Is Contemporary Conservatism Just ‘Payola’?

The public needs to dig a little deeper to find out the story behind most of the conservative media’s reporting.

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Glenn Beck is among a number of right-wing radio hosts being paid by different organizations to promote their ideas. (AP/ Mike Mergen)
Glenn Beck is among a number of right-wing radio hosts being paid by different organizations to promote their ideas. (AP/ Mike Mergen)

Journalism has often been called “the first draft of history,” but oftentimes its addiction to surface-level examination of “the facts” obscures deeper, more important truths that citizens need to know in order to make sense of a story, regardless of what number draft it may be. This is particularly true of politics, where all too often statements of principle are taken at face value as if the speaker had no interests save personal altruism.

Principle, of course, is rarely the whole story. But it is even more rarely the case within the political right in Washington these days, as lobbyists and other moneyed interests have taken over the conservative movement and have refused to draw a line between their own personal enrichment and the policies they profess for the rest of us.

Case in point: Conservative organizer Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, is almost always portrayed in the media as an extremely effective ideologue. He has recently become famous for his 1986 “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”—which bars its signatories from voting for any form of tax increase presented to them in Congress—a pledge that more than 95 percent of current Republican legislators in Congress have signed. It’s true that Norquist is a genuine antitax ideologue, but as a recent report by Lee Fang in The Nation notes, “Though Norquist claims to protect all tax credits, he seems to devote a great deal of his attention to some groups rather than others.” It turns out the taxes to which Norquist’s foundation devotes a great deal more effort to fighting are taxes that affect his major donors.

As Fang notes, energy subsidies, for example, are a topic of special interest on the Americans for Tax Reform website, and the foundation argues for billions of dollars of credits to oil and gas companies. To remove these generous subsidies to some of the most profitable industries on the planet, the group argues, would be to stick a “tax hike on energy producers and families.” Alas, between 2008 and 2011, an investigation by The Nation found that the American Petroleum Institute—a trade association for oil and gas companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil—gave $525,000 to Norquist’s group.

Thomas Frank explored some of these dealings in his 2008 book, The Wrecking Crew. As a young man, working through a nonprofit called the United States of America Foundation, Norquist, together with his comrades in College Republicans, would raise big bucks from corporations in order to fight efforts by campus Public Interest Research Groups to improve the lot of consumers. Ditto from polluters in order to oppose campus-based environmental groups. Later, in 1997, Norquist started his own lobbying firm, Janus-Merritt Strategies, which boasted Fannie Mae as a client, among others.

Later, during the late 1990s, after Microsoft hosted members of Americans for Tax Reform for a luxurious three-day retreat in Redmond, Washington, the foundation returned to Washington, D.C. and immediately sent a letter to House Republicans urging them to make deep cuts in the funds available to the Justice Department’s antitrust division, which happened to be pursuing Microsoft at the time. Norquist was paid $40,000 as a lobbyist for the company. As Fang notes:

The pattern repeats itself like clockwork. When Philip Morris paid Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist campaigned against cigarette taxes. When a cellphone lobbying group paid Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist campaigned against cellphone taxes.

And then, of course, there is Norquist’s involvement with the criminal activities of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and company. Among the many nefarious activities growing out of that operation, Fang notes, was the Mississippi Choctaw tribe’s (one of Abramoff’s clients) transfer of $1.2 million through Americans for Tax Reform for other Abramoff plots and plans. Norquist’s cut? $50,000 from two of the transfers.

Yet such behavior is apparently business as usual on the right. Take, for instance, the recently formed group called Fix the Debt. The group has been agitating ceaselessly for cuts in entitlement spending for middle-class Americans as if motivated exclusively by its members’ concern for the fiscal health of the nation. Alas, as Nicholas Confessore reported in The New York Times, many of these same members stand to profit handsomely should their agenda be enacted.

Jim McCrery, a former Louisiana congressman, is one of the group’s spokespeople. He is also a lobbyist with Capitol Counsel LLC, whose clients are the likes of the Alliance for Savings and Investment, which the Times describes as “a group of large companies pushing to maintain low tax rates on dividend income.” He also represents the Win America Campaign, which the Times describes as “a coalition of multinational corporations that lobbied for a one-time ‘repatriation holiday’ allowing them to move offshore profits back home without paying taxes.”

McCrery is hardly unusual, however, among the group’s leaders. Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, is a member of Fix the Debt’s steering committee. Coincidentally, he received more than $300,000 in 2011 as a member of the General Electric Board of Directors. (McCrery is a GE lobbyist) As Confessore notes, General Electric “is among the most aggressive in the country at minimizing its tax obligations.”

The Fix the Debt board and steering committee members also enjoy numerous ties to members of the finance industry. Erskine B. Bowles, one of the group’s co-founders, took home $345,000 in stock and cash in 2011, thanks to his position on the Morgan Stanley board, while former Gov. Judd Gregg (R-NH), co-chair of the group, is a paid advisor to Goldman Sachs. Both companies, Confessore observes, have engaged in lobbying on international tax rules. Gregg also sits on the boards of Honeywell and IntercontinentalExchange, which netted him nearly $750,000 in cash and stock in 2011 and is opposing tax on financial transactions that would likely lower its profits.

Again, such ties are not unusual within Fix the Debt, nor groups like it. In this case, almost half the members of its board and steering committee enjoy lucrative associations with companies looking to lower taxes and spending and preserve the special treatment that many of their industries enjoy.

Media Matters recently alerted the public to another form of cash transfers pretending to be ideological principle. In this case, owing to the weird armed standoff involving former Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) and the conservative nonprofit organization FreedomWorks, the former complained that the organization was “spending too damn much” and “getting too little value out of it,” regarding the big bucks flowing to talk show host Glenn Beck, among others. Internal FreedomWorks documents reveal that Beck took about $850,000 (exclusive of third-party event ticket sales) from the organization. As Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at Media Matters, points out:

Payola is most often associated with hit radio stations and the long-standing tradition of music industry middlemen known as indies funneling record company money to radio stations in exchange for on-air spins for new singles. But the fact is, the payola statute in America makes it a crime for radio stations to receive anything of value, like record company promotional payments, if they fail to disclose that relationship with listeners.

Groups such as FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, however, have been paying off these right-wing radio hosts to tout their ideas for years, while listeners are kept in the dark. According to Politico, in exchange for the donations made to far-right radio shows, the groups’ agendas were weaved into the daily programming. “The relationships,” as Media Matters adds, “seemed to be built on deception”:

“I wish more of the grassroots knew the reality that this wasn’t Rush or Sean or Beck saying these things out of the goodness of their hearts,” said the leader of [a conservative] group who inquired about ads on various radio shows, but decided they were both too expensive and ethically suspect. “If the grassroots found out that these guys were getting paid seven figures a year to say this stuff, it might leave a bad taste in their mouth.”

A bad taste in the mouth of taxpayers is about the best that the suckers who buy these beliefs as honest commentary can hope for; that is, unless more journalists take a cue from those above and devote some time and energy to getting the story behind the story and exposing contemporary conservatism for the self-interested shell game it so regularly appears to be.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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