With such fierce partisan divisions in our current political climate, it’s tempting for commentators to place conspiratorial blame on a few wealthy individuals who belong to the opposing ideological team.
It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the New Yorker has a reporter who specializes in bashing right-wing philanthropists, but Jane Mayer has been doing this for many years.
My review of Mayer’s Dark Money is behind a paywall at National Review, but my colleague Scott Walter reviewed Mayer’s book for Philanthropy Magazine here and critiqued a 2011 New Yorker piece Mayer wrote on the John W. Pope Foundation here.
Mayer’s latest piece is on the father and daughter team of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who are both investors and donors. Mayer’s piece is full of her trademarks: heavy reliance on anonymous sources, and a continuing prejudice against conservatives. For example, she calls The American Spectator “an archconservative magazine,” by which she means “a conservative magazine.”
Of course, the Mercers did not speak to her, which, given her track record, is perfectly reasonable. As she notes, Robert Mercer has only given an interview to one journalist, financial writer Sebastian Mallaby. She was only able to find two people who would be quoted on what the Mercers are like: Christopher Ruddy of Newsmax, and author Amity Shlaes, who chairs the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, which received a $273,000 grant from the Mercer Family Foundation in 2015. According to Shlaes, “In the dull crowds of policy, the Mercers are enchanting firecrackers” who “have strong values, they’re kind of funny, and they’re really bright. Their brains are almost too strong.”
Robert Mercer started off as a mathematician working for IBM. In 1993 he joined Renassiance Technologies, a hedge fund which he is now co-CEO. This fund is apparently quite profitable, enabling Rebekah Mercer to get a six-room apartment in Trump Tower and Robert Mercer to buy a Long Island mansion and indulge his “wildest material fantasies,” which include a model train set that cost nine figures and… a private gun range. Mayer says that Robert Mercer owns a share of Centre Firearms, “a company that claims to have the country’s largest cache of machine guns.”
The Mercers use their money in three ways: they invest in companies, they donate to campaigns, and they donate to nonprofits. Their investments include Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy. I’m not going to comment on these investments, because they’re not philanthropy. Instead, I am going to focus on their donations through the activities of the Mercer Family Foundation.
In 2015, the Mercer Family Foundation gave grants of $24.5 million. If I am reading their Form 990 correctly, they don’t have an endowment, but just give grants each year.
Mayer is most obsessed with the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit connected with Breitbart that received $1.7 million from the Mercer Family Foundation in 2015. The institute’s most successful activity was sponsoring and promoting Clinton Cash, a 2015 book by Peter Schweizer that made many successful and accurate statements about Hillary Clinton’s donors and the many questionable activities of the Clinton Foundation.
Mayer says, in a paraphrase and not a direct quote, that Steve Bannon, who chairs the institute, “told Bloomberg Businessweek that its mission was to dig up dirt on politicians and feed it to the mainstream media.” I believe that Mayer is referring to this profile of Bannon by Joshua Green, which Green subsequently expanded into a biography of Bannon.
Here is what Bannon actually said: “What Peter and I noticed is that it’s facts, not rumors that resonate with the best investigative reporters” and if you give these reporters “a real story based on facts, they’re f**ing badasses, and they’re fair.” That’s why, as Green noted, Clinton Cash, when it was published in 2015, “probably did more to shape public perception of Hillary Clinton than any of the barbs from Republican detractors.” Is Mayer claiming that providing voters with accurate information about politicians isn’t a worthy goal of philanthropy? (Perhaps she is, given her highly, shall we say, casual interest in accuracy.)
Finally, Mayer notes that the Mercer Family Foundation gave $11 million between 2011-14 to the Media Research Center, which “has allowed the group to revamp its news site, and it now claims to reach more than two hundred million Americans a week.” I know computers are expensive, but I find it hard to believe that revamping a news site costs $11 million. The Media Research Center had to have done something else with the money.
Finally, it should be noted that there’s a great deal about the Mercer Family Foundation that Mayer doesn’t tell us. Here are all the grants of over $1 million the foundation gave in 2015.
- George W. Bush Foundation $5 million
- Media Research Center $3 million
- Federalist Society $2.3 million
- Stony Brook Foundation (affiliated with Stony Brook University) $2.1 million
- Government Accountability Institute $1.7 million
- Reclaim New York $1.3 million
- Young America’s Foundation $1.1 million
Surely if you’re doing a thorough investigation of the Mercer Family Foundation, you would at least tell your readers what these seven grants are for, particularly since they account for two-thirds of the foundation’s grantmaking. In particular, I’d like to know how the grant to the Bush Foundation was used, since one of the smaller projects of the Government Accountability Institute was Bush Bucks, a critique of Jeb Bush by Peter Schweizer which only appeared as an e-book. It’s intriguing that the Mercers would be such generous donors to a Bush family foundation on the one hand, and then have one of their favorite nonprofits end up bashing the Bushes.
In an interview with the hard-left radio show “Democracy Now!” in March, Jane Mayer said that Robert Mercer’s “ideology is extreme. He’s very far on the right. He hates government.”
While Mayer, as her book showed, considers nearly all conservatives “extreme,” the Mercer family’s investment in Breitbart could be considered support of the alt-right, particularly if Robert and Rebekah Mercer remain cagy about their beliefs. In November, Robert Mercer announced that he was retiring from Renaissance Technologies and selling his stake in Breitbart to his daughters. In his resignation letter, Mercer wrote that his views “do not always align” with Steve Bannon’s, but didn’t say what his views were. We should also note that the Government Accountability Institute supports investigative journalism, not political opinion.
With such fierce partisan divisions in our current political climate, it’s tempting for commentators to place conspiratorial blame on a few wealthy individuals who belong to the opposing ideological team. Of course, the Mercers should be the subjects of articles by the press. But in looking at their giving, reporters should realize that, overall, their grantmaking represents mainstream conservatism.
 I have had three articles published in The American Spectator.
 I did enjoy Mayer’s allegation that the Mercers’ vehicle for investing in Breitbart is an LLC called Gravitas Maximus.
 Three of my Philanthropy Daily posts have been reposted to the Media Research Center’s website. I was not paid for these re-posts.