American Plutocracy and The So-Called Objective Media

For ten years Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist, and Paul Pierson, the Berkeley political scientist, have been tracking exploding economic inequality in the United States. In this summer’s book, Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson explicitly identify our government as a plutocracy.  And they track how politicians (with the help of right-wing media) shape a populist, racist, gun-toting, religious fundamentalist story line to distract the public from a government that exclusively serves the wealthy.  In a new article published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Journalism’s Gates Keepers, Tim Schwab examines our plutocracy from a different point of view: How is the mainstream media, the institution most of us look to for objective news, shaped increasingly by philanthropists stepping in to fill the funding gaps as newspapers go broke and news organizations consolidate?

In their 2010 classic, Winner-Take-All Politics, Hacker and Pierson present “three big clues” pointing to the tilt of our economy to winner-take-all: “(1) Hyperconcentration of Income… The first clue is that the gains of the winner-take-all economy, befitting its name, have been extraordinarily concentrated. Though economic gaps have grown across the board, the big action is at the top, especially the very top… (2) Sustained Hyperconcentration… The shift of income toward the top has been sustained increasingly steadily (and, by historical standards, extremely rapidly) since 1980… (3) Limited Benefits for the Nonrich… In an era in which those at the top reaped massive gains, the economy stopped working for middle-and working-class Americans.”  Winner-Take-All Politics, pp. 15-19) (emphasis in the original)

Hacker and Pierson’s second book in the recent decade, the 2016 American Amnesia explores America’s loss of faith in government, our massive forgetting about the role of government regulation and balance in a capitalist economy: “(T)he institution that bears the greatest credit often gets short shrift: that combination of government dexterity and market nimbleness known as the mixed economy. The improvement of health, standards of living, and so much else we take for granted occurred when and where government overcame market failures, invested in the advance of science, safeguarded and supported the smooth functioning of markets, and ensured that economic gains became social gains.” (American Amnesia, p. 69)

In their new Let Them Eat Tweets, Hacker and Pierson no longer avoid the label. They now call America a full blown plutocracy: “This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead, it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy—government of, by, and for the rich.  Runaway inequality has remade American politics, reorienting power and policy toward corporations and the super-rich (particularly the most conservative among them)… The rise of plutocracy is the story of post-1980 American politics. Over the last forty years, the wealthiest Americans and the biggest financial and corporate interests have amassed wealth on a scale unimaginable to prior generations and without parallel in other western democracies. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have roughly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. They have used that wealth—and the connections and influence that come with it—to construct a set of political organizations that are also distinctive in historical and cross-national perspective. What makes them distinctive is not just the scope of their influence, especially on the right and far right. It is also the degree to which the plutocrats, the biggest winners in our winner-take-all economy, pursue aims at odds with the broader interests of American society.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, pp. 1-2)

Let Them Eat Tweets is about American plutocracy, the growing conservatism of the GOP, and politicians’ use of racism, right wing media, the NRA, and religious fundamentalism to win elections by distracting the masses from noticing that they are benefiting not at all from America’s plutocracy.  The book is a wonderful guide to what we are all living through as we watch the evening news—the strategies underneath Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

But there is another hidden element of the power of plutocrats. Philanthropies led by the wealthy make charitable gifts which subtly shape news reporting itself.  And the subject here is not merely Fox and Breitbart and the other right-wing outlets. Tim Schwab’s important report from the Columbia Journalism Review is about one of America’s powerful plutocrats, Bill Gates. Schwab explores, “a larger trend—and ethical issue—with billionaire philanthropists’ bankrolling the news.  The Broad Foundation, whose philanthropic agenda includes promoting charter schools, at one point funded part of the LA Times‘ reporting on education. Charles Koch has made charitable donations to journalistic institutions such as the Poynter Institute, as well as to news outlets such as the Daily Caller, that support his conservative politics. And the Rockefeller Foundation funds Vox‘s Future Perfect, a reporting project that examines the world ‘through the lens of effective altruism’—often looking at philanthropy.  As philanthropists increasingly fill in the funding gaps at news organizations—a role that is almost certain to expand in the media downturn following the coronavirus pandemic—an unexamined worry is how this will affect the ways newsrooms report on their benefactors.”

Those of us who have been following public education policy over two decades know that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in policy itself—funding think tanks like the Center on Reinventing Public Education—which brought us “portfolio school reform” charter school expansion—which led to Chicago’s Renaissance 2010— which led to Arne Duncan’s bringing that strategy into federal policy in Race to the Top.  We know that the Gates Foundation funded what ended up as an expensive and failed small high schools initiative, and, after that failed—an experiment with evaluating teachers by their students’ standardized test scores—and later experimenting with incentive bonuses for teachers who quickly “produce” higher student scores.  We remember that the Gates Foundation brought us the now fading Common Core. And we remember that Arne Duncan filled his department with staff hired directly from the Gates Foundation.

What we too often forget is that the Gates Foundation has also invested in creating a positive climate for the reception of the Foundation’s policy initiatives—a positive climate that has been uncritical until years later when the experiments failed—sometimes leaving behind millions of dollars in costs to be paid, for example by the school district in Hillsborough County, Florida, and leaving public school districts to undo complicated restructuring and restore comprehensive high schools.

Schwab shows how the Gates Foundation has been able to shape reporting on its policy experiments: “I recently examined nearly twenty thousand charitable grants the Gates Foundation had made through the end of June and found more than $250 million going toward journalism.  Recipients included news operations like the BBC, NBC, A1 Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting; charitable organizations affiliated with news outlets, like BBC Media Action and the New York Times‘ Neediest Cases Fund; media companies such as Participant, whose documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ supports Gates’s agenda on charter schools; journalistic organizations such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the National Press Foundation, and the International Center for Journalists; and a variety of other groups creating news content or working on journalism, such as the Leo Burnett Company, an ad agency that Gates commissioned to create a ‘news site’ to promote the success of aid groups. In some cases, recipients say they distributed part of the funding as subgrants to other journalistic organizations—which makes it difficult to see the full picture of Gates’s funding into the fourth estate.  The foundation even helped fund a 2016 report from the American Press Institute that was used to develop guidelines on how newsrooms can maintain editorial independence from philanthropic funders… Notably, the study’s underlying survey data showed that nearly a third of funders reported having seen at least some content they funded before publication.”

Schwab evaluates exactly what kind of influence Gates’ investment has purchased: “In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture—a level of influence that has landed Bill Gates on Forbes‘s list of the most powerful people in the world.”  “Gates’s generosity appears to have helped foster an increasingly friendly media environment for the world’s most visible charity.  Twenty years ago, journalists scrutinized Bill Gates’s initial foray into philanthropy as a vehicle to enrich his software company, or a PR exercise to salvage his battered reputation following Microsoft’s bruising antitrust battle with the Department of Justice. Today the foundation is most often the subject of soft profiles and glowing editorials describing its good works.”

Of course, the PBS NewsHour discloses Gates Foundation funding when Bill Gates is invited to comment on the coronavirus pandemic as though he is not merely a funder of world health initiatives but is instead himself a world health expert. But Schwab doesn’t believe the ubiquitous disclosure statements solve the problem: “Even perfect disclosure of Gates funding doesn’t mean the money can’t still introduce bias. At the same time, Gates funding, alone, doesn’t fully explain why so much of the news about the foundation is positive. Even news outlets with no obvious financial ties to Gates—the foundation isn’t required to publicly report all of the money it gives to journalism, making the full extent of its giving unknown—tend to report favorably on the foundation. That may be because Gates’s expansive giving over the decades has helped influence a larger media narrative about its work.  And it may also be because the news media is always, and especially right now, looking for heroes.  A larger worry is the precedent the prevailing coverage of Gates sets for how we report on the next generation of tech billionaires-turned-philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.”

The Washington Post appears independent and at this point seems merely to reflect its current owner’s laudable belief, proclaimed every morning on the newspaper’s masthead, that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  But we ought to consider how Jeff Bezos’s generous purchase of The Post affects our objectivity as we try to evaluate the role of AMAZON in our economy.  How is Bezos’s generosity subtly undermining our own objectivity?

In Let Them Eat Tweets, two prominent political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pearson have now explicitly identified our government as a plutocracy. Tim Schwab expands the analysis: warning about the plutocratic purchase of how we understand our world even if we shun the extremist press and get our news straight from the mainstream media.

3 thoughts on “American Plutocracy and The So-Called Objective Media

  1. Wow! As I read this, I sensed the presence of Senator Bernie Sanders looking over my shoulder and shouting, “See, that’s what I’ve been talking about!”

  2. Jan. This is very insightful piece. Connecting the rise of plutocracy with the changing nature of journalism relating to the capacity of the super rich to influence how we see the “news” is an important and overdue observation. I wonder what this influence would look like if we included the purchase of commercial time in the influencing of which stories are aired and how they are presented.

  3. Pingback: Jan Resseger: “Let Them Eat Tweets” | Diane Ravitch's blog

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