Scaife plaque in CMI an insult to journalism

An alumna sounds off on warping a benefactor’s legacy


Written By Laura Byko

When I saw on Sept. 12, that the Point Park Center for Media Innovation (CMI) had unveiled a plaque dedicated to the late Richard Scaife, I did a double-take.

When I saw the inscription on the plaque, I gasped aloud. After all, it’s not every day your former college commemorates a conspiracy theorist who used his unfathomable wealth to push America right politically, even at the truth’s expense.

The plaque’s inscription reads: “Philanthropist and publisher Richard M. Scaife knew well the vital role the press plays in the relationship between an informed public and a healthy democratic society. He made many investments in his lifetime to ensure their continuation.”

A plaque with an honest dedication, such as “Richard Scaife’s foundation gave us a great deal of money, and in return, we have given him this large plaque,” would be irritating (as any plaque devoted to Richard Scaife would be irritating), but it wouldn’t infuriate me. It wouldn’t insult me.

But this plaque infuriates and insults me. It assumes that I don’t know who Richard Scaife is, or that if I do know who he is, I am too stupid to understand that the inscription distorts his aims and accomplishments, and to understand the irony of that distortion in a building devoted to media and journalism.

It is true, though, that not everyone knows who Richard Scaife is, so here is some relevant information about him: 

On May 2, 1999, the Washington Post published the first of a two-part series on Scaife headlined “Scaife: Funding Father of the Right.” The article details how “by concentrating his giving on a specific ideological objective for nearly 40 years, and making most of his grants with no strings attached, Scaife’s philanthropy has had a disproportionate impact on the rise of the right.”

Scaife’s investment in journalism was explicitly only ancillary to his larger goal: shifting America politically rightward. According to a Scaife associate quoted in the Washington Post article, “In those days [the early 1970s] you had the American Civil Liberties Union, the government-supported legal corporations [neighborhood legal services programs], a strong Democratic Party with strong labor support, the Brookings Institution, the New York Times and Washington Post and all these other people on the left – and nobody on the right.” The associate said Scaife’s goal was to create the right-wing version of that.

So Scaife donated his money to various right-wing and libertarian groups, including the Heritage Foundation and the Reason Foundation. He also bought the Tribune-Review to oppose what he perceived as the left-leaning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and he used his ownership over the newspaper to pursue conspiracy theories he became fixated on.

Convinced that the press wasn’t doing enough to investigate the scandals of the Clinton era, Scaife poured money into what became known as “the Arkansas Project.” Most derangedly, Scaife funded an investigation into the death of Clinton associate Vincent Foster.

Although the death was ruled a suicide in three official investigations, Scaife refused to accept it as the truth, saying that “[Clinton] can order people done away with at his will. He’s got the entire federal government behind him.” Scaife had a reporter from the Tribune-Review follow the Vince Foster non-story for months, implying there had been foul play in spite of investigations and evidence.

According to a 1998 New York Times article, Scaife funneled $1.8 million into the Arkansas Project.

Scaife’s giving was tailored toward a specific goal of promoting a specific ideology. While it’s not necessarily incorrect to say that he knew the “vital role the press plays in the relationship between an informed public and a healthy democratic society,” as the plaque notes, it’s a lie of omission to pretend as though his aims weren’t partisan, as though he didn’t want to inform the public only to the degree to which they’d agree with his politics, as though he didn’t invest enormous swaths of his money in the pursuit of an untruth that fit his preferred narrative.

He knew enough about the “vital role the press plays” in a democracy to abuse it for his own goals. The New York Times’ 2014 obituary of Scaife plainly stated his priorities, after noting he bought the Tribune-Review: “The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remained the city’s dominant newspaper, but Mr. Scaife cared primarily about winning readers over to his conservative views.”

This is fundamentally incompatible with the goals of good journalism. Journalism doesn’t have a party or an ideology beyond truth-seeking (an ideology that often, incidentally, afflicts the rich and powerful). The plaque in the CMI is a tacit endorsement of his philosophy, and keeping the dedication vague can’t hide that Scaife’s allegiance was to conservatism over journalism. Rather, the vagueness makes it seem like the people who made the plaque knew Scaife’s views and deliberately chose to misrepresent them to Point Park’s journalism students.

Scaife’s investments were not designed to “ensure [the] continuation” of an informed public, as the plaque says; they were designed to ensure the continuation of a conservatively informed public, even if the information wasn’t correct.

None of this, of course, is to say that the journalists who worked and work for the Tribune-Review are right-wing stooges or are partisan in their reporting. Scaife allowed Pittsburgh reporters to do good, important work, but his explicit goal in purchasing the newspaper was to provide a conservative counterpart to the Post-Gazette.

All of this is history. It’s well-documented. Ironically, a lot of it has been well-reported. And the fact that it’s been so well-documented is what makes it hard to view that plaque and its caption as anything but at best a thoughtlessly inaccurate marker that will hopefully please a big donor and at worst a bold-faced lie that will hopefully please a big donor.

I don’t have a call to action to close this out with, really. Clearly, I think the plaque should be removed; maybe it could be replaced with something thanking Trib Total Media and the Allegheny Foundation for their donations, instead of Scaife specifically. A plaque devoted to a journalist instead of an ideologue would be even better. Maybe if the students make enough noise, are angry enough, the administration will take it down. But I’m not particularly optimistic about that happening. In my experience, change comes slowly at Point Park. Our faculty had to try to unionize for thirteen years before they won.

So maybe it’s fitting, in the end, that Scaife’s plaque in the Point Park CMI is so vague as to be a lie, so obviously part of an agenda. It is – if nothing else – consistent with the way he lived his life.

Laura Byko is a 2016 aluma of Point Park University. She served as co-opinions
editor for five semesters.