Commercially Correct

Talking Heads

By Craig McGrath

Special to The Progressive Populist

Much was made in the last election about the influence of massive amounts of money on the political process. Campaign finance reform is now on everyone's lips. But little attention has been given to the influence of big, far-right money on the media and idea machines that create our politics.

The campaign against public education conducted by conservatives, for instance, has been going on for most of the 1980s and '90s, but it gained more prominence in 1996 when Bob Dole repeatedly called for school vouchers as a way to begin privatizing public education.

The lead litigator in the school vouchers fight is the Washington based Institute for Justice, the property rights and privatization think tank founded in 1990 by the billionaire Koch [pronounced Coke] oil family of Wichita, Kansas. The public face of the Institute is Clint Bolick, the right's favorite media talking head and a protégé of Clarence Thomas since their days together at Reagan's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Bolick's Institute for Justice was started with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants supplied by the three Koch family foundations. In 1993 the Kochs gave $700,000 to the Institute, 70% of its budget. The Kochs continue to play a major role in financing the Institute, while a representative of the Charles Koch Foundation has one of the five seats on its board.

The quiet workings of the right's foundation and think tank apparatus in the planning and nurturing of the assault on the public infrastructure have been a mostly behind-the-scenes operation. State-financed school vouchers, attacks on public television and radio, privatizing welfare, indeed the whole privatization movement, can be traced to the agenda and funding pattern of the richest, in-your-face, hard right foundations.

The John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Sarah Scaife foundations, along with the three right libertarian foundations run by David and Charles Koch, have been the primary sponsors of this agenda. The public personas of Clint Bolick, John Fund, Allyson Tucker, Bill Bennett, and even the lesser known visage of a Charleen Harr, have become the digital messengers of this 1990's right-wing financial coterie.

Clint Bolick is likely the most recognized of the right libertarian, anti-government electronic media heads. What ever the issue is, whether school vouchers, affirmative action, ending regulation, attacking the AARP or Clinton judicial appointments, Bolick is the right-wing expert of choice. PBS NewsHour, CNN or NBC will have him in attendance with his clear, quiet tones, to explain how public education is a failed government intrusion in the lives of working and poor people or that the civil rights leaders of the past would have certainly been against affirmative action. He, and the other right spinmeisters, will imply that U.S. government education and environmental programs are socialism, by comparing them with failed socialist systems in eastern Europe.

Over the last ten years Bolick has produced numerous books funded by the right think tanks touting the invisible hand of the free market that have given him media legitimacy as this kind of wide-ranging authority. He was also the right's point man in keeping the early Clinton White House off-balance. With attacks on Lani Guinier and Jocelyn Elders, Bolick and friends were instrumental in backing Clinton down from the beginning of his administration.

Bolick's attacks generally first appear on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal where friend and fellow right think tanker John Fund is a senior editorial writer. Fund himself is a stump speaker before such right wing groups as the Young America Foundation and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute. At Heartland's 10th anniversary benefit he introduced ABC's 20/20 reporter John Stossel as keynoter for the event.

Heartland is another favorite recipient of far right foundation money, and gets additional financial attention from Philip Morris, Chevron and the Chlorine Chemical/Vinyl Institute. A representative of the Charles Koch Foundation as well as a representative of Philip Morris sits on its board. Fund was one of three or four regular commentators on the cable MS-NBC network during the Republican and Democratic conventions. At every turn he was lashing out at teachers, the NEA and AFT and simultaneously working the school vouchers and privatization agenda into his color commentary.

Bolick's own attacks on public education go back much further. When he was the litigation director of Landmark Legal Foundation, he defended the first Milwaukee school voucher program started by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. Various groups, including the NAACP, ACLU and the NEA sued to stop the implementation of the program, citing separation of church and state, but lost in the local courts. After a recent 3 to 3 split in the Wisconsin state Supreme Court this summer, the case appears headed to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Bolick and his co-litigator at Landmark Legal, Allyson Tucker, have repeatedly defended the Milwaukee school voucher program over the last five years. Tucker now heads the Individual Rights Project in Washington, itself a project of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture located in Los Angles, as well as being director of CSPC's Washington office. More about Tucker and CSPC later.

Entrepreneur that he is, Bolick's media roles expanded in 1996. As an expert on Clinton judicial appointments he released a report under the letterhead of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. When he was interviewed by PBS NewsHour's Margaret Warner he was wearing his Goldwater Institute hat along with his Institute for Justice ID. Bolick's conclusion was that Clinton's federal bench appointments were almost dangerously liberal compared to the previous 12 years under Reagan-Bush.

Bolick has been used regularly by the NewsHour on affirmative action and civil rights issues and to talk about over-regulation by government.

This is far from the only instance when an uncritical media holds Bolick's revolving doors open for him. What the electronic media never do, of course, is look into the funding sources of the Institute for Justice, Landmark Legal and the rest of the sprawling, growing right think tank-media movement. Both of these organizations were set up with far-right big money: Institute for Justice with Koch family money and Landmark with money from the ultra-right's troika of neo-con financial godfathers - the Olin, Bradley and Sarah Scaife foundations. Olin Foundation is run by former corporate raider and Nixon Treasury Secretary, William E. Simon. The Bradley Foundation President is Michael Joyce, for years a deputy of Simon's at Olin before moving out to Milwaukee to head Bradley in 1985.

Clint Bolick's wide ranging activities took another twist last summer when he co-hosted a Washington news conference with six other right think tank representatives to begin an assault against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This new right arrangement of think tanks calls itself the Coalition to Educate America. The objective of the news conference was to complain about NEA's political action committee and to decry the closeness of a vote in the House that had allowed for NEA's tax exemption on its headquarters, in effect since 1907, to continue.

But mostly what the panelists castigated the NEA for was its refusal to privatize the schools. The PTA, strangely, was also a target of this group and portrayed as a co-conspirator of teachers.

The press conference was organized by Bolick's old friend Allyson Tucker and her Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Tucker, like Bolick, wears many "expert" hats on CNN and ABC's Nightline. Popular Culture has been a long-time opponent of the Public Broadcast System and set up a project in 1988, the Committee for Media Integrity or COMIT, to launch a media campaign against PBS. According to foundation reports and sources, COMIT was started with $125,000 of seed money from the Sarah Scaife Foundation, flagship of Richard Mellon Scaife's network of financial largesse. Scaife, worth an estimated $800 million, is an heir to the Mellon banking fortune who moved to the political far right in the 1960's. The Center, headed by David Horowitz, a former sixties leftist turned yuppie nineties rightist, has promoted Tucker far and wide as a free market/personal responsibility expert touting a commercially correct line in nearly every field of public policy and private activity.

Moderating the Coalition to Educate America press conference was Charleen Harr, president of the Education Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Interestingly enough, Harr, who repeatedly bashed the NEA and AFT as political fronts, is a research associate at something called the Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation in Bowling Green, Ohio.

An investigation of this small think tank near Toledo, also showed a Myron Lieberman there as a senior research scholar. Mr. Lieberman was identified in follow-up papers from the Coalition to Educate America press conference as the chairman of Harr's Education Policy Institute. Harr, a former South Dakota school teacher and defeated Republican senatorial candidate in 1992, seconded the nomination of former vice-president Dan Quayle at the 1992 Republican convention.

The real interesting stuff happens when an examination is made of Scaife Foundation reports over the last four years. During that time period, the Sarah Scaife Foundation gave $250,000 to $350,000 annually to the Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation in Bowling Green. John M. Olin Foundation gave $200,000 to Social Philosophy in 1994-95, and the Bradley Foundation another $50,000 in 1995 for a book, written by Harr and Lieberman, attacking public school teachers.

This system of interlocking directorates, clone think tanks and big money can be instructive. The Sarah Scaife Foundation's eight-man board, for instance, contains William Bennett, author of a book on virtue and long-time basher of public education and the NEA. Reagan's former Secretary of Education, now vocally advocates dismantling the department he once headed. He is joined by Richard Mellon Scaife himself and Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation. Bennett is also given an annual grant award of $125,000 by the Olin Foundation to sit as a fellow in cultural studies at the Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill.

The benefactors of Popular Culture's Allyson Tucker are just as interesting and just as identical. The Sarah Scaife Foundation annually gives a quarter of a million dollars to her Center for the Study of Popular Culture, but in 1994 boosted that to $1 million - more than it gave to the much larger Heritage Foundation, which it helped found in the early '70's. The Scaife Family Foundation threw in another $225,000 in 1994 to CSPC for good measure. Olin Foundation gave CSPC $750,000 in 1994-95 and the Bradley Foundation $482,000 in 1994 alone.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation report was especially full of praise for the time and effort the Center had put into creating a radio program Second Thoughts and maintaining a PBS show, Reverse Angle which in the Scaife Reports words "bring balanced presentations to public broadcast." The mission here was clearly to project the right's agenda on PBS, counter non-right points of view, and reverse the anti-corporate message it saw PBS putting out. For anyone who watches PBS regularly it is evident in the last few years how the tone and content has become decidedly more conservative and non-controversial. Investigative programs like Frontline, which took on hard-hitting topics in the late '80s and early '90s, such as the arming of Iraq by the West and the 1980 Reagan campaign's meddling in the Iranian hostage crisis, have now been rendered tame. A report last year on Rush Limbaugh, for instance, was muddled and failed to report his more vicious racist and sexist comments.

Allyson Tucker, like John Fund, is also a constant commentator on MS-NBC. Most recently she was in a non-debate the network had about the tape recorded reactions of top Texaco executives to a suit brought by African-American former employees charging racial discrimination in hiring and promotions. The executives were heard making repeated racist remarks and discussing the shredding of evidence in the case. Tucker's reaction was "let the free-market take care of it." She was especially appalled that Jesse Jackson was calling for a boycott of Texaco's products and that the EEOC would take action against Texaco. Her commercially correct prescription for people who had been victims of private sector discrimination was that "they would just leave" [the company]. The other talking head-expert agreed with her, leaving the moderator to quip, "We'll have to find something for you to disagree about. "

News executives never question the origins of the money that were used to create the platforms or the careers of Tucker, Bolick, Bennett and the other right talking heads. The fact that they exist is simply enough. The super-rich men and their fortunes that are fueling the think tanks and setting the commercially correct agenda is rarely, if ever, brought into the open.

Richard Mellon Scaife is barely known outside Washington and hometown, Pittsburgh. He prefers to work behind the scenes and shuns publicity. He has been a friend of Newt Gingrich's, however. After Republican victories in early January 1995, Scaife was feted at a Capitol Hill celebration where Gingrich lavished praise on him as one of the "founders of modern conservatism," for his contributions of $200 million dollars over two decades that laid the ideological ground work, through the think tank-media talking heads, for the creation of a new Republican majority in Congress.

Scaife's ideas and money can reach into the realm of the obsessive, however. His fixation with the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster in Fort Marcy park just outside Washington three years ago is legendary. Scaife, apparently convinced there was more to it, reportedly opened a web site on the Internet to air any and all conspiracy theories about Foster. More recently, according to reports in the Washington Post, Scaife was one of the financiers behind the publication of the book, Unlimited Access. This largely unsubstantiated smear book accused Bill Clinton of having an ongoing liaison at a downtown Washington hotel. It's author, ex-FBI agent Gary Aldrich, a onetime hold over at the White House in security screening from the Bush administration, was appalled that women in the Clinton White House wore black and that a number of staffers did not have model-perfect bodies. The Wall Street Journal ran excerpts of the book on its editorial page.

Aldrich later admitted that the source for his allegations against Clinton was David Brock, editor of the American Spectator. The Spectator, a far-right magazine, has long been financed by Scaife Foundation money. In his book Aldrich thanks the Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta right think tank also supported with Scaife Foundation money, for providing help for his efforts. Southeastern Legal Foundation, it so happens, is run by Matt Glavin, a friend of Newt Gingrich from his days when he headed the Georgia Public Policy Foundation where his "dream" was to have the Georgia legislature fund school vouchers.

The mission to dismantle the public infrastructure will doubtless continue. The right's privatization-media machine continues to work its magic on the major media. The think tanks with innocuous sounding names create the experts with their papers and reports, while the far right laissez-fairiest foundations and their money men keep the cash flowing.

They are, in reality, a tightly knit and mutually supported network working in close concert. The talking heads bear watching as well as the funders who put them into their positions as media authorities.

Craig McGrath is a free-lance journalist and writer based in Washington, D. C.

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