbled up $1.2 million. Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media devoured $365,000.

In turn, this foundation-supported media infrastructure has helped build a constituency for conservative voices in commercial broadcasting, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. Any spinning of the AM dial, surfing the all-news cable channels or skimming the op-ed pages make clear that conservative commentators are far more prominent -- and numerous -- than liberal ones.

Other money flowing into conservative media outlets can be even more staggering. The Washington Times and its affiliated publications, such as Insight magazine, alone cost the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church an estimated $100 million a year. [While the precise volume of the red ink is secret, some church sources say it still tops $100 million a year. In 1992, Moon said he had spent $1 billion on The Washington Times in its first 10 years.]

But even larger than Moon's empire is the media conglomerate of right-wing press magnate Rupert Murdoch. He has loaded up his national Fox News operations, The Weekly Standard magazine and his other print publications with scores of conservative commentators and journalists.

There are simply no comparable “progressive” media tycoons. Indeed, what the Right often calls the “liberal” media -- the likes of The Washington Post -- actually offer more conservative and neo-conservative opinion columns than liberal ones.

As effective as the Right's strategies have been, the success has been enhanced by the Left's miscalculations. While conservatives waged what they called "a war of ideas" from the front lines in Washington, the American Left largely retreated from the national battlefield, opting for scattered "grassroots" organizing around the country.

By and large, wealthy liberals also have shied away from financing ideological combat, favoring instead politically safer projects such as environmental land grants, programs for the hungry or AIDS research.

The cumulative impact of these strategic choices helps explain not only the large number of right-wing commentators on TV but the mainstream media's deep-seated fear of offending conservatives.

Working journalists realize that getting branded as a "liberal" and becoming a target of the right-wing attack groups can damage or end a career. Sensing no countervailing pressure from the Left, many journalists -- consciously or unconsciously -- tilt their reporting to the Right.

Because of this dynamic, information embarrassing to the Right is often ignored or quickly ushered off the stage of public discourse. In the past year alone, that happened with CIA admissions about Nicaraguan contra-cocaine trafficking and disclosures about U.S. support for genocide in Guatemala.

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