The Knight Foundation’s ties to far-right extremists undermine journalism’s future

There are no areas of journalism in the U.S. that the Knight Foundation does not touch.

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Launched in 1950 to steward the philanthropic wealth of media mogul brothers John and James L. Knight, the foundation is now among the most powerful media institutions in the country and the 49th largest foundation in the world. 

Knight supports public media, newspapers, nonprofits, tech startups, museums, colleges, libraries, national media, and independent local news publishers. And it’s mission is to foster “engaged, equitable, and inclusive communities.”

So it was a surprise for some people affiliated with Knight when the foundation invited the man behind the Trump campaign’s Black voter suppression strategy, Brad Parscale, to speak at its annual invitation-only gathering of foundation, media, and civic leaders in 2020.

At the time, Parscale was the Trump campaign’s digital director, presiding over what The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins called the “most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history.” In 2019, Parscale described himself as the “conductor” of the president’s campaign and said he planned to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine local news organizations in support of the president’s re-election.

There was internal and external pushback to Parscale’s appearance and Knight relented, according to people familiar with the matter. But the foundation traded one of Trump’s digital directors for another—inviting Ory Rinat, White House chief digital officer, to share what the media could learn from the administration’s digital strategy. By then, the Trump administration had already encouraged violence against journalists dozens of times. And it openly showed indifference to their murders.

Journalists and civic leaders I spoke with agree it’s difficult to criticize the Knight Foundation. No one—grantee or otherwise—wanted to go on the record, citing Knight’s influence over their livelihoods. For years, its philanthropy has been one of the cornerstones of U.S. journalism. I’ve professionally benefited from Knight-supported events and educational programs and indirectly through their grantmaking.

But while we agree it’s difficult to criticize the Knight Foundation, we also agree that is unaccountable and its behavior—from its speaker lineups to its grant-making to its board of trustees and endowment—is actively undermining its mission and grantees.

When I asked Knight why Rinat would be invited to speak given his complicity in these and other actions, a foundation representative did not answer the question but applauded Rinat for bringing a view from the White House into the “hostile territory” of the Knight Media Forum.

And, without prompting, the forum organizer defended an earlier revelation that Rinat’s visit was predicated on not discussing the president’s Twitter account.

Four months after speaking at the Knight Media Forum, Rinat and nearly two dozen other administration officials would help the president coordinate the gassing and violent dispersal of peaceful protestors to create content for a media package promoting Trump as a ”law and order” president amid nationwide uprisings against systemic racism.

Rinat left the administration later that summer but returned to help defend Trump against impeachment following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to Politico.

How the Knight Foundation works

The Knight Foundation’s endowment is $2.4 billion, invested in corporations, hedge funds, and index funds through money management firm Cambridge Associates, according to a 2019 financial statement.

Every year, those investments generate more than $100 million that Knight spends to support civic engagement in 28 communities as well as arts and journalism organizations across the country.

To understand how Knight’s wealth was obtained – and now enables its philanthropy – it’s important to understand how wealth is generated and functions in media more broadly.  

Like that of other multi-millionaires, the Knight brothers’ wealth was generated by other people’s labor. Workers generate revenue but have virtually no say over what gets produced, how, and who profits in the process, allowing wealth to concentrate in the hands of increasingly fewer people.

In addition to functioning in this larger system of labor exploitation, media companies like Knight-Ridder played a critical role in facilitating it through their primary business: advertising.

In other words: media companies owned by wealthy people sell their audience’s attention to others with wealth so that their riches can grow.

Media companies have helped peddle tobacco, push pharmaceuticals, entrap people in debt, and whitewash war profiteering.

Among their most heinous crimes was their role as facilitators and profiteers of the U.S. slave economy, advertising the sale of enslaved Black people or rewards for the capture of escaped slaves across both the northern and southern United States. That includes newspapers bought and sold by Knight-Ridder. 

That is the industry that built the Knight Foundation’s wealth. And just as exploitation drove Knight-Ridder’s success, so does it drive the Knight Foundation’s philanthropy.

According to its 2019 financial statements, more than 20 percent of Knight’s $2.4 billion endowment is invested in hedge funds. For at least five years, Knight’s endowment included Alden Global Capital, the owners of Digital First Media, the company that Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan called “the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.” 

Writing in the Boston Globe, Nieman Lab Senior Editor Joshua Benton said a newspaper being purchased by Alden “is about the worst outcome possible” and would result in the newspaper “being stripped for parts.”

Profit-maximizing strategy drives the investments of many philanthropic foundations. By its nature as a wealth management fund, Knight’s dollars are invested in market-dominating firms like Facebook, Google, and Amazon—the same organizations driving the polarization, radicalization, and wealth inequality plaguing the communities that Knight says it benefits.

Beyond the investments that directly contradict its grantmaking, Knight also invests $40 million and $100 million in real estate and natural resources, respectively, fueling trends in gentrification and climate change displacing the people served by their grantees.

Just as it’s built, wealth is maintained through the exploitation of oppressed people. And through philanthropy, it is redistributed to address the symptoms of that exploitation instead of the system benefiting from it.

To be fair: All philanthropy participate in this system to some degree. But fascism creeps. And journalism and civic leaders I’ve spoken with are especially concerned about the extent of that creep at the Knight Foundation.

The Knight Foundation’s platform for right-wing extremism

Parscale and Rinat were not the first or last time Knight invited disinformation into its orbit.

In 2017, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy spoke at the Knight Media Forum on a panel about trust and journalism. That year, the Washington Post called Ruddy “one of [Trump]’s most prominent unofficial spokesmen.” In 2020, Ruddy would lead Newsmax to delay declaring Biden the winner of the presidential election for weeks to win over Fox News viewers doubting Trump’s loss.

The 2021 Knight Media Forum will similarly provide a platform for corrupt interests.

To present an analysis of public discourse on race and discrimination, Knight invited Thomas Chatterton Williams, the lead writer of a widely spurned Harper’s letter that defends the right of people in power to retain their positions despite offensive statements and actions. Williams was also quoted as saying that the struggle against “cancel culture” was akin to the struggle for equal rights for Black people in the segregated South. He’s also previously described himself as ex-Black and individually transcendent above racism. And he’s written that hip-hop culture is to blame for the struggles of Black people, a cultural frame that stigmatizes Black self-expression and excuses racial inequality.

To discuss public polarization, Knight invited Yuval Levin, director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Levin has previously written that anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws are unconstitutional because they prevent Christians from exercising their religious right to discriminate against gay people. He’s repeatedly stated that he believes people are born “imperfect” and “prone to vice and sin” and therefore require “formation” to be free. So when people call out oppression, he’s said, “Is this institution oppressing the weak? Or is this institution forming those in need of formation?”

Levin’s employer, AEI, is bankrolled by a network of billionaires with ties to right-wing extremism that includes brothers Charles and David Koch, the latter now deceased. New Yorker staff writer and investigative reporter Jane Mayer described AEI as a “lobbying operation disguised as a charity.” 

“The issue that matters to [the Kochs] is…trying to shrink the power of the government and replace it with their own power,” Mayer told The Intercept.

Mayer’s 2016 book “Dark Money” documented the right-wing weaponization of philanthropy, including the Koch network of nonprofits investing in voter suppression, climate change denialism, and white supremacist media.

In 2019, reporters at Sludge and Right Wing Watch described the Koch network’s role in radicalizing people into white nationalism as following an approach inspired by the success of the Nazi youth program.

Koch is also represented at this year’s Knight Media Forum by Sarah Ruger, the director for free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, who will be speaking on how funders can address polarization. 

The Charles Koch Institute is just one of the Koch organizations that supported the Daily Caller, a right-wing news website co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, amid its burgeoning embrace of white nationalism. And the institute recently expanded its investment in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative law-writing organization, as it lost corporate sponsors over ties to right-wing extremism.

In addition to the platform Knight provides white nationalist-aligned organizations, it’s also given millions of dollars to support their programs.

The Knight Foundation’s financial ties to right-wing extremism

Knight maintains a public grant awards directory, but it is incomplete, according to a review of the foundation’s financial disclosures. Some of the grants missing from the directory include more than $1.5 million earmarked for AEI in 2019.

Other missing grants include $90,000 in 2018 to the Freedom Forum Institute, an organization with the multi-million dollar endowment known for exorbitant executive salaries that were behind the failed Newseum in Washington, DC. 

Grants in 2017 and 2018 of $80,000 and $20,000 to the American Council on Education are missing, too. ACE is a higher education association that previously collaborated with the Charles Koch Institute to advance the latter’s free speech interests on U.S. college campuses.

In 2017, AEI also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that are not documented on Knight’s public grants directory.

The directory’s 2020 listings include just 10 grants, though Knight likely made hundreds more that year. A review of their recent grant announcements shows at least $475,000 awarded in 2020 to Koch network organizations, including the Heritage Foundation.

Heritage was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, who was described as “one of the architects of the religious right” in the 2006 book “Thy Kingdom Come” by historian of American religion Randall Balmer.

In 2005, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League described Weyrich as one of 50 of “the most prominent conservative Christian leaders and organizations” sharing an agenda that “goes well beyond legitimate engagement in controversial social and political issues to a fundamental usurpation of all that America represents” to impose a fundamentalist Christian government in the United States.

In 1980, Weyrich told a room of evangelical leaders, “I don’t want everybody to vote…As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Since its founding, the Heritage Foundation has a history of being involved in voter suppression and was cited by the State of Texas in its lawsuit trying to overturn the results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

More recently, a Heritage Foundation report was repurposed into the outgoing Trump administration’s 1776 Commission report, a response to the New York Times1619 Project, which aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” 

The ACLU called the 1776 Commission’s report a defense of “America’s founding on the basis of slavery.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of Knight’s grantmaking, the Online News Association called the 1619 Project “a long-overdue reckoning with how the story of America is told,” awarding it one of its most prestigious prizes: the Knight Foundation Award for Public Service.

The future of the Knight Foundation

I reached out to Knight for comment on this story, highlighting questions I had about its endowment, grantmaking, commitment to DEI, and relationship with the Koch and Heritage foundations.

The foundation’s director of communication, Kenny Ma, said the organization wouldn’t comment. In an email, they wrote, “We’re gonna pass on this opportunity. But thanks for thinking of us.”

Knight’s aversion to serious consideration of these issues is among the reasons the journalism and civic leaders I’ve spoken with worry about the foundation’s role in reinforcing white supremacy and economic inequality, though they disagree on the extent of the corruption and whether or not it is redeemable.

Some people familiar with the organization say internal advocates are pushing it to adopt an ideology of objectivity that believes in the presentation of both sides of issues no matter the validity of the opposing party’s claim. And that its association with right-wing extremism is an ignorant lapse in judgment.

But people further away from the organization question the commitment of its leadership to anti-racism, citing knowledge of comments made by people within the organization about the ability of Black journalists to be objective.

The broadest call for accountability points to Knight’s board: the 13-member self-selecting body that governs the Knight Foundation by hiring its leadership and overseeing its finances.

Presently, nine of its 13 members have no direct experience in any of the foundation’s program areas, being primarily finance executives, lawyers, and retail and healthcare leaders. Only two of its members are Black. Another two are the children of former Knight Foundation governors. This lack of grantee representation at the very top of the organization is the fundamental source of its illegitimacy, according to journalists and civic leaders I spoke with.

Ultimately, they called for an overhaul of Knight’s leadership, beginning with the two recently opened positions for the organization’s vice president of journalism and chief program officer.

Journalists and civic leaders cited the dominance of white organizations in Knight’s grantmaking, the white supremacist culture reinforced by its business development programs, and its insensitivity to economic inequality as initial areas these new leaders should be given the latitude to address.

They also suggested the board should be reconstituted to better reflect the communities Knight works in and its commitment to democracy.

Whether the Knight Foundation can accomplish this transformation is yet to be determined. Undoubtedly, it has the resources. And it supports similar structural reform for its grantees. 

So as those grantees seek equal accountability for Knight, they’ve told me how the foundation responds will signal its commitment to equity and inclusion. If it falls short, some said they’d reevaluate their relationship with Knight—no matter the financial benefit it provides—distressed by how their relationship with the organization may be making them complicit in its white supremacy.

Simon Galperin is a journalist, technologist, and organizer who runs the Community Info Coop, a nonprofit leading development of new models of public funding and community participation in journalism, media, and technology. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Janelle Salanga and Holly Piepenburg.

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