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


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.