Tuesday, December 20, 2016

When the Message Is Controlled Despite the Messenger

If you're convinced it's possible to win populist concessions with billionaire money, this post will be as much a waste of your time as all of your activism on behalf of 501(c)(4) organizations has been and will continue to be.

Overt brainwashing is done through advertising campaigns and distracting slogans. Covert brainwashing involves purchasing silence from some critics and co-opting the messages of others. We've all seen movies that depict these transactions as direct negotiations between the person who wants to expose corruption (e.g. Frank Serpico) and the people who want to keep the corruption concealed (e.g. the NYPD). Invariably, the reporter/private investigator/district attorney faces a moral crisis when s/he is bribed/threatened/blackmailed by the amoral powers that be. One purpose of such films is to give the audience faith in the integrity of individual human beings (from Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith to Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovich) who refuse to be persuaded/bullied/frustrated into silence.

But sometimes the integrity and dedication of the truth teller simply doesn't matter, as in the case of Phil Donahue.

In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Donahue was one of few media pundits who tried to explain why the pending war was unjustifiable. He was right, and he had the integrity to stick to his position. But that didn't matter because the network that aired his show (MSNBC) belonged to the RCA holding company, which was owned by General Electric, which stood to profit immensely from the war in Iraq and therefore wanted conflict regardless of whether Saddam Hussein posed a threat to US security.

When it was time for MSNBC to start pushing the pro-war propaganda GE wanted, memos drifted down from GE to RCA to MSNBC. As Jeffrey St. Clair explains:
Nothing sums up this unctuous approach more brazenly than MSNBC’s firing of liberal talk show host Phil Donahue on the eve of the war. The network replaced the Donahue Show with a running segment called Countdown: Iraq, featuring the usual nightly coterie of retired generals, security flacks, and other cheerleaders for invasion. The network’s executives blamed the cancellation on sagging ratings. In fact, during its run Donahue’s show attracted more viewers than any other program on the network. The real reason for the pre-emptive strike on Donahue was spelled out in an internal memo from anxious executives at NBC. Donahue, the memo said, offered “a difficult face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
The memo warned that Donahue’s show risked tarring MSNBC as an unpatriotic network, “a home for liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” So, with scarcely a second thought, the honchos at MSNBC gave Donahue the boot and hoisted the battle flag.
If Donahue's story can't affirm our faith in individual integrity, it's because the silence GE executives imposed on him was never his to sell. The war profiteers never had to offer him a briefcase full or cash or threaten to break his legs. Instead, they muted him by high-jacking the network upon which he relied for dissemination of his anti-war message.

If we learn nothing else from "The Day the News Died" (as Chris Hedges refers to Donahue's firing), it should be that in our mass media culture, individual integrity isn't enough to shield us from the depredations of corrupt, concentrated wealth.

Remaining committed to one's principles may be morally laudable, but it is often logistically meaningless. Certainly Donahue's resolute opposition to the war made no difference in the outcome for Iraqi citizens or GE shareholders.

Strangely, even those who are willing to accept this critique of the corruption inherent in the capitalist marketplace are often reluctant to see how it applies to non-profit 501(c)(4)s. "How is the lesson of Donahue in the for-profit world of television," such readers may wonder, "applicable to outfits such as OurRevolution or MPACT?"

For many of us, the integrity of people like Bernie Sanders and Nina Turner is something that we must be willing to count on in order to get anywhere. Such people are like Serpico--putting their necks on the line to make the world better for all of us. We have to trust them to do what's right--and if that means letting them accept dark money from billionaires in order to advance the agendas to which they are committed, then we just need to trust that their hearts are in the right place.

But how much carbon has been kept out of the atmosphere because 350.org activists have their hearts in the right place? How many black lives have been protected from police brutality because the hearts of Black Lives Matter activists are in the right place? How many casualties have been prevented because Code Pink activists have their hearts in the right place?

Let's say that in all three cases, the integrity of those involved is 100% beyond reproach.

What has that integrity achieved? And isn't it reasonable to suspect that it hasn't achieved more because the NGO/non-profit culture in which these organizations exist is funded and shaped by the very donors who profit from corruption?

It's reasonable to suspect that PBS doesn't cover climate change more aggressively because the Koch family contributes to PBS funding. And it's equally reasonable to suppose that when Soros family hedge funds will profit from the disruption of certain economies through war, particular purse strings for Code Pink get cut.

Sanders lovers are the first to laugh at the idea that billionaires donate to the Clinton Foundation out of the goodness of their hearts, but Jeff Weaver expects us to believe that it's important for OurRevolution to accept money on precisely that premise.

This post isn't meant to suggest that the fecklessness of activist culture in America is specifically attributable to 501(c)(4)s, but such non-profits are particularly vulnerable to corruption because they are set up in such a way as to conceal donors and donations from public scrutiny. Weaver was so heavily criticized for making OurRevolution a 501(c)(4) that in September he promised to formulate "a disclosure policy so that we disclose larger contributions that we receive" even though such disclosures aren't required by law. In December, the organization "promised to disclose all donors giving more than $250," but no disclosures have been made to date. Worse yet, it's not even clear how useful such information would be, since OurRevolution could honor this promise by releasing a list of names without distinguishing between Donor A (who gave $300) and Donor B (who gave $300 million).

Most Sanders supporters trust his team so much that they're willing to let Weaver and Turner and others associated with OurRevolution raise and spend money in whatever ways they deem most effective.

But trusting in the OurRevolution team to do the right thing with dark money is like trusting Donahue to use his show to prevent the invasion of Iraq. The big money in charge of MSNBC always had control of Donahue's platform. And the big money funders of OurRevolution will always have control over that outfit's ability to realize its agenda.

It doesn't matter how much integrity Weaver and Turner have if someone else is in charge of whether they can rent meeting spaces or buy airline tickets for staffers to coordinate activities. And in dark money organizations, it's impossible for supporters to know who's in charge of the purse strings (even if we get some lame list of everyone who donated over $250).

This is why I urge Turner to distance herself from organizations such as OurRevolution and MPACT and focus on grassroots groups that are completely transparent about their fundraising procedures.

I understand that in economically distressed times (such as ours), it seems suicidal for political figures to cut themselves off from billionaire angel investors.

But the times are so economically distressed precisely because those billionaires almost invariably prove to be devils in disguise. If your 501(c)(4) is opposed to big pharma and big oil and Wall Street, then it could be almost entirely dependent on big pharma and big oil and Wall Street for funding--without anyone in the general public having a clue about it.

To understand how bonkers that is, answer this question honestly: Would you trust Jordan Chariton's coverage of Energy Transfer Partners if Chariton's expenses were covered by a 501(c)(4) funded by Kelcy Warren? Does your faith in Chariton's integrity make you think such an arrangement would have no effect on his coverage? If not, then why is your faith in Sanders and Turner so strong that they get "integrity exemptions" for associating with non-profits whose doors remain open to precisely such arrangements?

We, the grassroots, need to form something like a non-party-based citizen's union with monthly dues--an organization in which everyone agrees to chip in the same amount on a regular basis so that operatives know they will be able to cover their expenses without having to worry about stepping on the toes of bigwig donors.

Even if Turner couldn't raise as much money through such an organization as she might through a dark money outfit like OurRevolution, the enthusiasm and volunteer support that she could count on would make it much more nimble and dare I say impactful than she could ever hope for OurRevolution and MPACT to be.

The failure of the Democratic Party to understand how and why it failed voters may be the most disappointing phenomenon of 2016.

But the second-most disappointing phenomenon is the failure of luminaries such as Turner and Weaver to recognize that people-powered movements (such as the Reddit-based phonebanking done by volunteers on behalf of the Sanders campaign) are more important assets for politicians than billionaire cash. Until that lesson sinks in, professional progressive operatives appear doomed to continue servicing the donor class instead of the voters they purport to care about.


  1. Do you even know what type of work MPACT does? Are you a volunteer or have you seen what they support? Do u have an in-road with their CEO or the tremoendus amount of people of color on thier staff? Would 3 truly independent Black Bernie surrogates associate themselves with an organization the does shady billionaire work? 501 c-4's are not bad, and to make the case that anyone associated with one is doing bad work is not only ignorant, but dangerous to the quality work planned. This article is all talk and no action. What are your plans? It amazes me that every time a person of color starts their own organization, some white super woke progressive has something negative to say about it. Typical white privilege in this article. Has the author even visited the website or engaged with an organizer? Most likely not. This organization purely tackles issues in communities of color and rural areas from the bottom up. What do donors benefit from that. Stop making assumptions and stop putting the 501 c4 cart before the work horse.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Very sorry the post provoked such hostility.

    I'll try to take your criticisms in order:

    First, I'm far more concerned about 501c4s in general than MPACT specifically because activist culture in the US has been stalled for a long time thanks to the NGO/nonprofit culture in which specific 501c4s (such as OurRevolution and MPACT) happen to exist.

    Second, although I don't claim to know everything about MPACT (or OurRevolution, for that matter), the point is that 501c4 disclosure structure makes it impossible for ANYONE to know about them w/o voluntary disclosure. The website for MPACT certainly looks encouraging. As a fan of Nina Turner, Killer Mike, & Anoa Changa, I suspect it will do good work--right up until it threatens the bottom line of a billionaire who profits from exploitation, at which point it will receive a whopping check and a new set of directives.

    Third, I never intended to make the case that 501c4s MUST do bad work--only that their structure makes them susceptible to undue influence by moneyed interests. If that's not true, please show me why. If at any point you got the impression that I questioned the integrity of anyone I named (from Weaver to Turner), please point out what language offended you. I tried to go out of my way to assume that such activists are good people with good intentions and a good sense of how to use their money as long as the purse strings are entirely under their control.

    Fourth, I consider it unfair to categorize the post as "all talk and no action" because of the paragraph in which I propose something like a citizens' union with monthly dues to support precisely the kind of work that most 501c4s hope to achieve. Admittedly, I don't spend much time on that point because I am in the middle of a 6-post attempt to explain the problems we face thanks to feckless activism. I'll have more concrete recommendations and examples to give when I attempt to outline what appear the best solutions (though I don't claim to know what is best and will of course continue to benefit from constructive feedback, as some of your feedback is).

    Fifth, my frustrating interactions with organizers who are funded by controlled opposition does in fact frame my perspective (chronicled elsewhere in this blog, if you're curious). Yes, I'm suspicious of any organization that can accept dark money. Why aren't you?

    Sixth, I don't doubt that MPACT can and will tackle issues of communities of color and rural areas from the bottom up--until it achieves too much for bigwig donors to be comfortable with its success, as which point they will co-opt it. What specific measures does the org have in place to prevent that from happening?