Who's paying?

One of my occasional hobbyhorses on this blog has been the desirability of greater transparency on where research and advocacy organizations (and intellectuals) get their money. It's the old question: cui bono? You can read what I've said in the past here and here. I frankly would welcome a system where think tanks had to publicly disclose all of their sources of support, so that consumers of their work could see exactly who they were beholden to. Lest you think I'm being hypocritical about this, I think university professors ought to do the same with any outside income that they earn.** The reason in both cases is simple: when anyone participates in public discourse on vital issues, outsiders should be aware of potential conflicts of interest and should know exactly who might be paying for it. 

Eli Clifton at the Center for American Progress has a revealing post up on the various backers of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This organization has been in the vanguard of the campaign for war with Iran, reflexively supportive of the Israeli right, and a fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia. It will therefore surprise no one that its primary financial backers are also hard-core Zionists, and that the democracy it seems most committed to defending is located far from Washington D.C. 

This situation underscores a point that John Mearsheimer and I emphasized in our book: the Israel lobby is not confined to formal "lobbying" organizations like AIPAC. It also includes well-funded think tanks and advocacy organizations that actively work to shape political debate and public discourse in ways intended to reinforce the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" and to persuade policymakers to support policies that these organizations believe (in my view incorrectly) will be beneficial for Israel and the United States.

It bears repeating that there's nothing illegal, conspiratorial, or unethical about what these donors are doing; individuals and foundations in the United States are entitled to fund whatever advocacy organizations they wish. But Clifton's data helps you understand why discourse inside-the-Beltway is so heavily skewed in one direction.

**Postscript: In my own case, in 2010 I received a consulting fee from the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore and speakers' fees from eight other universities (for public lectures). I also received honoraria for presentations at several events sponsored by the Department of Defense and for participating in a colloquium sponsored by the State Department. I was also paid to speak at an Economist magazine conference in Athens and for doing some research work for the New America Foundation. Foreign Policy pays me a modest amount to write this blog, and Cornell University Press pays me to co-edit a book series.  And in case some of you are wondering, I didn't receive any money from any individuals, groups, countries, or corporations connected with Middle East politics.


Stephen M. Walt

What the NewsCorp scandal really means (and why you should hope it implodes)

The steadily expanding "phone hacking" scandal in Great Britain is a good reminder that understanding politics requires a healthy appreciation of the role of arrogance and stupidity.  What began is a seemingly straightforward example of sleazy journalistic practice has grown into a full-blown scandal, and the circle of guilt keeps widening.

Just look at the repercussions so far: 1) the NewsCorp's bid to take over all of British Sky Broadcasting has been scuppered, 2) NewsCorp CEO Rebekah Brooks has resigned and is now under arrest, 3) long-time Murdoch associate and Wall Street Journal publisher Les HInton has also resigned his post, 4) Prime Minister David Cameron has been badly tarnished, and oh yes, 5) the head of Scotland Yard has resigned in the wake of revelations that it had bungled the investigation (which is a charitable way of putting it). The WSJ and FoxNews have been exposed as shills for their boss (Murdoch), which is hardly surprising but is hardly going to help their reputations.   

Oh, what a tangled web we weave....

Gallons of ink (or gigabytes of blog posts) have already been devoted to this story, but one broader element has received less attention amidst all the juicy personal stuff. What the scandal really teaches us is the dangers that inevitably arise when any single company or individual exercises excessive influence in media circles. Why? Because a healthy democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry, and media oligarchs can use excessive influence to skew what the public knows or believes in order to advance their own political objectives.  If the Murdoch scandal doesn't convince you, just look at how Silvio Berlusconi used his media empire to drive his political career and look where Italy is today.

Furthermore, politicians are likely to accommodate powerful media organizations that are willing to play hardball, punishing politicians they didn't like and rewarding officials who played along. The NewsCorp was a master at this, and it is no wonder David Cameron and even Scotland Yard became compliant.

The media sector is a critical part of any society, and keeping ownership divided as much as possible is essential for a healthy democracy. If ever there were a part of our society where aggressive anti-trust policy is essential, it is right here. Having a "free press" means little when a handful of voices predominate, and healthy democracy requires a political diverse ecology of editors, reporters, and commentators.

One could argue that the digital revolution is creating a far more heterogeneous information ecosystem, and gradually reducing the power of old-style media barons like Murdoch. There may be some truth in that, but the power of major news organizations like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, etc., remains formidable and some of them are bound to emerge as major players in the digital media world over time. Notice that this blog isn't my own operation: Foreign Policy is itself a subsidiary of the Washington Post Corporation. And a lot of other blogs I read operate under the umbrella of larger organizations like the Daily Beast/Newsweek, the New Yorker, or the Atlantic.

I hope the scandal keeps widening, and that the NewsCorp eventually breaks into lots of tiny little pieces. Moving forward, I hope that government officials and the public will learn from this sorry episode and take a more assertive approach to regulating media conglomerates in the future. But based on what I think I know about politics and human nature, I'm not betting my retirement account on it.