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Who Pays For Right-Wing Media?
In 2021, big money flowed to some of the biggest names in right-wing and libertarian media from billionaire-backed foundations and funds.
Last Updated: 8/10/23
Big money flowed to right-wing and conservative media nonprofits from major billionaire-backed foundations and funds in 2021, tax records reveal.
Organizations like the Reason Foundation, the Daily Caller News Foundation, the Prager University Foundation, and others raked in large sums of money from groups affiliated with ultra wealthy right-wing families including Koch, DeVos, and Mercer—all of whom have a vested interest in deregulation, privatization of public goods, and cutting or eliminating taxes.
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To an extent, the role of big money in sponsoring ideologically right-wing and conservative media is fairly understood thanks in large part to billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s sprawling empire, which notably includes the Fox Corporation, New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal among numerous other properties. There is also Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, which received millions in seed funding from petroleum billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks; the Mercer family’s storied relationship with Breitbart; Glenn Beck’s The Blaze securing investments from members of the DeVos family.
But the right-wing media ecosystem is critically dependent upon a handful of wealthy individuals and families. The most recently available federal tax filings (2021) reveal that right-leaning media nonprofits received hundreds of thousands of dollars from billionaire-backed groups and funds that allow donors to mask their identities.
One notable nonprofit media venture backed by wealthy and corporate interests is the libertarian Reason Foundation.
The nonprofit was founded in the late 1970s as the nascent libertarian movement was being organized with help from billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his deceased brother David. Charles has been published in Reason Magazine, the outlet owned by the nonprofit, and prior to his death, David was a trustee of the organization—a fact noted at the end of a Reason article published in 2015, which called on the brothers to spend even more money to influence politics.
Over the years, Koch money has flowed to the foundation. In 2021 alone, it received $1.4 million—or almost 10 percent of its $14.6 million end of year net assets—from Stand Together Fellowships, formerly the Charles Koch Institute, and another $4,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation.
Reason’s coverage has largely aligned with its benefactor’s ideological bent. For example, Koch has been waging a decades-long war on climate science and government regulation. The magazine has routinely published content critical of climate regulation and efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and skeptical of climate science. In April, Reason ran an article titled “The Push To Eliminate Fossil Fuels Is Hurting Poor People.”
Notably, Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey does acknowledge that climate change is real, man-made, and has acknowledged that global warming “could likely pose a significant problem for humanity,” but argued that the “scientific evidence does not mandate any particular program.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen more alignment between Reason and Koch-linked groups—even as they worked to undermine public health measures and sow confusion about the science with the ultimate aim of restoring economic normalcy. The magazine published articles opposing policies like quarantine, or “lockdowns” as they call them, as well as mask and vaccine requirements. The timing of these releases coincided with broader efforts by Koch-linked groups to undermine mitigation measures. For example, on March 28, 2020, just days after Koch’s flagship political operation, Americans For Prosperity, called to allow states to reopen, Reason ran an article attacking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over business closures.
“New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to show that he cannot be trusted to properly weigh the costs and benefits of COVID-19 lockdowns,” the piece opened. “While conceding the unavoidable tradeoff between lives and livelihoods, he insists that preventing even one death is worth any amount of economic pain.”
As of writing this article, the Charles Koch Foundation is missing from the Reason Foundation’s “Torchbearer Society” page, which acknowledges organizations and individuals who donated $1,000 or more in 2021. Stand Together is listed.
Other Reason Foundation funders, whose economic interests align with the libertarian agenda, include:
The Sarah Scaife Foundation ($700,000), one of the billionaire Scaife family foundations. As the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) notes the foundations were directed by the late billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife and established with money inherited from the Mellon industrial, oil, aluminum and banking fortune.
DonorsTrust ($135,000), a right-wing donor-advised fund that is a preferred funding conduit for donors in Koch’s political network. Members of the Koch, DeVos, and Mercer families have used the fund.
The Searle Freedom Trust ($850,000), a nonprofit founded in 1988 by the late philanthropist Daniel C. Searle as a vehicle to promote conservative, free market principles. Searle was the President of G. D. Searle & Co. the pharmaceutical company that developed aspartame. According to CMD, inherited money from the company was used to set up the trust. Today, the trust is a major funder of right-wing causes and groups, including those in Koch’s network. It is overseen by Kimberly Dennis, the president of the board of DonorsTrust.
Tobacco giant Philip Morris International.
The Bader Family Foundation, a nonprofit overseen by Hans Bader, a former senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Institute who, despite being a longtime critic of federal education policy, previously worked for the Department of Education in the Trump administration.
Reason’s communications director Chris Mitchell told Important Context that “NewsGuard gives Reason.com a score of 100/100: ‘This website adheres to all nine standards of credibility and transparency.’”
The Daily Caller
A major right-wing media nonprofit recipient of big money was The Daily Caller News Foundation, which is behind The Daily Caller.
Billing itself as “a 24-hour news publication providing its audience with original reporting, thought-provoking commentary and breaking news,” the outlet is better understood as a part of a broader right-wing messaging apparatus. The nonprofit foundation received $400,000 from DonorsTrust and $230,000 from Searle Freedom Trust in 2021.
It also got $50,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Describing itself as “a private, independent grantmaking organization based in Milwaukee,” the foundation began in 1942 after the death of industrialist Lynde Bradley, co-founder of the Allen-Bradley Company. Since the 1960s, it has been a major funder of conservative and right-wing public policy efforts with assets today of more than $1.1 billion dollars. The Bradley Foundation also funds the Heritage Foundation, the Mercatus Center, the Federalist Society, the Manhattan Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute among others.
According to an article by “Dark Money” author Jane Mayer, the foundation has spent years funding groups that promote concerns about election fraud. Moreover, Cleta Mitchell, who sits on the foundation’s board of directors, was on the phone call with Donald Trump in January 2021 when the president tried to pressure Georgia election officials to find thousands of votes to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results.
The Bradley Foundation’s support for the Daily Caller Foundation goes back years. From 2017-21, the foundation has given the media nonprofit $300,000 (it did not donate in 2018). The Daily Caller has incidentally spilled much ink over supposed “voter fraud” issues over the years. In April 2021, the outlet even published “A Handy Guide to All The Things Democrats Call ‘Voter Suppression.” Last month, it ran the story, “George Officials Downplay Existence of Voting Machine Issues Ahead of 2024 Election Despite Expert Concerns.” While the outlet has published a number of pieces fact checking viral right-wing election fraud claims around the 2020 election and Dominion Voting Systems, it has also elevated trumped-up reports about the integrity of the election.
“REPORT: Pro-Biden Operatives Gave Native Americans Gift Cards, Jewelry In Exchange For Votes in Nevada,” ran a headline back in December 2020. The story cited reporting from the Washington Examiner, which focused on a nonpartisan Native American voter outreach project, the Nevada Native Vote Project. According to the story, one of the organizers was caught on video in a Biden-Harris mask. In June 2021, Trump repeated the claim and was fact checked by Politifact, which noted that the video had been cited in an unsuccessful lawsuit by Trump allies in the state seeking to overturn the results of the election. The judge in the case dismissed the video, noting it failed to establish that the voter outreach project "gave or offered to give any person anything of value for the purpose of manipulating or altering the outcome of the election."
Another large contributor to the Daily Caller Foundation was the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, a major right-wing funding operation run by billionaire Richard Uihlein. The group, which gave $25,000, has funded groups involved in union-busting efforts like the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation.
The Daily Caller’s coverage has an anti-union slant, especially against teachers’ unions. When Los Angeles teachers went on strike to demand higher wages in March, the publication framed the move as a harm to children.
“Massive Strike Cancels Classes For 400,000 Kids In Nation's Second-Largest School District,” the headline read.
The outlet has also celebrated right-to-work legal victories. For example, after the Supreme Court handed down its controversial ruling in Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters last month, which held that a concrete company could sue workers who walked off the job to strike, leaving concrete running in trucks, The Daily Caller headline read, “Supreme Court Rules 8-1 Against Union Bosses Seeking to Dodge Liability For Property Damage.” Labor advocates worry that the decision will weaken organized labor, making walk offs more complicated.
Another outfit buoyed by right-wing wealth is libertarian activist Dennis Prager’s Prager University Foundation (PragerU), which produces online videos aimed at young people to spread free market ideology.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the foundation brands itself “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education” and claims to rely on donations “to keep our videos free and to reach millions of young people.” But the organization is hardly supported by small donors.
The foundation has long had financial ties to wealthy interests. In 2015, the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers—Dan and Farris—were the biggest funders of PragerU with Farris Wilks’ Thirteen Foundation giving $1 million. In 2021, PragerU received $100,000 from the Bradley Foundation and another $18,000 from the Bradley Impact Fund, an associated donor-advised fund that also diverts money to right-wing organizations including hate groups like the anti-immigrant David Horowitz Freedom Center. PragerU also got $400,000 from DonorsTrust and $150,000 from Searle Freedom Trust. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation also gave $50,000.
Prager’s videos reflect the monied interests behind the foundation. They have taken aim at environmental regulations and promoted the use of fossil fuels. A PragerU video from April declared “the world needs more fossil fuels,” claiming that the benefits of their usage outweigh the negative side effects. A December 2021 video asks viewers “Are Pipelines Safe?” and answers in the affirmative. The video narrator laments the death of the Keystone XL Pipeline, describing the project as “lots of upside, almost no downside.”
Throughout the pandemic, PragerU put out content lamenting “lockdown devastation” and the “dangers of ‘health above all’” as policy. The latter video, from July 2022, features Dennis Prager sitting by a fire supporting the anti-vaccine Canadian truckers’ “Freedom Convoy” and accusing the left of winning elections by appealing to the human desire “to be taken care of.”
The RealClear Foundation, the nonprofit behind RealClearPolitics and RealClearEnergy, raked in large donations from billionaire-backed right-wing groups and funds.
RealClear got $850,000 from the Uihlein Foundation, $150,000 from the Bradley Foundation, $2.2 million from DonorsTrust, and $400,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust. Stand Together Fellowships, meanwhile, paid the foundation $150,000 for “media services.”
More centrist than the other nonprofits in this article, RealClear Foundation still skews right—an unsurprising reality given its funding and relationships. RealClear Opinion Research, for example, recently conducted a poll about “school choice,” a longtime right-wing idea to draw funding away from public schools by giving parents the ability to use tax dollars for private (or public) school for their children. The question recycled framing—and near exact language—from pro-school choice groups like EdChoice, a nonprofit that received funding from Koch’s Stand Together Fellowships ($800,000) and DonorsTrust ($28,000) in 2021:
The question: School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?
EdChoice: School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs —whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment families choose. Watch this video to see how an educational choice system works.
RealClear’s media operation has run pro-school choice pieces as well. In May, it published a commentary declaring that the “school choice revolution” should make Americans optimistic. On energy issues, meanwhile, it has run a number of pieces critical of government efforts to transition away from fossil fuels as well as ESG (environmental, social, and governance) activism, which seeks to change corporate behavior.
Just this month, RealClearEnergy ran a piece titled, “Joe Biden’s Climate Policies Weaken the U.S. and Strengthen China,” which leads off with the claim that “President Biden’s commitment to end fossil fuels has been ineffective in reducing the demand for oil – but very effective in both weakening the U.S. and empowering our primary global adversary, China.”
“Assuming that a reduction in global carbon emissions is necessary to fight ‘climate change’ (a disputed proposition), it nonetheless makes little sense environmentally, economically, or strategically to hobble the American fossil fuel sector (cancelling pipelines, discouraging financing, restricting leases, and slow walking permits) before sufficient sources of renewable energy with a proven capacity to meet global demand can be demonstrated,” it adds.
It published another piece making the national security case for stripping away red tape from natural gas projects. Last month, meanwhile, RealClearMarkets ran, “What Comes After An ESG Craze That's Not Ready to Die?” which made the case against ESG activism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Project Veritas, the political sting outfit founded by right-wing activist James O’Keefe that is known for its deceptively edited videos, raked in big money from billionaire-connected funds.
The project got $1.2 million from DonorsTrust. The actual donor identities, however, remain unknown as donor-advised funds do not have to disclose them. The funds themselves manage and legally control the money from donors, but take input as to how it gets spent.
Veritas has gone after the political right’s favorite targets: Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Federation of Teachers, media outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and others, and other entities. In other words, it has sought to undermine the hated liberal establishment.
(In February, the group forced O’Keefe out amid complaints about his treatment of staff and use of funds.)
The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times Association, which publishes The Epoch Times, received $31,000 from DonorsTrust.
The publication is affiliated with Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement that has clashed with the country’s communist government. In recent years, however, it has become a force in American right-wing politics. Former President Donald Trump has even shared articles from the site.
The publication itself is a hub for misinformation, including COVID-related misinformation. Naturally, it has published many pieces against public health measures like “lockdowns,” which big money interests on the right have opposed for years.
Epoch Times has even featured writing about the pandemic from Jeffrey Tucker, founder of the dark money Brownstone Institute, which Important Context has reported extensively. A Koch network veteran, Tucker and his nonprofit have been vocal opponents of government efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The American Spectator
The American Spectator Foundation, which publishes the right-wing the storied American Spectator magazine, a mainstay in right-wing politics, received big money from the Bradley Foundation ($50,000) and DonorsTrust ($305,000).
Since its founding in the 1960s, The Spectator has been a beacon of conservative thought, having launched the careers of prominent figures on the right like Bill Kristol and Greg Gutfeld. The magazine publishes works advocating free markets, cutting taxes, small government, and opposition to unions, with a dose of culture war fervor.
On Saturday, the magazine published a piece defending Moms For Liberty, a parents’ rights organization formed in 2021 that was recently designated an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has become known for its aggressive tactics at school board meetings and support for book bans, and came under fire recently after one of its chapters quoted Adolf Hitler in a newsletter. At its annual summit earlier this month, Tiffany Justice, one of the founders of Moms For Liberty, proudly cited the incident to whoops from the crowd and declared, “I stand with that mom!”
The Spectator article asserts that the negative attention Moms For Liberty has received is the result of it challenging the Democrats’ “teacher union paymasters.”
Predictably, the magazine has a hostile posture toward climate change activism. In February, for example, it ran a piece titled, “The Left Is Willing to Bankrupt America for Climate Change” which excoriates “climate catastrophists” and asserts that the left would tackle the crisis facing the planet by lowering the standard of living for all Americans.
“Like the most intolerant zealots of the past, they believe they have the only truth and will override forcibly all who contradict them,” it reads.
The Daily Signal
Right-wing think tanks also double as media operations, putting out think pieces and commentaries. But sometimes, they have their own media outlets. The Heritage Foundation, for example, owns The Daily Signal.
Heritage was founded in the 1970s with money from beer dynasty scion Joseph Coors. Today, it is perhaps the most influential right-wing think tank in Washington D.C.
Heritage is famously connected to Koch and other prominent right-wing billionaires. For example, the think tank is an associate member of the State Policy Network, which we have previously noted is “a web of rightwing and libertarian state-based nonprofits that receive money from major corporate interests, including the DeVos and Koch families, as well as the Walmart owners the Walton family.” In 2021 alone, Heritage received funding from Koch-linked groups including Stand Together Fellowships and the Charles Koch Foundation—albeit in small amounts of $8,000 and $15,000 respectively. It also got money through DonorsTrust ($361,000) and the Bradley Impact Fund ($139,000), as well as from the Bradley Foundation ($325,000). In previous years, it has received funding from Searle Freedom Trust ($100,000 in 2020).
The content published by Daily Signal reflects its ownership—and its donors. On climate issues, the publication is pro-fossil fuels. For example, in November, it published a commentary critical of green energy titled, “Critical Facts Ignored in the Climate Change Debate.”
“Many Western countries are enacting policies to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) to less reliable and costly ‘green’ energy sources (mostly wind and solar) while ignoring the critical benefits that hydrocarbons provide,” the piece begins.
Another piece from the previous month, “America’s Schools Warm to Climate Change, Without Question,” claims “it’s still not clear how much temperatures will rise in the future and the effect that might have on society” and cites a source who denies the global scientific consensus on climate change. In March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that in order to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, humanity would have to slash carbon emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050. Warming above that 1.5-degree threshold will mean impacts on the planet that are significantly more difficult to grapple with and would most likely result in millions of deaths globally.
“While the Biden administration and progressive groups who help shape the school curriculums argue that it is imperative to end or limit the use of fossil fuels, there is vigorous debate among scientists and policymakers about the best way to balance mitigation measures with economic and other trade-offs that, critics say, are largely ignored in schools,” the Signal piece reads.
On COVID, The Daily Signal aligned with its ownership, which had been part of a broader right-wing effort to oppose and undermine public health measures.
In February 2022, for example, it republished a story from The Daily Caller declaring that “lockdowns” had little impact on viral spread. The story centered on a supposed “Johns Hopkins meta-analysis” of lockdowns. But the meta-analysis in question was a working paper that had not been peer-reviewed or endorsed by the school. In fact, it would be criticized by faculty at Johns Hopkins for being “unscientific” later in the month.
The paper’s flaws, which appear nowhere in the republished Caller story, include redefining “lockdowns” broadly and relying on a handful of studies, including working papers, most of which were conducted prior to September 2020. But the narrative was one The Daily Signal preferred. Another piece titled, “Relying on Lockdowns, Social Distancing, and Masks Isn’t Working to Curb COVID-19,” published in January 2021 had the same conclusion.
“The Affirmative Case”
Organized efforts by right-wing economic elites to establish an alternative narrative ecosystem to the so-called liberal establishment—one favoring their policy preferences—go back decades. In his infamous 1971 memo, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” which was commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s foremost business lobby group, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell outlined a blueprint for a corporate counterrevolution in the U.S.
At the time, consumer advocates like Ralph Nader had scored important victories and left-wing activism was surging. A corporate attorney, Powell was alarmed.
“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” he wrote.
Powell suggested American business dedicate “10 percent of its total advertising budget” to the propaganda war, recommending confronting liberalism within America’s institutions, the courts, the schools, and of course, in the media.
“Radio and the press are also important, and every available means should be employed to challenge and refute unfair attacks, as well as to present the affirmative case through these media,” he wrote.
Discussing Powell’s battle plans in a 1974 speech, Charles Koch argued that education would be the most effective tool to make that affirmative case.
“Unlike educational programs that produce new advocates, the alternative approaches utilizing the media, the courts, and politics fall in the category of self-defense,” Koch explained. “But self-defense is necessary, and I recommend that it be done aggressively.”
Over the next few decades, he and other wealthy right-wing individuals would build a sprawling messaging apparatus consisting of various think tanks to make the pro-business case, and media organizations to disseminate it.
This infrastructure came fully online after the infamous 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which held that corporations were people—at least as far as their right to spend unlimited sums of money on politics. The decision built a precedent Powell helped establish in 1976 in the case of Buckley v. Valeo: Spending money was protected speech under the First Amendment.