Jul
01
1996

The Media's Favorite Think Tank

How the Heritage Foundation Turns Money into Media

Based in a spacious brick building a few blocks from the Capitol, the Heritage Foundation is running the most effective media operation in American politics. Heritage has succeeded with a savvy strategy: Raise a lot of money from rich people with a right-wing agenda. Hire writers, commentators and out-of-office politicians who share that agenda, and call them "fellows," "policy analysts" and "distinguished scholars." And, always, back them up with a public-relations juggernaut that's second to none.

The big money came easy. Back in 1973, beer baron Joseph Coors contributed a quarter-million dollars to get the project rolling. Since then, some very conservative foundations and wealthy families have been key benefactors for a soaring budget. Today, Joseph Coors is an honorary trustee, and the board of trustees includes such bluebloods as former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon, Richard M. Scaife, Grover Coors, Jeb Bush and Amway Corp. co-founder Jay Van Andel.

The Heritage Foundation boasts of enormous clout on Capitol Hill--yet insists that it doesn't "lobby," a necessary denial to retain tax-exempt status with the IRS. News outlets of all sizes don't seem to notice the contradiction.

Typical of the routine flood of media mailings sent out by Heritage's PR department was a recent five-page treatise (5/13/96) headlined "Foreign Aid Wins Few Friends at the United Nations." According to a small-type disclaimer, "Nothing written here is to be construed as...an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress." However, the release itself concluded: "This year, when the U.S. foreign aid budget is scrutinized by Congress as a target for reaching a balanced budget, Congress would do well to cut the program further and seek to abolish the Agency for International Development."

If you have any doubt that the Heritage Foundation is engaged in systematic lobbying, consider the words of Heritage vice presidents Stuart Butler and Kim Holmes, published in the 1995 Annual Report issued in spring 1996:

Butler: Heritage now works very closely with the congressional leadership.... Heritage has been involved in crafting almost every piece of major legislation to move through Congress.

Holmes: Without exaggeration, I think we've in effect become Congress's unofficial research arm.... We truly have become an extension of the congressional staff, but on our own terms and according to our own agenda.

Butler: That's right. As Kim knows, things have been happening so fast on Capitol Hill we've had to sharpen our management skills to take full advantage of the opportunities. There has also been an unprecedented demand on us to "crunch the numbers" for the new congressional leadership.

Given the Heritage Foundation's direct involvement in "crafting" so much congressional legislation, it's ironic that Heritage has been in the forefront of efforts to impose a political gag-rule on certain other nonprofit organizations in the form of the Istook Amendment, which would ban lobbying by any nonprofit that received money from the federal government. (For-profit groups receiving federal money--like the arms industry--would be free to lobby all they wanted.)

Heritage Foundation staffers helped write the Istook Amendment (Christian Century, 8/16/95), testified in favor of it on Capitol Hill, widely distributed a printed argument in favor of it, became a source for journalists covering it, and wrote a Washington Post op-ed article promoting it (9/1/95).

Without a hint of irony, Heritage's annual report for 1995 brags that its new Government Integrity Project "helped expose one of Washington's best-kept secrets: that more than $39 billion in federal subsidies is given annually to nonprofit advocacy groups that lobby government. This sparked furious debate all year long on the use of tax funds by special interests."

Greatly aided by its own tax-exemption, Heritage collected $29.7 million in contributions last year, with core funds coming from just a few places: In 1995, a total of 31 checks from donors like the Olin Foundation and the Bradley Foundation accounted for $8.5 million; another 123 donors supplied $2.6 million more.

The Korea Connection

Heritage has a long history of receiving large donations from overseas (Los Angeles Times, 9/5/88), and the annual take from abroad currently includes upwards of several hundred thousand dollars from Taiwan and South Korea. According to a document uncovered by members of South Korea's National Assembly in autumn 1988, Korean intelligence gave $2.2 million to the Heritage Foundation on the sly during the early 1980s (Nation, 1/23/89). Heritage officials continue to "categorically deny" the accusation. But Heritage's latest annual report does acknowledge a $400,000 grant from the Korean conglomerate Samsung. Another donor, the Korea Foundation--which serves as a direct conduit of money from the South Korean government--has given Heritage almost $1 million in the past three years (Wall Street Journal, 8/10/95). However, U.S. media outlets rarely allude to Heritage's financial links with Korea--even when such ties are directly relevant.

The New York Times avoided the subject in a news article (3/12/96) about two former South Korean leaders, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, on trial for the massacre of many hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators at Kwangju in 1980. The article, by Nicholas Kristof, merely said that the pair's attorney "quoted from a report by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Americanresearch institute, referring to the protesters in Kwangju not as democracy campaigners but as 'rioters.'"

Likewise, a Washington Post dispatch (4/9/96) cited the views of Daryl Plunk, "a Korea specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation"--but made no mention of the monetary ties between South Korea and Heritage.

While quick to quote the Heritage Foundation, major media outlets have not often probed it. But the Wall Street Journal (8/10/95) did take an exceptional look at the Heritage-Korea connection:

Unlike most other think tanks, Heritage not only suggests ideas but actively pushes them in Congress. And in some cases, its legislative efforts would benefit the goals of major donors. Heritage scholars, for example, have drafted specific language for legislation that would help South Korea by encouraging the U.S. to include Seoul more directly in U.S. dealings with North Korea. Meantime, one of Heritage's largest donors, the Korea Foundation, is an affiliate of the South Korean government, according to Yoo Lee, a spokesman for South Korea's embassy here. Heritage President Edwin Feulner says he isn't aware that the Korea Foundation is an arm of their government.

Feulner, the Journal reported, "has taken an active role in promoting South Korean issues in Congress through actions such as testifying before committees to promote the think tank's pro-South Korea positions. Meanwhile, one in six of Heritage's 24 known major donors last year--gifts of $100,000 or more--were Taiwanese or South Korean concerns."

Media Machine

By now, the Heritage Foundation is the most widely cited think tank in the United States (EXTRA!, 5-6/96). Appearing frequently on television and radio, Heritage personnel also generate a nonstop flow of op-ed pieces for newspapers. At the same time, Heritage produces a blizzard of press releases, position papers, news conferences and seminars aired on C-SPAN. For good measure, Heritage headquarters has a radio studio that serves as a convenient broadcast facility for talkshow hosts from around the country who want to beam their live programs home from Washington.

In the nation's capital, many outfits rake in big bucks while trying to affect U.S. government policies. The Heritage Foundation is notable for the shrewd way it spends money: lavishing much of its budget on an ongoing PR campaign that targets news media across the United States. Forty-two percent of Heritage's budget goes to some form of publicity, described as "media and government relations" or "educational programs."

Since 1977, Heritage V.P. Herb Berkowitz and public relations counsel Hugh Newton have coordinated Heritage's nonstop media barrage. Like gunslingers blowing smoke from the barrels of their six-shooters, they're glad to recount how so many notches got in their media belts.

Heritage Foundation became a legendary Washington player in late 1980. "Ronald Reagan's election changed a lot--made us much more important," Newton said in an interview. Berkowitz added: "They rode in, we had the bible ready." The "bible" was a Heritage report--"Mandate for Leadership"--calling for deregulation of business, deep cuts in social programs and huge spending hikes for the Pentagon. President Reagan adopted it as the blueprint for his administration.

Today, Heritage works closely with the Republican congressional majority. "Heritage is without question the most far-reaching conservative organization in the country in the war of ideas," Newt Gingrich proclaimed in a November 1994 speech.

In its latest annual report, the Heritage Foundation touts its public relations program as "a trend-setter among the world's think tanks--global in its reach, but focused in its message and methods." As the report notes, "Heritage research is carefully targeted to those who make, interpret, and finance national policy: Congress, the media, and the academic, business and philanthropic communities."

Corporate Ties

Although Heritage's own listing of its trustees identifies most as heads of large corporations, Heritage PR specialists prefer to downplay corporate support. In a letter (5/7/96), Newton informed me that Joseph Coors's donation of seed money to Heritage was "his personal, not corporate money." Newton added that "this past year only 6 percent of our total revenue came from corporations," with that figure presumably based on his narrow definition of "corporate money." (Even then, the claim is difficult to verify, since nine of Heritage's largest current donors "wish to remain anonymous," according to the annual report.)

Newton was also eager to belittle the significance of funding from overseas: "As for Asian money, it comes from corporations with many of the same interests as our American corporate contributors."

Through it all, an aggressive and far-reaching media strategy has been central to Heritage. "The objective in the mission statement is to help change policy in America," Newton said during our interview. "Well, you can't do that by just talking only to 535 people [in Congress]. They often react to what media is saying in their home state." His letter to me declared flatly: "Our two primary audiences are Congress and the media." And, indeed, the Heritage media machine has effectively reached out to reporters and pundits across the mainstream political spectrum.

But in his book The News Shapers, professor Lawrence Soley of Marquette University observes that "among beltway think tanks, Heritage associates have the weakest scholarly credentials." Instead of seeking quality, "the Heritage Foundation appears to strive for quantity"--feeding a glut of material to Congress and the news media. He adds that "the biggest names at this think tank are not thinkers, but former Republican officials." (These days they include Heritage "fellows" Edwin Meese, Jack Kemp and William Bennett, all highly paid for their expertise.) "Given the backgrounds of individuals at the Heritage Foundation, there is little question as to why it is more accomplished at lobbying than research." Soley describes Heritage position papers as "sophomoric."

What the Heritage Foundation does is scholarship in the same sense that military music is music--something to march along with, in lock-step. Author Russ Bellant describes the Heritage Foundation as "less a traditional think tank...than a propaganda center that creates justifications for preconceived positions and then professionally packages the results in a format palatable to politicians and the press."

In his 1991 book The Coors Connection, Bellant predicted that "the Heritage Foundation will continue to be a key element in the phalanx of rightist groups with an agenda of austerity for the poor, hostility to minorities and women, upward distribution of wealth for the rich, economic domination of the Third World, with repression and bloodletting for those who rebel."

Such criticisms don't seem to bother the men in charge of public relations for the Heritage Foundation. They exude pride in the awesome achievements of their superb media operation. Its successes, however, mark journalistic failures. The Heritage Foundation has shown how big money and corporate alliances can make enormous gains in manipulating the nation's main organs of mass media.

This article is an expanded version of a syndicated column by Norman Solomon. If you would like information on how to help get his weekly column into your local newspaper, send an e-mail message to "mediabeat-info@igc.org" or phone (510) 273-9002.