Where Media Money Went in the Midterms
Big backers of Republicans include Rupert Murdoch, Stephen T. Hearst, and Bryan Goldberg, while Democrats got big checks from Laurene Powell Jobs, Win McCormack, and Jann Wenner
As we’ve noted before, profound income inequality is a defining characteristic of the media industry. One of the places where that chasm is most dramatically displayed is the Federal Elections Commission Individual Contributor database. Ahead of the midterm elections, we decided to take a look at where people who work in the media industry sent their personal political donations. We searched hundreds of names at the tops of mastheads as well as by employer to get a sense of how much and to which candidates media figures had donated since January 2021 (so, after the last presidential election cycle).
This list is by no means exhaustive, but a couple of themes emerged: For all the talk of liberal bias in the media, the newsroom rank-and-file is not a bedrock of Democratic fundraising. This is partly because many news organizations bar their editorial employees from making political contributions. It’s also partly because most working journalists don’t have a lot of excess discretionary income. But, there is a media constituency that does give a lot to political candidates: the people who own and manage the media companies. And like other wealthy Americans, these people gave big-ticket donations to both Democratic campaigns and committees, as well as significant sums to Republicans who, incidentally, have made bashing the media a signature issue these last few decades.
Here are some of the more noteworthy examples of political giving in the midterms:
Stephen T. Hearst, vice president and general manager of Hearst Communications’s Western Properties (including the San Simeon property surrounding the Hearst Castle) and the great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst, has donated approximately $152,300 to GOP political causes over the last two years. Of that, $5,800 went to Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy in California, who stands to become Speaker of the House of Representatives if the GOP wins a congressional majority. His largest contribution was $100,000 to the Take Back the House PAC, followed by $36,500 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Bryan Goldberg, CEO of BDG Media and reviver of Gawker, has made multiple donations to J.D. Vance, the Yale Law graduate, working-class memoirist, and Columbus venture capitalist who’s refashioned himself as a MAGA candidate for Senate in Ohio. On April 13 this year, Goldberg gave $2,900 to Vance’s campaign and, on the same day, $3,000 to a PAC supporting the effort, Ohioans for JD. The support unites Goldberg with billionaire venture capitalist and democracy skeptic Peter Thiel, who has been one of Vance’s biggest backers. Before Thiel mounted an effort to elect a slate of right-wing midterm candidates, he bankrolled the lawsuit against Gawker that resulted in the bankruptcy proceeding in which Goldberg acquired the title.
Rupert Murdoch not only supports Republicans through his media outlets like Fox News and the New York Post, he also made substantial donations to some right-wing campaigns. He gave $2,000,000 to the Senate Leadership Fund, which is closely aligned with Sen. Mitch McConnell, $200,000 to the Honor Pennsylvania Super PAC, which backed David McCormick in his failed Republican Senate primary run against Mehmet Oz, and $5,000 to the Fox Corporation PAC. His son, Lachlan Murdoch, who has emerged as the successor to the media dynasty, gave significantly less this election cycle: He makes a monthly contribution of $192.30 to the Fox Corporation PAC, totaling $7,692 since January 2021.
Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder and chair of Emerson Collective, which owns The Atlantic and Pop-Up Magazine, gave extensively to political campaigns. Among her donations were $20,000 to New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker; $10,800 to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; $10,800 to Hawaii Democrat Sen. Brian Schatz; $10,000 to Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign; $10,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee; $5,800 to Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden; $5,800 to Illinois Democrat Rep. Lauren Underwood; $5,000 to Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Follow the North Star Fund PAC; among others.
Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone, spread his donations among various candidates. He gave $1,000 to Mary Peltola, a Democrat who won Alaska’s House seat in a special election in September; $500 to Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach President Donald Trump, who lost his primary race this year; $1,000 to Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski; $500 to Georgia Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock; $500 to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; $2,750 to the Democratic National Committee; $1,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; $1,000 to Justice Democrats, a PAC formed by veterans of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign; and $516.57 to The Lincoln Project, a PAC created by Republican opponents of President Trump. Of note to media obsessives, given the changes of ownership and his roles at Rolling Stone since selling it to Jay Penske, are the various ways Wenner listed his occupation for FEC reporting purposes, alternately describing himself as the editor of Rolling Stone, “Self-Employed,” and “Retired.”
At The New York Times, the ethics guidelines state that “Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause.” However, hundreds of contributions from Times Company employees appear in the FEC database because, a Times spokesperson told The Fine Print, “business side employees are not subject” to those rules. A sampling of the contributions shows that donors appear to primarily be from outside the newsroom and are mostly in smaller, recurring amounts. Among the people who gave the most in aggregate this cycle were Juliet Newman, a senior project manager, who contributed $1,000 to the Working Families Party’s WFP Justice Fund; Nina Feinberg, a senior product designer, who gave $800 to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s PAC Warren Democrats throughout; and Rachel Lederer, a software engineer, who donated $540 to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC.
At Condé Nast, donations were primarily in the hundreds and sometimes thousands from staffers in different parts of the company. Agnes Chu, the president of entertainment for Condé Nast, gave $250 each to Democrats Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia in January 2021; Katharine Bailey, the global head of product and design, gave $5,800 to Antonio Delgado, previously a Democratic House member in New York who in May of this year was appointed lieutenant Governor by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Sarah Ruby, an associate creative director at Vogue, gave $400 in recurring monthly donations to the Democratic National Training Committee.
John Lahr, a critic and staff writer at The New Yorker who’s been writing for the magazine since 1991 — including a profile of Emma Thompson in the latest issue — is a regular donor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, donating $6,615 in multiple donations since 2021. A spokesperson for The New Yorker said, “John Lahr covers theatre and film, and a political donation by him would not violate the magazine’s policies.” Other New Yorker staffers also showed up in the FEC database with smaller donations. Nathan Burstein, managing editor of newyorker.com, has given $690 to a Moveon.org PAC, $680 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and $500 to the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. Staff writer Lizzie Widdicombe gave numerous small donations totaling $60 to the climate activist Sunrise Movement’s PAC and $270 to Justice Democrats.
Win McCormack, owner and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, is perhaps better known in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, along with his partner Carol Butler, as one of the state’s most prominent political donors and one of the driving forces behind New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s unsuccessful run for governor. Heir to a Midwestern banking fortune, McCormack has a long record of supporting Democratic political causes — he was chair of the steering committee for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign as well as a member of President Barack Obama’s Oregon finance committee — as well as progressive magazines including, at various points, Mother Jones and The Nation. In federal elections this cycle, which are the only ones included in the FEC database, McCormack gave $50,000 to the PAC of the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge; $36,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; $5,800 to Val Hoyle, the Oregon state Labor Commissioner who is running for a House seat this year; $5,800 to New York Democrat Rep. Mondaire Jones; and $5,000 to Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Blue Wave Project PAC.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, is a familiar face on the non-profit magazine fundraising circuit and a political commentator in her magazine. On November 4, she published an article in The Nation urging New Yorkers to vote on the Working Families Party line for Democrats in the midterms. “Voting for Kathy Hochul and for Antonio Delgado for lieutenant governor on the WFP line gives voters and affirmative case for showing up to the polls,” she wrote. She matched that public advocacy by donating $5,000 to the Working Families Party independent expenditure PAC in May 2021. Though it raises money from donors, The Nation has chosen to legally incorporate as a for-profit corporation since non-profit organizations are not allowed to make political endorsements, a ban that does not include individual opinions like vanden Heuvel’s. Still, the magazine lists only ever making four endorsements: Jesse Jackson for president in 1988, Barack Obama for president in 2008, Bernie Sanders for president in 2016, and Abdul El-Sayed for governor in Michigan in 2018.
Meanwhile, editorial staffers of left-wing magazines are mostly absent in the FEC database. The small donations that show up — Jacobin columnist Ben Burgis gave $27 to the Friends of Bernie Sanders PAC, Jacobin senior editor Shawn Gude gave $15 to Missouri Democrat Rep. Cori Bush, and Nation senior editor Christopher Shay contributed $40 to Brittany Ramos DeBarros failed Democratic primary run for a New York City House seat — are the exceptions. Mark Krotov, co-editor and publisher of n+1 — who gave $10 to Jessica Cisneros, a Justice Democrats-backed candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary — told The Fine Print that he’s more likely to donate to city and state races in New York. (He recalls “probably” donating to Tiffany Cabán, a public defender who is now a New York City Council Member after unsuccessfully challenging Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz in 2019.) While he said political donations feel “entirely consistent with our sort of editorial work and our political commitments” at n+1, the modest salaries of editorial staffers at non-profit publications leave little for contributions. That leads people in that world to channel their political energy into groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. “There’s definitely no policing of that and no discouraging,” Krotov said, though he added that as a non-profit, n+1 cannot make political endorsements. One former co-editor, Nikil Saval, has given up literary life to be elected a state senator in Philadelphia. Krotov said he made a recurring monthly donation to Saval. “I think the world of him and he really is such an inspiration in every respect,” he said. Krotov said the Cisneros race especially resonated with him. “I count the entire saga of Cisneros and Henry Cuellar in Texas to be really disgraceful for the corporate Dems. It was one of those cases where you have an excellent progressive who can win but the congressional Dem leadership just acts in such a predictable, disgraceful way.” Of his $10, he said, “Obviously, it didn’t help, but it felt useful at the time.”