James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, March 08, 2004

Possession of wealth buys you coverage of political views

Here’s a sad but incontrovertible fact: If you are wealthy, really wealthy, you have access to this country’s press, to say whatever you want to say, claim whatever you want to claim, tell whatever lie suits your fancy. Your opinions and views on anything and everything will be given serious attention.

I’m not talking letters to the editor, or an occasion op-ed piece. If you’re rich, reporters will listen, and your opinions, even if based on demonstrable lies, will be treated with respect. Articles will be written, and they will be published or aired in prominent space or prime air time.

Hell, you don’t even have to identify yourself. You can hire a mouthpiece to hide behind, and the knowledge of the wealth supporting that talking head will get your positions all the attention you want, with the guarantee that any opposition will be give short shrift.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Since 1997, we have had in my home state something called the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Similar organizations exist in major metropolitan areas across the country, but I’ll focus on the one I know best. It represents a few dozen of the very rich, and the press and broadcast people fall all over themselves in their eagerness to represent those people.

As I write this, bus drivers and mechanics in the Twin Cities are on strike. The strike was sought by our right wing governor, Handsome Tim Pawlenty, the Republican Heartthrob. He has been looking for a public employee’s strike almost from the day he took office; his purpose is to break all public employee unions, and he has to start someplace. The Twin Cities transit system is run by something called the Metropolitan Council, most of the members of which are owned by (um, excuse me, appointed by) the governor. His chairman of the council is a professional right-wing toady named Peter Bell. Bell set up the strike by laying down a flat demand for give-backs from the drivers and mechanics and refusing to negotiate.

Pawlenty is an adherent to the policies of the Taxpayers League. More accurately, the league says “Jump” and the governor replies, “How high?” Most of the state’s prominent Republican politicians are under the league’s thumb, in fact. They were told flatly that they either signed up with the league’s agenda or were going to be beaten by the League’s money and publicity machine. And the league and it’s backers, who also make large individual contributions to politicians, have more money than Scrooge McDuck.

On March 6, television and radio stations and the newspapers carried the story that the Taxpayers League spokesman, a radical rightest named David Strom, said that the fact that the first two or three days of the strike did not create traffic gridlock in the area shows that “transit just isn’t that important to the smooth functioning of the Twin Cities transportation system.”

In fact, said Strom, transit of all types should be dumped immediately, if not sooner, and all the money now spent on buses and the soon-to-open first phase of a light rail system should be spent on roads and highways. That’s not a typo. He advocates closing down all public transit.

The Star Tribune, with which I spent far too many years, carried the story, written by a nice, terminally naive reporter named Laurie Blake, on page one. Blake’s story opened with the breathless declaration that the Taxpayers League “lobbed a grenade into the battlefield.” She failed to note, though other reporters did on other days, that 20 percent of households in Minneapolis and 17 percent of households in St. Paul are without cars. A couple of days later another reporter also pointed out that the poor and elderly, who suffer most from a lack of transit, usually suffer in relative silence, assuming (quite correctly most of the time) that no one will pay attention to them anyway.

Strom and other league mouthpieces – notably its current president, a former Republican state senator named Linda Runbeck -- are quoted frequently, widely and at length on all kinds of issues. No one takes second place to them in scorn for the needs of the poor. If you took all of the league’s positions since 1997, when it was founded, you’d see a pattern that screams, “To hell with the poor. Let them go without transportation, health care, schooling, shelter or food.”

That is not an exaggeration.

In addition to wanting an end to all public transportation, the league has campaigned vigorously for lower taxes for the rich, to freeze wages for all public employees, to prevent the passage of school referendums in districts trying to offset some of the recent and terrible league-backed cuts in education funding. It has worked hard, in short, to prevent or stop virtually every public service that benefits the majority of the state’s residents, with special attention to spitting on the poor, and it has of course backed major tax cuts mostly for the rich.

It has run a number of public relations and advertising campaigns aimed at specific items on its agenda, and the ads have consistently been rooted in gross distortions of fact and/or outright lies.

The League’s advertising in support of a pay freeze for state employees in 2003, for example included the statement that any raise for those employees would require big increases in taxes for all Minnesotans and thus “a real pay cut” for everybody. In fact, of course, some of the employees got very small raises and there were no tax increases.

A series of ads in opposition to light rail implied that about $700 million for the system came right out of the pockets of state taxpayers. In fact, Minneapolis and Hennepin County put up some of the money, and the vast majority of the funding comes from federal transit programs.

In 2002, the league ran a bunch of ads stating that “next year, state spending is projected to increase 12 to 16 percent.” That was a blatant lie. State spending had been projected to rise 14 percent over a two years if there were no changes in operations, but everyone knew changes were going to be made. Caught on that one, the league did modify its ads – after the original impression had been planted.

In fact, any ad the league has run can be shown to be wildly inaccurate and/or deliberately false.

It routinely states that Minnesota state taxes are 38 percent higher, in dollars per taxpayer, than the national average, but fails to point out that the average Minnesota income is at least 25 percent higher than the national average. (And, of course, you can argue forever about whether the additional services we get are worth the price; a great many of us say yes to that.)

So what or who is this organization that it gets such fawning treatment from news outfits?

It calls itself “Minnesota’s largest taxpayers advocacy group” and claims a membership of about 12,000.

It may have conned 12,000 suckers to sign on – that’s easy with a populace as ignorant and self-centered as ours is today. But in fact it is controlled by a group of about 50 very rich Minnesotans, give or take a few at any given time. They are banded together in a smoke-and-mirrors group called the Freedom Club (isn’t the right great at picking names?), which seems to be some sort of a parent organization to the league.

The 50 or so are people of great wealth – mostly high-ranking executives, including chief executives, of large corporations. They don’t use transit, they don’t need aid with housing or feeding their families and their kids don’t go to public schools. They do occasionally pay taxes, though, or some of them do, and they think that’s wrong.

They hide behind the league, and remain largely anonymous, presumably because they don’t want the public to boycott their businesses or insult them on the streets. Most have not been publicly identified and only a couple have had the guts to take public responsibility for the outrageous positions they espouse.

The latest figures I’ve been able to find thus far – from a Star Tribune report that apparently was the only financial information the paper ever has provided on the league – show that the members of the Freedom Club had donated about $6.1 million to various right wing causes, not including contributions to the league. That included $567,000 to a Freedom Club PAC, about $2.7 million in hard money, about $2.8 million in soft money.

Additionally, they gave a reported $2.8 million to the Taxpayers League. I’ve seen something else that indicates the Freedom Club’s over-all spending on right-wing activities, including lobbying, is much greater, but thus far I’ve not been able to verify the figures.

Oh, yes. The Taxpayers League of Minnesota is officially a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

In jumping to report whatever Strom, Runbeck or just “the League of Minnesota Taxpayers” have to say, broadcast reporters almost never, if ever, say who or what the league is. The major newspapers fail to identify it in more than half of their stories, and when it is given any identity, it is described merely as “an organization sponsored by (or supported by) executives of major corporations” or some such vague generality.

See. All it takes is money. No one elected the “Freedom Club” nor the Taxpayers League, no one appointed those roughly 50 people to a damned thing. The reporters doing the stories don’t even know who they are. But they have untold millions, so they get to say whatever they want, and whatever they choose to say is presented with deep respect by the newsies, as though those 50 have some special wisdom that the rest of us don’t have.

We don’t know who most of them are, just that they kick in by the thousands and hundreds of thousands.

I’ll do my best to out the individual members in coming days, but I don’t yet know how difficult that might be.