The crusade against so-called “dark money” has historically largely targeted right-of-center donors and was most recently demonstrated in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings led by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, pointedly titled “What’s Wrong with the Supreme Court: The Big-Money Assault on Our Judiciary.” But in a superb piece of original reporting this week, The New York Times lifted the veil on what it is hard to resist calling left-wing opaque funding, led by Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, who is a leading bidder to purchase Tribune Publishing, which includes such newspapers as The Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, among others.
In the Times’ story “Top Bidder for Tribune Newspapers Is an Influential Liberal Donor,” investigative reporters Kenneth Vogel and Katie Robertson reveal that a far-reaching progressive advocacy group called The Hub Project is linked to the Wyss Foundation, which receives tax-deductible contributions.
The story focuses both on Wyss, who has a residence in Wyoming, and his co-bidder Stewart W. Bainum, Jr., who hopes to purchase The Baltimore Sun. It reports that: “The Hub Project was started in 2015 by one of Mr. Wyss’s charitable organizations, the Wyss Foundation, partly to shape media coverage to help Democratic causes. It now has 60 employees, according to its website, including political organizers, researchers and communications specialists.”
The Times notes pointedly, “Mr. Wyss and his charitable foundation are not mentioned on The Hub Project’s website, and his role in its creation has not been previously reported.” This would seem to be the very definition of deliberately using dark money to influence politics and policy.
According to the Times, the list of overtly political projects The Hub Project has supported includes: the podcast “Made to Fail” hosted by a former Obama Administration official critical of conservative policies and paid advertising campaigns that criticized Republican congressional candidates in 2018.
Such work is minor compared to the extensive political advocacy that Wyss engages in as part of what the Times calls “a daisy chain of groups supporting Democrats and progressive causes … which often obscures the identities of donors.” These include a network of organizations managed by Washington consulting firm, Arabella Advisors, a club for left-leaning donors called Democracy Alliance, and the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that was funded by Democracy Alliance donors. According to the Times, “The think tank and its sister political group have received more than $6.1 million from foundations linked to Mr. Wyss, according to tax filings.”
There is a great deal more revealed in the Times story about Wyss and Bainum’s involvement in media and politics. The Times notes the following of Wyss: “Through his foundations, he has gradually increased donations to groups that promote abortion rights, minimum wage increases and other progressive causes.” To complicate the picture further, the Times notes that “it is not clear” whether Wyss, who built a fortune through a medical device company he sold to Johnson & Johnson, has U.S. citizenship.
To its credit, the Times compares the lack of push back against the potential sale of Tribune Publishing to Wyss and Bainum to the controversy sparked by the possible sale of Tribune in 2013 to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. It’s a valid point made by the Times – that there is hypocrisy in the media where many are calling out the right but not the left when it comes to funding.
American journalism, especially at the local level, is gasping for financial oxygen. We must hope for a combination of business acumen and philanthropy guided by true civic interest to keep journalism—and the accountability it brings—alive. In this instance, the New York Times is to be commended for providing that accountability. Regardless of one’s view on who should own these media outlets, it is a refreshing turn to see the Times put the left under the same microscope the right faces.