Why have progressives virtually lost their voices in serious public policy debates? Is it the superior effectiveness (or entertainment value) of the Newt/Rush appeals to reason? Or is it just some inevitable historical cycle, which progressives should endure quietly, assuming that their turn will come?
These would be logical questions if the contest for public opinion were being waged on a level playing field. But it isn’t: America’s conservative philanthropies eagerly fund the enterprise of shaping opinion and defining policy debates, while similar efforts by progressive philanthropies are, by comparison, sporadic and half-hearted.
Unitl five years ago, when I became associate publisher and chief fundraiser for In These Times, I assumed that the modest circulation, out-of-the-mainstream publications of both left and right faced similar financial realities: limited advertising revenue, high postal and production costs, rare opportunities for exposure in the mainstream media–all contributing to the fact that ordinary revenue rarely pays more than 60 percent of our expenses. Left-of-center publications survive at subsistence levels only because thousands of our readers manage to make donations over and above the cost of their subscriptions–and because writers and staff accept lousy pay.
But the arduous economies of progressive journals do not apply to their conservative counterparts. For years, the conservative independent press has been systematically subsidized with millions of dollars in foundation grants from the John M. Olin Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith-Richardson Fund, the Adolph Coors Foundation and several others.
Based on a search through foundation grant reports and information gleaned from my colleagues in the alternative press, I found more than $2.7 million in foundation grants between 1990 and 1992 going to four magazines on the right: the American Spectator, National Interest, Public Interest and New Criterion. During the same period, I can identify only $269,500 in combined grants from private foundations for the four leading progressive publications: The Nation (through its affiliate, the Nation Institute), Mother Jones, the Progressive and In These Times. In other words, the four left publications got less than 10 percent of the total received by the four right-wing journals.
Unlike the grants to progressive magazines, the right-wing grants are rarely designated for special projects, but are usually available to subsidize the nuts and bolts expenses of the magazines’ general operations, often providing more than half of the overall revenue these publications need on an annual basis.
The parent non-profit of the neoconservative New Criterion magazine, for example, reports to the IRS that its annual income is approximately $750,000; in 1990, the last year for which fairly complete information is available through the Foundation Grants Index, it received at least $395,000, more than half of its annual income, in general support grants from private foundations. That means that the publishers had to rely on combined revenues from circulation, sales, advertising and individual donations for less than 50 percent of the magazine’s income.
With revenue independent of the magazine’s success as a business, the effort that other magazines must put into circulation and advertising growth is liberated for a more important mission: increased influence on popular opinion and public policy. Unencumbered grant income makes it possible, for example, to ensure that key staff members on Capitol Hill get a complimentary copy of every issue of a magazine. Public and university libraries can be offered free or subsidized subscriptions. Furthermore, the magazine can afford the staff time to promote individual stories and writers, to build relationships with op-ed page editors, talkshow hosts and broadcast producers.
Although the editors and publishers of In These Times and its like hope to influence public debate, their day-to-day energies must be devoted to financial survival the hard way. Ironically, it is the left-wing independent press that is forced to concentrate on its business strategy. ITT, for example, had to suspend its free subscriptions to members of Congress–forget about their aides–when the single donor paying for this program lost interest in the effort.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the explanation for the sharp difference between conservative and progressive donations cannot be found in the relative assets of the donor foundations. The combined assets of the four foundations–John M. Olin, Sarah Scaife, Bradley and Carthage–that gave the most generously to the conservative press during the late ’80s and early ’90s are less than those of four leading institutional donors–John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, Schumann, Aaron Diamond and J. Roderick MacArthur–that fund progressive causes.
But the conservative foundations have an advantage: Their effort to shape debates is not diluted by concerns with ameliorating any other problems. Three of the conservative foundations mentioned above give virtually all of their gifts, year after year, to opinion formation, policy development and agenda-setting. In addition to supporting publications, they sponsor think tanks, academic seminars, conferences for journalists and campus newspaper internships.
Progressive foundations, on the other hand, tend to have other priorities: relief of poverty, domestic violence, AIDS, environmental abuse, etc. When we approach them for help, the answer is almost always a sympathetic, “Sorry, we don’t fund media.” They explain that they have to draw the line somewhere, that there are so many struggling grassroots groups and advocacy organizations, some of which have been out in the cold since Reaganomics dismantled Great Society programs like VISTA and Community Action that used to sustain them.
Occasionally we persuade them to help us with a particular investigative project that dovetails with their interests, but we have all but abandoned hope for the kind of support that would help the most: money to pay for postage and printers, money to fund promotion or build circulation or to dispatch a journalist on a moment’s notice to cover a breaking story.
John Tirman, who directs the Washington-based Winston Foundation and also sits on the board of the Foundation for National Progress (the parent non-profit of Mother Jones), has analyzed the phenomenon. In his view, the right understands that the information that influences policy comes on a “conveyor belt from thinkers, academics and activists.” The conservatives’ conveyor belt is in excellent shape, but “we’ve let [ours] break down.”
In Tirman’s experience, the philanthropic left has tended to concentrate its resources on “movement-building,” usually at the grassroots level, rather than “policy formation” on the national level. The theory behind this emphasis has seemed a sound one: Rebuild democracy and just policies will ensue naturally.
Conservatives, however, are not leaving this process to such evolutionary chance. They have cultivated a dominance in policy debates in order to tilt the policy-makers toward their interests. The loud result has, at least for the moment, put progressives at a distinct disadvantage in the national discourse.
Beth Schulman is assistant publisher of In These Times, a Chicago-based progressive biweekly.
Grants to Magazines, 1990-1993
Note: Reports for magazines on the left are more complete than reports formagazines on the right. Unless otherwise indicated, grants are for generalsupport.
National Interest and Public Interest (National Affairs Inc.)
Total = $1,135,000
$535,000 from Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation (includes $85,000 for book on presidential power); $350,000 from John M. Olin Foundation; $140,000 from Sarah Scaife Foundation (for internships); $100,000 from Smith-Richardson Foundation; $10,000 from Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Fund
The New Criterion (Foundation for Cultural Review)
Total = $1,045,000
$350,000 from Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation; $330,000 from John M. Olin Foundation; $325,000 from Sarah Scaife Foundation; $40,000 from Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation
American Spectator (American Spectator Education Foundation)
Total = $554,263
$225,000 from Carthage Foundation; $120,000 from Sarah Scaife Foundation; $105,000 from Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation; $31,263 from Grover Hermann Foundation; $25,000 from John M. Olin Foundation; $20,000 from David and Lucile Packard Foundation; $18,000 from Starr Foundation; $10,000 from Adolph Coors Foundation
Total Grants for Magazines on the Right: $2,754,263
The Nation (The Nation Institute)
Total = $90,000
$90,000 from Aaron Diamond Foundation (all for special Institute projects–no money for magazine per se)
Total = $80,000
$10,000 from Stern Family Fund; $20,000 from J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation; $50,000 from John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (for the Progressive Media Project–to place op-ed pieces in mainstream dailies)
In These Times (Institute for Public Affairs)
$15,000 from Florence and John Schumann Foundation (for refinancing); $47,500 from John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (for a special series on arms sales and military conversion)
Mother Jones (Foundation for National Progress)
Total = $37,000
$25,000 from Arca Foundation; $12,000 (anonymous source)
Total Grants for Magazines on the Left: $269,500
Assets of Selected Foundations
(as of Dec. 31, 1992)
Foundations on the Right:
Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation: $406,911,000
Sarah Scaife Foundation: $212,232,888
John M. Olin Foundation: $57,571,966
Carthage Foundation: $11,937,862
Foundations on the Left:
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation: $2,900,000,000
Florence and John Schumann Foundation: $80,511,453
Aaron Diamond Foundation: $57,171,528
J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation: $29,000,000