Money Well Spent

Money Well Spent

The ultra-conservative funders the Koch brothers don’t directly fund media—and they don’t have to.  Instead, they’ve successfully funded the politicians and the "experts" who create the context for what the media debates.


Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of Charles and David Koch reveals a decades-long investment of many hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve a single goal. The billionaire oilmen sought to "bring about social change" to advance what Charles Koch calls their "radical philosophy." To make this happen, they’ve adopted a "vertically and horizontally integrated" strategy "from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organizations to lobbying to litigation to political action."

How radical? When, in 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket—a race he also funded—his platform called for the abolition of Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, all personal and corporate income taxes and much else. A worried William F. Buckley Jr. called it "Anarcho-Totalitarianism."

What the Kochs were doing, as Mayer astutely notes, is implementing the strategy originally laid out by Lewis Powell’s now infamous 1971 memo to the director of the US Chamber of Commerce, by which the political culture of the United States would be transformed on behalf of individuals and corporations of great wealth. The primary obstacle Powell identified was not the remnants of the late-’60s antiwar and civil rights movements, which were both in the process of disintegration. Rather, they sought to undermine the "respectable elements of society" and replace them with people like themselves.

We are all well aware of the success of the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, the editors of the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, etc., in reorienting the media in a right-wing, xenophobic direction. But to focus exclusively on the conservative media—as I sometimes do—is a bit like worrying only about the oil slicks on the surface of a river and ignoring the gushers underneath.

The Kochs, after all, do not fund much media. Rather, they fund the politicians, "experts" and (frequently phony) citizen leaders who create the context for the content of media debate. And perhaps their greatest success has been their ability to turn the establishment media into the credulous carrier of the constant stream of propaganda their grantees have become so adept at producing.

Way back in late 1986, Elliott Abrams complained to me about what he called the "liberal establishment line," which considered Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program to be "madness" and US support of the Contras in Nicaragua to be "wrong." "But now," he observed, "they’re cracking." How right he was.

Most establishment liberals, particularly those appointed to play the role of the "liberal" in the media, eventually made their peace with both of Reagan’s obsessions in the coming years. They did not do so, to put it mildly, because history proved the right-wingers correct. Regarding Star Wars, since Reagan proposed the program in 1983, the American government has wasted countless billions seeking technological breakthroughs that have never materialized, and yet no Democratic president or any significant Congressional committee chair has ever proposed admitting that the program is an unmitigated failure. Regarding the Contras, we had not only the revelations of the Iran/Contra scandal, the US-funded and -supported terrorism against civilian targets, and the exposure of Abrams as an ideologue so committed to his beliefs that he was willing to perjure himself before Congress to hide his actions and those of the administration. And yet not only was Abrams completely rehabilitated by the Republican right—pardoned by the first President Bush and nominated by the second one to oversee Middle East policy in the National Security Council—he is now the most visible "expert" on the topic for the Council on Foreign Relations, a "liberal establishment" institution if ever there was one. When he is quoted in the media, it is always respectfully, and never with reference to his demonstrated dishonest and criminal actions in the Reagan administration.

In other words, the "respectable elements of society" decided they would rather switch than fight; capitulating to the forty-year onslaught to which the Kochs and their comrades have subjected them in the name of Powell’s plans. The right has redefined the playing field to the point where ex–House speaker Newt Gingrich, who occupies no official government position and regularly spews mindless and vicious hatred toward Muslims, liberals and just about anyone else with whom he disagrees, could be the most frequently invited guest on Meet the Press in 2009, a year in which the presidency, the House and the Senate were all controlled by Democrats. (The actual House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, did not even appear once; neither did any other former House speakers. In fact, no ex–House speaker other than Gingrich has ever appeared on Meet the Press.) We have reached a point where George Will can spout misinformation about climate science on the Washington Post op-ed page and still be treated as a font of wisdom on ABC News and elsewhere. "Reality" matters even less than it did in the days when Reagan proposed his Star Wars fantasy and Abrams began his campaign of lies to Congress so that US-backed killers could wipe out entire Central American villages and get themselves compared to America’s founding fathers.

I could go on forever with such examples. But the point of Mayer’s dogged research is that none of this happened by accident. The Kochs, like the Coorses, the Scaifes, the Murdochs and countless others before them, invested in the long term. And thanks to their patient capital, the "respectable elements of society" have turned over the keys to the kingdom in return for being allowed to keep a few of their perks. And if that creates problems for America’s foreign-born, Muslim, Christian-hating president, well, that just makes it money well spent.

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