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

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."