Conspiracy to Commit Journalism: The Media’s Attacks on the Scaife Foundations

Executive Summary

When Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the media to investigate the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband, the donations of Richard M. Scaife became the subject of unusual media scrutiny. Scaife drew controversy not by funding conservative policy analysis, but by funding investigative journalism which reflected badly on the President. Investigative journalism on the the President was considered an essential civic duty in the Reagan years. Current reporting suggests it’s just the opposite. Is there a double standard? A Media Research Center analysis by Director of Media Analysis Tim Graham reviewed TV news coverage of the Scaife controversy and then focused on what reporters didn’t ask:

  1. How can this be a conspiracy? The Scaife foundations’ donations are hardly secret, with their IRS forms posted on the Internet. In the many stories connecting Scaife to The American Spectator magazine, few noticed Scaife is no longer funding the magazine over policy differences.

  2. Who are the real powerhouses in public policy giving? Several large liberal foundations give hundreds of millions of dollars more to public policy groups than the Scaife foundations do, yet only Scaife’s comparatively smaller donations seem newsworthy.

  3. Where was the vast left-wing media conspiracy in the Reagan years? While the networks focused on journalistic conspiracies against Clinton, liberal groups who drove media coverage of terrible-sounding Reagan-Bush conspiracies were not lumped into a "vast left-wing conspiracy" by national media outlets. 

  4. If foundation money and journalism are a toxic mix, how do media outlets explain their own foundation receipts? Millions of liberal foundation dollars are currently being spent in the news rooms of "objective" national media outlets for projects including support for Clinton policy initiatives and attacks against press coverage of Clinton. Where is the media coverage of these practices.


The major media might think they cover every trench of America’s political battles in exhaustive detail. But one important factor in the making of policy and the making of news — America’s grant-making foundations — rarely make it into the media’s portrait of the political system. One notable exception came in February. In the wake of First Lady Hillary Clinton's charge that her husband is the victim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," the public-policy donations of Richard M. Scaife became the subject of unusual media scrutiny. The national media suggested that Scaife, through the Carthage and Sarah Scaife Foundations, has been orchestrating a campaign to bring down President Clinton, a conspiracy which is so broad-based that it included even independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

These critiques do not mention the millions of dollars the Scaife foundations have given to develop the programs of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute. They primarily focus on conservative journalism. Why the focus on investigative journalism over policy research? White House actions suggest that policy research doesn’t scare them as much as investigative journalism does. In the Reagan and Bush years, investigative journalism into the policies and ethics of the President was seen as the very essence of civic duty. Now journalists themselves insist it’s the opposite.

Much of the reporting on Scaife’s donations sounds as if it came from the 330-page document "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," a packet of Xeroxed Nexis clips collected and bundled together at taxpayer expense by White House lawyer Chris Lehane, and passed on to many White House reporters starting in 1995. Scaife figured prominently in the elaborate conspiracy theory Lehane constructed, the tale of a food chain stretching anti-Clinton stories from dastardly right-wing operatives and journalists to the mainstream press.

The focus on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" underlined the degree to which the national media is guilty of a double standard. If in the 1980s, Nancy Reagan had blamed a "vast left-wing conspiracy" for the Iran-Contra scandal, the media surely would have made fun of her — not spent its time detailing Reagan White House information packets on the liberal views and connections among Reagan detractors. The Clinton press strategy, forged in the crucible of the 1992 campaign, suggests it doesn’t matter whether a story is true or false, only who’s telling it. The same reporters who’ve ignored the donors behind left-wing conspiracy journalism and liberal foundation funding of "objective" news outlets have singled out Scaife as if only the conservative movement has ever united to question a national politician’s integrity.

The Charges

All the network stories carried the echo of the White House conspiracy-packet line, emphasizing a) the scandalous thought that someone would pay for investigative reporting that dared to challenge the President, and b) the tenuous connection between Scaife’s funding of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and Starr’s temporary decision to quit and work there. None of these outlets felt the need to expand beyond Clintonite handouts to substantiate whether there was any conscious collusion or communication between Scaife and Starr. They just practiced guilt by association. Mr. Scaife stated for the record that neither he nor anyone involved with his foundations has ever met with or talked to Mr. Starr, and neither he nor his staff had any role in Mr. Starr’s Pepperdine appointment. Mr. Scaife also noted that he is only one of several donors to give $1 million to the endowment for Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. Beware: all these stories sound like they came from the same script, with minimal variations.

In a February 1 CNN Impact story, Kathy Slobogin said: "Finally, there is the Clintons' arch-nemesis Ken Starr. His links to Clinton detractors? He agreed to write a brief in the Paula Jones case. Once appointed independent counsel, his law firm dropped the case. A year ago he almost took an academic job funded by millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, a relentless Clinton opponent." Four days later on Investigating the Investigator, the CNN special probing Kenneth Starr, Slobogin repeated herself about "a job offer that made his critics cringe."

On ABC’s Nightline February 4, reporter Chris Bury announced: "[Journalist Christopher] Ruddy’s boss is Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Mellon banking fortune. Scaife has been a big donor to anti-Clinton causes, including a legal foundation that supported Paula Jones....The Paula Jones allegations were first reported in the conservative American Spectator magazine. It, too, has received money from Richard Mellon Scaife."

CBS correspondent Rita Braver saw sinister connections in a February 8 CBS Evening News report. "Christopher Ruddy, a reporter at Scaife's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wrote a spate of articles claiming former White House aide Vincent Foster was murdered rather than committing suicide," reported Braver. In addition, "Scaife foundations have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to The American Spectator, which broke the story that led to the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit against Mr. Clinton. Scaife also funded a special Clinton investigative unit at the magazine. Scaife also helped underwrite the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University where, the school says, purely by coincidence, independent counsel Ken Starr is slated to work."

In "a look at the motley characters behind Hillary Clinton’s ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’" in the February 9 Time, Walter Kirn noted: "Last year, in a decision he later reversed under pressure from Republican lawmakers, Starr announced that he was leaving his job to become dean of the law and public policy schools at Pepperdine University. The chair Starr had set his sights on, as it happened, was endowed by a certain Richard Mellon Scaife, an archconservative Pennsylvania billionaire who also happens to publish the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review, a newspaper whose star reporter, Christopher Ruddy (hang in there; this pays off) is notorious for his own conspiracy theories concerning the death of Clinton officials Vincent Foster and Ron Brown. Interestingly, Scaife’s billions have also bankrolled The American Spectator, the magazine that broke the Troopergate story." Kirn asked: "Could Scaife be Mr. Big? It seems that among most conservatives there are only two degrees of separation from the ubiquitous philanthropist." The newest Time article on Scaife referred to him in a headline as "king of the Clinton-haters." 

The February 9 Newsweek also included Scaife in its diagram of the right-wing conspiracy, noting "liberals howled last year when he [Starr] considered a Pepperdine University deanship partially funded by conservative Richard Scaife."

Daily newspapers also suggested Starr was tainted because of the heralded Pepperdine-Scaife connection. In the month after the Clinton sex scandal broke, references to Starr would often include references to Scaife. Nine articles in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today between January 20 and February 20 mentioned that Starr had planned to leave the independent counsel's office to take the job at Pepperdine funded by Scaife, implying a conflict of interest for Starr.

On the March 5 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Lisa Myers reported: "To the Clinton White House, Scaife is the Darth Vader of the alleged right-wing conspiracy against the President, having helped bankroll a Pittsburgh newspaper that specializes in anti-Clinton conspiracy theories; The American Spectator, which broke the story about Arkansas troopers soliciting women for Clinton; lawyers once involved in Paula Jones' suit against the President; and a group that ran ads in search of other women. But what do Scaife and his views have to do with Starr?" Myers asked. "Well, a Scaife foundation helps fund the deanship at Pepperdine University, a job Starr accepted last year, then had to reject after a firestorm of criticism."

• Most recently, on March 26, MSNBC’s nightly show White House in Crisis devoted a half-hour to Scaife. Host Keith Olbermann implied Scaife was almost the only donor to the anti-Clinton cause: "If you’ve got a conspiracy, you’ve gotta have a bankroll. If the now-famous (if not exactly new) charge by the First Lady that the President is the target of a vast right-wing conspiracy is accurate, then nearly all the banking records point to one individual — Richard Scaife."

Reporter David Gregory added: "Called the Goldfinger of conservative causes, he’s donated an estimated 200 million dollars over the past few decades." Gregory repeated all of Myers’ list of connections — the Pittsburgh newspaper, The American Spectator, the lawyers for Paula Jones, the ad in search of Clinton victims. (Reporters never noted Scaife has funded The American Spectator for 30 years.) Predictably, Gregory added: "Another reason for the White House’s suspicions of Scaife: his alleged ties to independent counsel Ken Starr. A Scaife foundation helps fund one of the schools at Pepperdine University, where last year Starr accepted a job as dean. He later rejected the job after a firestorm of criticism."

In an interview with neoliberal New Republic writer Nurith Aizenman, Olbermann asked: "I heard a theory expressed by some folks on the right that in fact there may or may not be a vast right-wing conspiracy, but that Richard Scaife is in fact too far right even for a vast right-wing conspiracy, if such a thing exists. Is there validity to that point? Is he at the center of something on the right or is he righter than right?" He also suggested after returning from a commercial that Scaife might be funding a "coup."

The Rebuttal

All these networks mostly forwarded White House perceptions of a Pittsburgh-based "Darth Vader" without taking the time to make their reports a broader investigation of the crossroads between philanthropy and politics, or between philanthropy and journalism. No one asked questions offering a challenging rebuttal to the Clintonites’ anti-Scaife charges:

1. How can this be a conspiracy? The Scaife foundations’ donations are hardly secret, with their IRS forms posted on the Internet (at The organizations the Scaife foundations have supported are hardly in agreement about wrongdoing by President Clinton. Few of the dot-to-dot conspiracy stories connecting Scaife to The American Spectator magazine noticed Scaife is no longer funding the magazine after it published an article criticizing journalist Christopher Ruddy’s reporting on Vincent Foster’s death. Few note that alleged Scaife pawn Starr ruled the Foster death a suicide. What about the unsubstantiated Scaife-Starr conspiracy? As a February 11 Investor’s Business Daily editorial pointed out, if "this was a conspiracy, it sure was an odd one. Here was Scaife helping fund a new position that tempted Starr — allegedly ‘his’ man— away from the work of probing the president."

2. Who are the real powerhouses in public policy giving? Several large liberal foundations give hundreds of millions of dollars more to public policy nonprofits than do the Scaife foundations, yet only Scaife’s comparatively smaller donations are newsworthy. Reporters also ignore that many of the richest foundations in the United States are distinctly liberal, with the Ford Foundation authorizing grants of $300 million a year, the MacArthur Foundation donating over $100 million, and the Carnegie Foundation over $50 million. The largest conservative foundations, such as Bradley, Scaife, and Olin, each give less than $50 million. Between them, the Carthage and Sarah Scaife foundations give less than $25 million each year. Reporters don't think it's news when, for instance, the Ford Foundation supports such leftist groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Children's Defense Fund. In the 1980s, the Ford Foundation was so far to the left it even funded institutions in the Marxist regimes of Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe, and that never provoked media inquiries or even a mildly liberal ideological description from reporters.

3. Where was the vast left-wing media conspiracy in the Reagan years? With all the focus on Scaife’s now-defunct funding of The American Spectator, one might think that left-wing nonprofit groups had never played a part in the nation’s media system. But in fact, in previous administrations, investigative journalism (much of it wildly incorrect) charging some highly implausible and terrible conspiracies committed by Republican Presidents was funded by liberal foundations without those elements ever being lumped into a "vast left-wing conspiracy" by national media outlets. For example:

The Center for Investigative Reporting was founded in 1977 by a group of San Francisco radicals whose investigative credo was declared by CIR co-founder David Weir in a 1982 Newsweek interview: "We don't consider investigative reporting to be something that includes investigating welfare mothers." Throughout the 1990s, CIR’s financial lifeline has been the PBS series Frontline. Their documentaries included "The Great American Bailout," an investigation into the savings-and-loan scandal, which included a reasonable summary by then-CBS reporter Robert Krulwich, but also insinuated a conspiracy: that the Reagan administration delayed the S&L bailout until after George Bush won the 1988 election. CIR scored investigative deals with the commercial TV networks from the late ‘70s to the late ‘80s. But when network news budgets shrunk as the '90s approached, CIR was left high and dry. Liberal foundations and PBS rode to their rescue.

In a 1991 article in the American Journalism Review, Michael Hudson explained: "CIR recently received $75,000 — its largest grant ever — from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation in Montclair, New Jersey...In the spring of 1989, [Bill] Moyers had helped raise money for the toxic waste documentary and volunteered to serve as executive editor. This year, Moyers became president of the Schumann Foundation and helped CIR win the large grant." Moyers also serves on a board of advisers to CIR (in addition to ex-ABC reporter Sylvia Chase, former Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott, CNN's Judy Woodruff, NPR's Susan Stamberg and CBS’s Mike Wallace.)

The Christic Institute wasn’t a media organization, but its wild allegations were popular with PBS’s Frontline and the CBS program West 57th, among others. The Institute charged in a lawsuit against government officials that a "secret team" ran much of American foreign policy, including drug-running for the Nicaraguan freedom fighters. Their conspiracy theories were the inspiration for two PBS Frontline documentaries in April and May of 1988. In June 1988, Judge James King threw the suit out for "abuse of the judicial process" and awarded 12 defendants $1 million in attorney fees. (PBS never apologized for or retracted their films.) Christic Institute funders included the Arca Foundation, the C.S. Fund, the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, and the Tides Foundation, as well as millions from rock stars and movie stars such as Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, and Kris Kristofferson.

(Three years later, Frontline, which has no private underwriters, profit or nonprofit, ran two hour-long documentaries on the conspiracy theory that the 1980 Reagan campaign delayed the release of American hostages in Iran for political gain. The "October Surprise" theory was investigated by Democratic-led House and Senate committees, which found the accusations groundless. So sometimes the funders of conspiracy-theory journalism against a President aren’t millionaires with an agenda: they’re taxpayers, many of whom involuntarily funded PBS documentaries they found offensive and inaccurate.)

The National Security Archive was another popular liberal media resource. Founded by former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong and other liberal activists in 1985, the Archive has been dedicated to using the Freedom of Information Act to secure U.S. government documents on foreign policy adventures, beginning with a heavy emphasis on the Iran-Contra affair. Among their books is White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan-Bush White House Tried to Destroy. The Archive, now based in the nation’s capital at George Washington University, explains on its Web site that "The Archive’s $1.5 million per year budget comes from publication revenues and from private philanthropists such as the Carnegie Corporation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation." Another donor is the radical-left Arca Foundation, whose Web site explains they gave "to support the Archive's research into the connections between the CIA, covert operations and drug-trafficking in the 1980s." Isn’t this an exercise in "Reagan-hater" philanthropy?

4. If foundation money and journalism are a toxic mix, how do media outlets explain their own foundation receipts? Millions of liberal foundation dollars are currently being spent in the news rooms of "objective" national media outlets for projects that have included supporting Clinton policy initiatives and attacks against press coverage of Clinton. Why hasn’t that attracted all the outlets who’ve spread the accusations against Scaife? If media outlets suggest that little-known millionaire "Goldfingers" are altering the political scene through unexamined contributions, then how do today’s for-profit national media outlets explain their own financial infusions from charitable foundations, and what agenda do those dollars fund? For example:

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation placed five fellows on Hillary Clinton’s secret health care task force, and when that secrecy became an issue, the foundation doled out a half million to put on four town meetings with the First Lady to create the appearance of a public dialogue. The foundation also funded polls for the White House and studies for pro-Clinton groups like Families USA, including one that doubled the estimates of uninsured Americans. But media outlets raised little fanfare when the Johnson Foundation paid NBC News $3.5 million in 1994 for a two-hour, commercial-free special on health care titled "To Your Health."

The main attraction of the foundation-funded NBC special was Hillary Clinton, who referred repeatedly to NBC’s taped horror stories of uninsured sick people as proof of the need for the Clinton plan. The program opened and closed with tributes to Mrs. Clinton for bringing this important issue to public attention. The other speakers also suggested a pro-Clinton tilt: on-stage panelists leaned two-to-one in favor of the Clinton plan or a single-payer plan. Speakers from the audience also leaned to the liberal side by two to one. The audience clapped loudly at declarations in favor of socialized medicine. The media did not warn the public of conspiracies of collusion between "Clinton-lover" foundations and journalists.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation was also active in the fight for the Clinton health plan, at one point sponsoring a television ad generically promoting "managed competition" with the League of Women Voters. The foundation had fellows on Hillary Clinton’s secret health care task force, and foundation head Drew Altman was a familiar pro-"reform" talking head on television before the Clinton plan failed. The foundation also operates a media fellows program on health care policy advised by, among others, former U.S. News & World Report economics writer Susan Dentzer and ABC medical correspondent Dr. Tim Johnson. In their publicity materials, the foundation underlines the political impact of the fellowships: "The impact the media has on the decisions our country makes in health is evident. The media plays an important role in shaping the debate and helping to determine the choices policymakers and the public make when it comes to health care." Media fellows have included reporters from National Public Radio, PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.

The Kaiser Family Foundation also funds special partnerships with media companies. In February, it announced a teen pregnancy prevention project in cooperation with NBC. (It has a partnership with the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the National Press Foundation to investigate reproductive health "problems" such as Catholic hospitals’ failure to perform abortions.) It has also announced a new partnership with U.S. News & World Report "to monitor Americans’ experiences with the changing health care system." It has a three-way partnership with Harvard University and The Washington Post to "design and analyze surveys examining public knowledge, perceptions, and misperceptions on major issues. The Post then reports the results as well as the facts to dispel myths and correct misperceptions." The Post’s most recent project was a four-part series on the changing roles of women. No one in the media has questioned whether this foundation’s support for health "reform" or abortion rights presents an agenda to the journalists they fund.

The Pew Charitable Trusts are credited on the Internet as the funder of the Committee for Concerned Journalists, the organization of current and former "objective" media personalities that recently presented a study attacking the use of anonymous sources in the first days of the Monica Lewinsky story. In an analysis for the Capital Research Center, journalist Alicia Shepard found: "Since fall 1993, the foundation has pledged at least $19.7 million to various media enterprises, $10.7 million of it to support civic journalism…The overarching goal of these activities is to use the ‘extraordinary power’ of the media to stimulate the public ‘to participate in community life.’"

Pew is supporting National Public Radio’s reporting on culture, the environment, and religion. Since federal law makes it difficult for foundations to donate money to for-profit organizations, such as newspapers, the Pew trusts make donations to the liberal Tides Foundation, which in turn funds the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which pays the newspapers. Pew has given millions of dollars to media outlets and groups like the Citizens Election Project (run by liberal former Time Washington Bureau Chief Stanley Cloud) to cover the 1994 and 1996 campaigns. If Scaife’s contributions are so questionable, have any networks asked any questions about the ethics or agenda of these donations?


The public would benefit from greater media exploration of the connection between charitable foundations and the worlds of politics and journalism. But until now, the media’s inattention has suggested that foundation giving to public-policy groups doesn’t deserve much media coverage. The financial support given to politicians and think tanks by for-profit corporations is an recurrent media concern, but journalists’ worries over the influence of money over politics have rarely spilled over into the millions spent on political affairs by nonprofit institutions. Perhaps reporters and editors have felt that an organization’s or person’s ideas should be judged on their merits, not based on who financially supports them. But if that’s the case for liberals, it ought to be the case for conservatives, too.