Photo via Vanity Fair
As information and media consumption have shifted to the internet and social media, the prevalence of far-right figures and organizations has increased. Where are these organizations coming from, and why are they so well funded? The answer: a network of mutual support funded by wealthy donors seeking to promote the ideas behind these publications.
The Wilks brothers are two Texas billionaires who accumulated their wealth through oil and gas fracking. The Wilks have not only donated to lobbying groups, but also right-wing media groups. In 2013, they gave $6.5 million dollars to PragerU, an outlet founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager that packages right-wing ideas and issues into short-form videos aimed at a younger demographic. They even have a channel called PragerU Kids, which has been approved for educational use in Florida. This model of content has amassed millions of views across their platforms.
The Wilks brothers also allocated $4.7 million to help fund the creation of the Daily Wire, a far-right online media outlet that brings in $100 million in yearly revenue. It is known for its figures Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, Matt Walsh, and Jordan Peterson, who all create far-reaching homophobic, transphobic, and outright authoritarian content.
The influence that these online personalities possess is so extreme that it has allowed them to assist in shaping actual laws. For example, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh played a part in the passing of bill HB1 in Florida, which banned gender-affirming healthcare for those under 18. These outlets have large audiences that can at times rival more established media outlets, thus increasing their influence. For example, the Daily Wire contains a larger audience on Facebook than the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, and CNN combined. These publications play a role in shaping dialogue in the U.S. by creating or expanding on moral panics to larger outlets such as Fox, which their often young and impressionable audiences readily consume.
The Koch Brothers are another source of billionaire funding of right-wing organizations, largely focused on Americans For Prosperity. They have campaigned on behalf of Florida Governor and 2024 Republican primary candidate Ron Desantis, who has given over a hundred thousand dollars to the Daily Wire. Prominent Daily Wire figures also receive speaking fees from another Koch-funded group, Young America’s Foundation, as well as the co-funded Turning Point USA. This is the network of mutual support among these outlets and figures that allows them to amass such a large platform and voice.
The influence does not stop at online right-wing outlets. The Kochs can also be found in the Atlantic. The journalists at this generally well-respected publication benefit from cash prizes from the Koch Brothers’ Reason Foundation, or they themselves are heads of Koch-funded organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. These Koch-affiliated journalists tend to write pieces on how freedom of speech is under attack, further fueling culture war issues. There are more outlets and organizations that are receiving money from the Koch brothers as well. For example, in 2011, prominent think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Manhattan Institute also received a combined $83 million from Koch funded organizations and other allies. The brothers also put $650 million into purchasing Time Inc., which is known for magazines such as Time, but also Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, Essence, and many more, in 2017.
The Kochs and Wilkses have evidently spent hundreds of millions to command or have a direct influence on the editorial line of massive media organizations that reach millions of people in the United States. As a result, these organizations use their billionaire funding to spread hateful, homophobic, transphobic, and climate denialist rhetoric. They also serve as a bridge for other right wing figures such as Jordan Peterson, who then can deliver their messages more aggressively than more established press can.
The Kochs also influence universities through astroturf groups such as Speech First, a student group that claims to defend free speech on college campuses. Speech First also happens to receive funding and professional leadership from Donors Trust, another organization under the Koch family. Koch-funded organizations have even financed research centers such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a move that grants them oversight in faculty hiring decisions, and even some student admissions.
This network of outlets and organizations is known as the “Kochtopus,” and is involved in lobbying at every level of United States government. Through Americans For Prosperity, the Kochs and other fossil fuel donors have spent hundreds of millions in attack ads against Democratic candidates; this most visibly occurred against Obama in 2012. They also invest large amounts of money into the campaigns of conservatives. Further, groups such as Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund have given $13 million to organizations that spout anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments. This includes more than $2.7 million to nonprofits that are considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, such as the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy.
While Democrats have their own billionaire donors, NGOs, and astroturf groups, the real left does not. Unsurprisingly, billionaires are not willing to fund powerful networks that would advocate for their own abolition. Even CNN has moved to a more centrist strategy following the merger with Warner Bros. Discovery. Since this merger, many personalities who were more openly liberal or critical of Trump have been fired or had their shows canceled (John Harwood?). According to a Variety poll, about 40% of viewers reported either a right-wing or centrist shift in CNN’s reporting.
The liberal framework of market-driven news carries important consequences for news media. This market-driven focus acts as a filter for the stories that are reported, as well as how they are reported. News organizations have to cater to their investors and advertisers regardless of the quality of reporting to not lose their funding. This results in news media that does not meaningfully challenge the status quo—profitability takes precedence over all else as media becomes increasingly monopolized. This has been reflected in CNN’s centrist shift as most viewers in the Variety poll actually welcomed this, rather than objecting to it. At least partially as a result of billionaire influence, media institutions have participated in shifting the “Overton window”—the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time—to the right by heavily platforming the concerns of the right, while giving little attention to the concerns of the left.
The United States is left with media that ultimately betrays the role journalism is supposed to perform. Media institutions no longer meaningfully question those holding positions of power, and as a result fall short of being informers of a democratic society. In proper journalism’s place is media that amplifies the voices of the wealthy who have a vested interest in limiting the range of topics discussed to obscure true criticisms of our economic order, which these billionaires benefit from. In the process, reactionary discourse is reinforced.