Who were Obama’s News Corp contributors?

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Over at Media Matters, Terry Krepel criticized Sunlight for a campaign finance number my colleague Ryan Sibley reported on in a post about the political influence of News Corporation and its chairman, Rupert Murdoch. Our story notes, based on federal and state campaign contribution records, that President Barack Obama was the top recipient of contributions from News Corp, and explains that that total comes from contributions from employees of News Corp and their family members.

Krepel writes, “…the private contributions employees make cannot be said to speak for the corporation they work for, and lumping them all together leads to false conclusions — among them, that News Corp. made corporate contributions to Obama.”

For years, money in politics reporters have considered contributions by a corporation’s executives as a proxy for the corporation’s interests, especially since it has been illegal since 1907 for any corporation–News Corp included–to directly contribute to a federal political campaign. But don’t take our word for it–let’s test the contention that “private contributions employees make cannot be said to speak for the corporation they work for” by looking at who contributed to Barack Obama’s campaign. I pulled data from TransparencyData.com for News Corp contributions, and ended up with $367,469 in total giving to Obama–slightly different than the $368,669 we report on Influence Explorer, but missing $1,200 won’t change this analysis all that much.

Let’s start by skimming some of the names of those who gave the maximum amount–$2,300–to the Obama campaign: Thomas Rothman, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Vanessa L. Morrison*, president of Fox Animation Studios, Gary L. Ginsberg, who was Executive Vice President, Corporate Marketing and Communications at News Corp until 2009, Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, Greg Gelfan, Executive Vice President, Executive Vice President Business Affairs and Legal, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation…I could go on…okay, one more: one-time Murdoch heir apparent Peter Chernin, News Corp’s former president and chief operating officer, contributed to Obama–he and his wife donated a total of $9,000 to Obama’s campaign. In other words, a lot of the employees are at the pinnacle of News Corp–they’re running the show.

Taking a quick spin through all the names and with the aid of Google, I managed to identify contributions of more than $215,000 that came from top executives and their spouses of News Corp and its subsidiaries to Obama, and by top level we mean division presidents, co-presidents, senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents, vice presidents, corporate general counsels and so on. And that figure excludes folks like heads of publishing imprints(Rene Alegria, who runs Harper Collins’ Rayo imprint, donated $1,500), and Family Guy co-producer, creator and star Seth MacFarlane, who gave $3,300. But their interests often coincide with those of News Corp.

Take MacFarlane: Among the issues that News Corp lobbied on in 2008 was broadcast indecency. It’s an issue that turns up pretty regularly on News Corps disclosures. MacFarlane’s Family Guy has been the target of any number of indecency complaints; the company he works for lobbies to make sure Congress and the Federal Communications Commission don’t attempt to censor or shut down his show. And MacFarlane isn’t the only Family Guy guy to contribute to Obama–Dominic Polcino, who’s directed 8 episodes of the show, contributed $2,050, producer Kara Vallow contributed $500, director and addition voice provider Kirker Butler chipped in $500.

They all benefit from News Corps’ lobbying on their behalf, and News Corps benefits from their ability to write checks to politicians. This isn’t meant to knock Family Guy or MacFarlane–I’m a huge fan–but rather to point out that the private contributions employees make do have a connection to the corporations they work for, even if it’s not always readily apparent. If a News Corp lobbyist needs to talk to someone in the Obama administration about problems they’re having with the FCC over complaints of indecency, surely she can obliquely cite the hefty political contributions from their employees; she might even mention how MacFarlane, in the guise of Brian Griffin, the Family Guy dog, endorsed Obama in 2008.

This is not to say that Obama is particularly beholden to News Corp; as the first presidential candidate in the post-Watergate era to reject public financing altogether, Obama raised more money ever than anyone from everyone, and apparently intends to exceed that excess in 2012. But News Corp’s contributions are certainly significant–while they don’t rank in his top ten, $368,669 isn’t chicken feed. Top News Corp executives who contributed in 2008 will be invited to 2012 fundraisers, and their lobbyists will certainly keep track of the giving. That’s why money in politics reporters follow the individual contributions from employees of corporations, and why, rather than lead to false conclusions, it shows the connections between money, influence and power.

*Note: in the original version, I stupidly typed “Vanessa L. Fox” instead of “Vanessa L. Morrison.”

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