The mission of Unite America is lofty. As its name implies, the little-known group wants to heal a political system that has become “more divided and dysfunctional with each election cycle.”
Its bipartisan mission is an implied critique of Fox News, which has been identified, in study after study, as a principal cause of the polarization that Unite America seeks to cure. Yet a few months ago, Unite America received a “strategic investment” from a surprising source: a foundation run by James and Kathryn Murdoch. Their last name might ring a bell; James is a son of Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, and for nearly two decades he was a top executive in his father’s businesses.
The donation is quite a paradox. Fox has consistently promoted conspiracy theories and white nationalism while demonizing leaders of the Democratic Party. Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a frequent target of its slanted coverage, has bluntly described the network as a “hate-for-profit racket.” Yet while many Americans have been harmed by the toxins of Fox News, it has helped enrich the Murdoch family. James and and his wife Kathryn, like other members of the family, are billionaires. Until last year, James was even hoping to take charge of the family’s empire but his brother Lachlan got the nod from their father, who is now 88 years old.
A question arises: What is going on here?
Alongside his wife, James Murdoch is trying to cast himself as a member in righteous standing of the effort to repair the damage his family helped cause. In addition to the infusion into Unite America, James and Kathryn Murdoch have donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, which combats the sort of hate crimes that Fox News is widely regarded as encouraging. Through their foundation, which is called Quadrivium (the Latin word for “crossroads”), they have also donated at least $4.25 million since 2013 to the Environmental Defense Fund — a group fighting against the skepticism of climate change that Fox News has ceaselessly promoted. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which posts and links to articles that criticize Fox’s skewed reporting on science and the environment, has received more than $1.75 million from their foundation.
These donations have come without an apology or even an acknowledgment of the Murdochs’ connection to Fox News. Their foundation’s website makes no mention of Fox News, which is arguably the most consequential entity James and Kathryn are associated with (the Murdoch family owns other newspapers and television networks across the world). The same goes for the biographies of James and Kathryn that appear on the websites of the nonprofit organizations on whose boards they serve: None mention Fox News. When James and Kathryn announced their donation to the ADL, in response to the neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville, they condemned the rise of hatred in America but did not mention their family’s role in fueling it.
There is a reason for these omissions: It is the greasy way things have always been done in philanthropy. For the most part, few people have cared about billionaires remaking their questionable reputations by donating to nonprofits — but that’s changing.
A new debate has been set off by the philanthropy of the Sackler family, which owns the company that makes OxyContin, the brand-name drug at the center of the opioid epidemic. In the past year, the family has been shunned by nonprofit organizations that used to line up to accept their donations. This is the result, in part, of a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general that described the Sackler family as trying to donate their way out of trouble.
“The Sacklers used their ill-gotten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a philanthropic campaign intending to whitewash their decades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’ expense,” the suit said.
The Sacklers might be somewhat unique in the annals of tainted fortunes because their company, Purdue Pharma, is legally connected to an epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. But their shunning has elevated a question that was summed up not long ago by the writer Anand Giridharadas, who asked, “When people get rich harming others, should nonprofits take the blood money?”
Buying and Selling Mercy
James and Kathryn Murdoch declined to be interviewed for this article but their spokesperson, Juleanna Glover, invited written questions. The Intercept asked whether James and Kathryn had ever criticized or tried to change, internally or publicly, Fox News’s coverage of politics and climate change. Glover offered a two-line response: “James and Kathryn Murdoch have always led with their own values and will continue to do so. That’s patently clear to all who know and work with them.”
Their values do not appear to include a sense that they should connect themselves to any public critiques of the family business. A review of news stories failed to turn up any occasions on which they said a negative word about Fox News since its founding in 1996.
Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” has a searing critique of philanthropists who hope a bit of generosity will eliminate any expectation that they should acknowledge the society-wrecking origin of their fortunes. “I think there could be ways, if they are trying to give away their money, that they can atone for breaking America apart,” Giridharadas told The Intercept. “But it would begin with them standing before a bunch of microphones and saying they recognize they created the problem.” He added, “We have to be very clear about the nature of the transaction. The Murdochs are trying to buy mercy on the cheap and it is being willingly sold to them by people who should know better.”
The Murdoch family has already faced opposition to its philanthropy — just not in America. In late 2017, one of Rupert Murdoch’s children, Elisabeth, who lives in Britain, was appointed National Council member of Arts Council England, a powerful organization that distributes government funding. Elisabeth, like her siblings, is part-owner of the parent company of Fox News and other media properties; she, too, is a billionaire. After her appointment was announced, a protest letter was issued by Artists’ Union England, arguing that “the Murdoch family, through its international network of media outlets, has consistently proved to be an antithesis to the values Arts Council England claims to promote.” The letter continued:
The Murdochs … have regularly promoted hate, bigotry and Islamophobia, through their ownership of The Sun, The Times newspaper, Fox News and their many other media outlets. In the interest of private capital, the Murdoch family empire has a shameful record in employing unsavoury tactics to influence public opinion and public policy and we believe this appointment is another attempt to expand its damaging influence.
The protest did not result in Elisabeth Murdoch’s removal but the idea at its heart has taken root with the Sacklers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and the Tate Modern in London, have announced they will no longer accept money from members of the Sackler family. And the Whitney Museum is now under fire for having on its board the owner of an armaments company, Safariland, that sells tear gas reportedly used against migrants at the U.S. border — though the protests and petitions have not yet forced the removal of Warren Kanders.
Organizations that have accepted money from James and Kathryn Murdoch are not eager to address questions about the origin of their funds. In a statement to The Intercept, Unite America’s executive director, Nick Troiano, said his group “does not condone the divisive role Fox News or other partisan media outlets play in our politics and culture today,” but he did not respond to the question of why Unite America accepted money from the family that created Fox. Instead, he praised what he described as Kathryn Murdoch’s “dedication to reducing partisanship and polarization.” His statement did not mention James Murdoch.
None of the organizations contacted by The Intercept were willing to offer a representative to speak on the record, though some issued vague statements similar to the one from Unite America. They tended to be quite brief. For instance, ADL spokesperson Todd Gutnick replied in a one-sentence email, “We do not discuss any internal conversations about our donors.”
Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also responded in a short statement. “AAAS’s reputation as a trusted communicator of unbiased scientific information is of the utmost importance in our work, thus all prospective philanthropic relationships are considered thoughtfully with regard to potential conflicts of interest,” Holt stated. “We are an organization dedicated to speaking up for science and evidence-based decision-making.”
The Environmental Defense Fund issued a statement in the name of its senior vice president for strategy and communications, Eric Pooley. Addressing only Kathryn Murdoch’s seat on the group’s board of directors, the statement said, “Kathryn has been a leader in the climate community for many years. Her work with the Clinton Climate Initiative, Environmental Defense Fund, Climate Central, SciLine, ReSource at Oxford University and the Quadrivium Foundation is a testament to that leadership and speaks for itself. We are grateful for her ideas, advice, and support.”
Quadrivium made a major donation in 2018 to another organization where Kathryn Murdoch is a board member — Climate Central, which publishes news about scientific issues. A statement from Climate Central’s chief executive, Benjamin Strauss, echoed the one from the EDF. “We are deeply grateful for Kathryn Murdoch’s leadership on the Climate Central board,” he stated. “Her clear commitment and support have helped us to introduce sound science on climate change to millions of people, so they can better understand the implications for their lives and their communities.”
One of the organizations that has accepted money from James and Kathryn — Dia Art Foundation, which received a $250,000 donation from Quadrivium in 2016 and appointed James to its board in the same year — did not respond to emails and phone calls. Dia is in a double philanthropic bind. It has not just a Murdoch but also a Sackler on its board: Marissa Sackler. In 2016, Dia received a major donation from the Sackler family, but unlike other museums, it has not renounced its ties with the family.
Cogs in a System
Even though he sought to take over the family business and has loyally defended some of its worst excesses, including a phone-hacking scandal in Britain, James Murdoch has also occupied a more moderate political position than his arch-conservative father. James recently donated $2,800 to the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, the largest individual amount allowed, and Kathryn has tweeted approvingly about Buttigieg. Both James and Kathryn have been advocates of environmental causes for many years, with James reportedly leading an effort to make his family’s companies carbon neutral. From 2006 to 2011, Kathryn was the director of strategy and communications for the Clinton Climate Initiative, according to her biography on the Quadrivium website. Despite that, they apparently have voiced no public objection to Fox News’s key role in fomenting doubt about the science of climate change.
The Murdoch family is generally secretive about what goes on behind closed doors, but a sprawling story in the New York Times earlier this year included a nearly Shakespearean account of why James opted to work for his father for so long. According to the Times account, which appears to have benefited from direct or indirect input from James: “He had stayed with the company for more than two decades, to prove himself to his father and because of dynastic obligation. ‘I can’t leave,’ he told a friend during the hacking scandal. ‘I was brought up to do this.’”
It’s true that James never had direct control over Fox News. The network was tightly run by one of his father’s closest deputies, Roger Ailes, until he was forced out in 2016 after being accused of sexual harassment. From its founding, Fox was viewed as the private fiefdom of Ailes and Rupert Murdoch. But James did have two positions from which he might try to influence Fox: as a board member of the parent companies of the network, and as his father’s son and possible successor.
The Times article implies that James was frustrated with Fox. The donations he has made with his wife appear to be a quiet rebuke of nearly everything Fox stands for — as the Times puts it, an effort to “neutralize” the political weapon that Fox had become. But that gets back to the heart of the critique of their philanthropy: Do they owe more than a sliver of their fortune to the public that has been damaged by the company that enriched them? Do they owe a fuller accounting of what they have done or failed to do?
Chiara Cordelli, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has written about the ethics of philanthropy, believes that giving away tainted money should not necessarily be a silent act. “If my money comes from Fox News, and I want to use the money to promote causes that Fox News undermines, then I should at least publicly explain my rationale for doing that, and I should disavow Fox News’s views on those matters,” Cordelli said in an interview. “Otherwise it seems the donation is nothing else but a way to clean up a reputation.”
Roger Berkowitz, the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, noted in an interview with The Intercept that Arendt offered, in her philosophical examinations of Germans under Hitler, a sharp critique of people who excused themselves as cogs in an evil system whose excesses they tried to quietly lessen from the inside. In an essay titled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” Arendt wrote that people who believed a system was evil yet decided to work for it should be asked, “[W]hy … did you become a cog or continue to be a cog?” She added that unless they were actively conspiring to overturn the system, their participation was indefensible. Without the acquiescence of its cogs, Arendt observed, the system would not have been able to survive.