Describing itself as “the largest media buying organization supporting a progressive message and defending Democrats from attack ads funded by the deep pockets of the Right Wing,” the Media Fund (MF) functioned as an in-house campaign advertising agency for the Shadow Party. Specifically, it conceptualized, produced, and placed political ads in television, radio, print, and Internet forums. MF’s mission, through these ads, was to “defend against the Republican media assault” and to ensure that “a Democratic message focused on issues of concern to all Americans will be on the air during the critical period between the end of the primaries and the Democratic Convention when the Republicans’ financial advantage is greatest.”
MF was founded by Harold Ickes, a Democratic lobbyist and strategist who is widely recognized as the chief organizer of the Shadow Party. After passage of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act (which banned “soft-money” donations to political parties and candidates), Ickes helped put George Soros together with such activists as Gina Glantz, Ellen Malcolm, Cecile Richards, Steve Rosenthal, Andrew Stern, and others who were seeking ways to circumvent McCain-Feingold’s soft-money ban. Ultimately they found a very large loophole in the ban, since McCain-Feingold permitted soft-money donations that funded issue-oriented ads, voter-education initiatives, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and other “party-building” activities—i.e., anything that did not explicitly urge people to vote for or against any specific candidate, by name.
While Malcolm, Glantz, and Rosenthal were cobbling together the coalition of labor unions, pro-abortion activists, and environmentalists that would later emerge as America Coming Together (ACT), Ickes sought to organize a stealth political action committee that could raise money for campaign advertising. Ickes decided to simply call it the Media Fund, launching it in early 2003.
MF took in more than $59.4 million in donations during the 2004 election cycle, much of it from leftwing government labor unions such as AFSCME and SEIU. MF also received many millions of dollars that had first been laundered through Joint Victory Campaign 2004 (JVC), which was heavily funded by George Soros, Stephen Bing, and Peter B. Lewis. In 2004 alone, JVC, which shared a Washington, DC office with the Media Fund, channeled more than $53 million into the Shadow Party network—$38.4 million to MF and $19.4 million to America Coming Together.
In April 2004, Erik Smith, a former spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt’s failed presidential campaign, was named president of MF.
“The goal of the Media Fund is to create, test, and then air ads that raise issues that we think are important in this election,” founder Harold Ickes explained to New York magazine in a June 28, 2004 interview. “[But] we are not in the business of electing or defeating candidates.” Ickes was compelled to add the disclaimer for legal purposes, so as to technically avoid federal prosecution under the McCain-Feingold Act. Ickes’ denial notwithstanding, however, electing and defeating candidates was MF’s sole purpose.
During the 2004 presidential campaign season, MF focused its advertising efforts on the 17 recognized battleground states. Its objective was to paint a relentlessly negative image of contemporary America, and to pin the blame for the nation’s woes entirely on President George W. Bush. Drawing on top talent from Madison Avenue advertising firms, MF sought to convince Americans that Bush was pursuing a “radical agenda” which had “given us a country less secure, a foreign policy in disarray, record job losses, deficits that mortgage our children’s future, environmental policies that abandon common sense and attacks on civil liberties that undermine the very premise of our democracy.” According to the Federal Election Commission, MF spent approximately $53,389,856 on “37 television advertisements, 24 radio advertisements, nine newspaper advertisements and 20 mailers that referenced President George Bush or Senator John Kerry in the context of the 2004 Presidential election.” For descriptions of some of MF’s television, radio and print ads in 2004, click here.
MF also endeavored, through its ads, to persuade Americans that the country was turning leftward ideologically, and that a compliant Big Media was helping Republicans hide this fact under a fog of war fever and patriotism. Moreover, MF vowed to “make certain the public hears about [Republicans’] disastrous failures at the local, state and national level.”
In the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, MF’s overall funding was meager, and thus the organization was much less influential than it had been in 2004. After 2008, MF became mostly inactive.
In November 2007, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) unanimously voted to levy a $580,000 fine—the seventh largest civil penalty in FEC history—against the Media Fund. At issue was the fact that most of MF’s expenditures during the 2004 presidential campaign had been illegal. Said the FEC:
“From its inception through 2004, [MF] raised $59,414,183. Approximately 93% of its receipts during that time period—over $55 million—came from labor organizations or corporations prohibited from contributing to political committees, or from individuals who gave in amounts that exceeded the $5,000 limit established under the [Federal Election Campaign] Act for contributions to political committees…. [T]he language used in fundraising solicitations sent by [MF] or its joint fundraising committee, the Joint Victory Campaign, clearly indicated that the funds received would be targeted to the election or defeat of a specific federal candidate. Most of the solicitations targeted the defeat of George W. Bush, and some of the solicitations targeted the election of John Kerry.”