FAKE PHILANTHROPY NEWS: Jane Mayer’s Latest Book Paints Dishonest Portraits of Donors

The 2016 book Dark Money is dishonest in multiple ways. First, it is deeply exaggerated. Author Jane Mayer may work at one of America’s snootiest magazines, the New Yorker, but she has the scruples of a National Enquirer headline writer. Her sensationalism begins right on the cover with her subtitle: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. As my CRC colleague Martin Morse Wooster, a leading historian of philanthropy, has pointed out, “the history she describes is not hidden, and the people she writes about are not radicals.”

Indeed, much of Mayer’s information comes from books produced by the same donors she claims are hiding their deeds. For instance, when sketching the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, she describes how the family business was veering toward bankruptcy before government contracts for World War I saved it. How did Mayer unearth this? By reading a history that the Bradley Foundation commissioned and published in 1992. Similarly, she relies heavily on the authorized history of the John M. Olin Foundation produced by John Miller. For her history of the Scaife family, she uses a memoir by Richard Mellon Scaife that was privately published years ago. Far from being kept secret, it was handed out to everyone who attended the man’s memorial service in 2014.

Mayer’s book is an extended exercise in scandalmongering, reaching its apex in her attempt to tie the libertarian Koch family to Hitler, because the family business built an oil refinery in Germany in 1933. But many multinational companies did business in Germany in the 1930s. Mayer doesn’t pretend that the Koch family, ardent champions of the free market, ever felt a serious attraction to the principles of National Socialism, but she casts dark aspersions. If Mayer had wanted to expose philanthropic scandals from that era, she should have described how non-conservative philanthropies like the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation were leading supporters of eugenics projects in the United States and Nazi Germany, with Rockefeller funding Germans through 1939. But that line of inquiry wouldn’t fit her agenda.


Mayer’s central thesis is that we live in an oligarchy and are, as she quotes one political operative, “controlled by a handful of ultrawealthy people, most of whom got rich from the system and who will get richer from the system.” Sure, she continues, wealthy Americans have long been influential, but “since the Progressive Era the public, through its elected representatives, had devised rules to keep the influence in check.” Now the evil rich are sponsoring a “radical reorientation of American thinking.” Today the wealthy’s “weapon of choice” is philanthropy, and they are “meeting in secret, hiding their money trails, and paying others to front for them.”

Mayer’s alarm over secret meetings and hidden money trails relies for its emotional power on her utterly one-sided portrait of the American political landscape. The Kochs and Scaifes and her other right-wing targets are presented as spending millions of dollars to advocate for public policies, thereby overwhelming the opposition. She disregards hordes of donors at the other end of the spectrum who do the same things, such as meeting in private and using vehicles like the donor-advised funds she vilifies as “dark money.” Careful tallies have found that left-oriented public-policy spending swamps right-oriented giving by many multiples (see pages 814 and 1143 in The Almanac of American Philanthropy for examples), but you would never know that fact from this book.

For example, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer— whose $74 million in left-wing political spending in the 2014 cycle made him the country’s top political giver—receives one bare mention in passing on page 370. Mayer especially slights George Soros, a left-wing donor who easily spends as much as, and has as much political sway as, Charles and David Koch combined. Don’t believe it? Consult one of Mayer’s own favorite sources, the Center for Responsive Politics. And then savor this stunning example of Mayer’s dishonesty: The Center for Responsive Politics documented the rough equivalency in Soros’ and the Kochs’ giving in a special report it produced to respond to Mayer’s original New Yorker hit piece on the Kochs, which led to this book.

She also ignores the debunking she received for another of her New Yorker articles, this one attacking Art Pope, a North Carolina donor and Koch ally. Mayer just repeats the same faulty accusations in this book. How thoroughly were her accusations in the magazine debunked? So badly that Powerline pundit John Hinderaker wrote that one of her critics had “laid waste to Mayer to a degree that in a more just world would end her career in journalism.”

Hinderaker also demanded that Mayer respond to the criticism, but she never did, of course. Her article’s most egregious claim was that Pope had bought Republican victories in North Carolina in 2010. Mayer focused on $2 million in “outside money” that was supposedly connected to Pope, while ignoring the fact that total political giving in the Tar Heel state that year was a far larger $30 million, and that the winning GOP side was outspent: $16 million to $14 million. The state’s 501(c)(3) giving for public policy battles was even more lopsided against the conservatives, though Mayer barely mentioned the existence of left-wing foundations in North Carolina, despite the phone calls, emails, and hours of interviews that Pope and his staff provided her.


The biggest lie in the book appears when Mayer quotes a political operative who says that in the 2014 election “mega donors completely dominate the landscape.” Mayer adds that “a few” of those biggest donors were Democrats. But when you check her end notes and original source, you find that the writer she quotes reported that 52 of the top 100 individual donors in the cycle were Democrats. What a novel definition of “a few.”

The Center for Responsive Politics has also done a major study on the massive influence of labor unions, a set of donors which Mayer gives even shorter shrift. The Center looked at organizations (businesses, trade groups, unions) through seven election cycles from 2002-2014. It totaled contributions to federal candidates, parties, and PACs of all kinds made by organizations’ employees, PACs, or corporate treasury. No fewer than seven of the top ten donors were unions, and they gave 97 percent of their cash to Democrats.

Mayer’s largest omission of liberal giving involves the Democracy Alliance, which is the direct counterpart to the Kochs’ network of conservative donors and activist groups. The Soros-led Alliance channels hundreds of millions of dollars from progressive donors to dozens of groups it deems most effective in moving public policy leftward and building progressive infrastructure. It assiduously keeps many of its efforts off the record (“dark” in Mayer’s parlance).

Ever the partisan, Mayer helps the Alliance stay dark. If she practiced honest journalism, she would have spent many pages trying to compare the Alliance with the Kochs’ network in various ways: membership, spending, effectiveness, etc. Gallons of ink have been spilled on these difficult comparisons by observers left, right, and center. Instead, Mayer has a total of three passing references to the Alliance or Rob Stein, the Democrat operative who was the brains behind the group’s creation. Astoundingly, no one who read Mayer’s three mentions of the Alliance could even be sure that it exists!

Consider Mayer’s last Alliance reference, which appears just six breathless pages from the book’s closing. There she mentions Stein as “the Democratic activist who tried to create a progressive counterweight called the Democracy Alliance.” While the Alliance is sufficiently secretive that we don’t know much about its inner workings, it has not just “tried” to influence American politics; its 100+ donors have been spending huge sums for over a decade with potent results, and sometimes questionable tactics.

A discussion of such extralegal maneuvering—alleged to occur on both sides of the political aisle—could strengthen Mayer’s thesis against “dark money,” but it makes no appearance in this book. Instead, she leaves the reader with a severely slanted view of the public-policy ecosystem.

Mayer does make a few nods to acknowledge efforts by donors on the left. She concedes that “advocacy philanthropy” didn’t start with conservatives but rather with the Ford Foundation in the late 1960s, when Ford was “pouring money into the environmental movement” and “supporting public-interest litigation,” which “showed conservatives how philanthropy could achieve large-scale change through the courts while bypassing the democratic electoral process” (emphasis added). She also reveals that a think tank on the left, not the right, was the first to create a companion 501(c)(4) arm to carry out its harsher political work. And in an endnote she admits that George Soros and the Democratic Party pioneered—a decade before the Kochs—the use of an independent firm to provide microtargeting data, with controversial applications.

Yet Mayer is keen to have the reader believe that the big difference between conservative and liberal donors is that conservatives only argue for less governmental control of the economy because they hope to enrich themselves. That is untrue for at least two reasons. First, plenty of center-left donors advocate for self-enrichment schemes; think of advocates for heavy government subsidies of solar- and wind-energy companies like Solyndra, and of the government-worker unions that constantly seek more of your tax dollars while simultaneously dominating political money flows. Second, a business owner who advocates for a freer market in his or her industry is not guaranteeing that his or her company will succeed, as countless big businesses from General Motors and Chrysler to AOL-Time Warner could attest.

More importantly, the idea that think tanks, nonprofit policy groups, and philanthropically funded university programs operate in robotic lockstep to donor demands maligns a valuable sector of American democracy. Since my first college internship in 1983, I’ve spent my life toiling in institutions supported by all of Mayer’s bêtes noires. Yet never have I met someone whose career choice was motivated by the prospect of performing as a ventriloquist’s dummy for the Kochs or other donors. Much less have I experienced, or heard a rumor of someone else experiencing, a donor who demanded that an employee or institution change a policy position. And for all her insinuations, Mayer can’t provide a single instance of this either.

Want more evidence that center-right donors aren’t all deplorables? Consider the way work funded by many of the conservative foundations Mayer attacks has been lauded by thoughtful left-of-center observers such as Paul Brest, former president of the Hewlett Foundation, who has analyzed examples of this work from which, he believes, donors of all ideological hues can learn. Gara LaMarche, now president of the Democracy Alliance and long a leading intellectual strategist on the left, has also cited such work as an inspiration, praising conservative philanthropists for taking the long view and investing in ideas, even if he opposes those ideas.


Mayer is also dishonest about her own role in these disputes. She encourages the reader to think she’s a just-the-facts-ma’am reporter, digging deep into the ugly truths that the oligarchy doesn’t want you to know. She also implies she’s just another ordinary American steamrollered by her targets’ wealth.

Not exactly. First, her own background is gilded: she not only went to an Ivy League college (Yale), she also went to an Ivy Preparatory School League institution in her native Manhattan (the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, where pre-K tuition is now $45,100). She’s descended from the Lehman Brothers, whose corporation has formally admitted that its original fortune was tied to slavery. I don’t think that last fact implicates Mayer in any way, of course, but that’s because I also think her trying to smear the descendants of Fred Koch because he built a German oil refinery is ridiculous.

So Mayer is no working-class reporter, nor is she focused on facts, given the vast array of them that she avoids in her narrative. Her favorite squid ink to hide her tracks is that hoariest of philanthropoid falsehoods: I’m just heeding above-the-fray expertise. This noble neutrality was once common, she claims. “In the tradition of the Progressive movement,” she writes, non-conservative think tanks were driven “by social science, not ideology.” And “the same ideals animated the Rockefeller, Ford, and Russell Sage Foundations, as well as most of academia and the elite news organizations of the era, like The New York Times, which strove to deliver the facts free from partisan bias.”

In short, by a miraculous coincidence, everyone who has served Mayer’s preferred ideology—now and for the last century—has had no political leanings, nor a hint of any bias.

That’s simply laughable. For instance, Mayer several times invokes as a neutral expert the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, whose partisan defense of Bill Clinton during the impeachment process was so extreme that even The New York Times criticized it. Later, Wilentz published a partisan screed against George W. Bush in that noted academic journal Rolling Stone. Similarly, Mayer invokes the “nonpartisan” Sunlight Foundation several times as an unbiased source. Yet Sunlight’s staff rotate in and out of Democratic campaigns and activist groups in much the same way that she criticizes various foundation members and Koch employees for doing on the right.

One final, glaring omission from the book concerns campaign finance “reform.” Throughout the book Mayer displays the usual progressive obsession with this alleged panacea, but she never mentions its own “hidden history,” which involves billionaire foundations manipulating laws and legislators. The Pew Charitable Trusts and a handful of its liberal foundation allies created a supposed grassroots base to advocate for new laws they desired. The program officer at Pew who ran the scam later confessed that the donors hoped “to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot,” even as Pew’s own polls showed almost no public interest in the crusade. Ironically, campaign finance reform has given us the very system that Mayer rails against, where political parties are so hamstrung that donors create their own alternative institutions.

If Mayer wants more disclosure and stronger parties, she should demand that the campaign finance regulatory edifice built by Pew and its allies be dismantled. And if she wants traditional American self-government, she should learn to accept the idea of vigorous public debate, whether it’s Tom Steyer funding calls for taxpayer-subsidized solar energy, or the Koch brothers supporting free trade, or the Bradley Foundation advocating for educational reform.’

Scott Walter is president of the Capital Research Center and a contributing editor to Philanthropy magazine. An earlier version of this commentary appeared as a book review in the summer 2016 issue of Philanthropy.

Scott Walter

Scott Walter is president of Capital Research Center. He served in the George W. Bush Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and was vice president at…
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