Both Sides Now: How a Funder Bankrolls Informed Public Debate

If you listen regularly to NPR you’ve probably heard that that its programming has been sponsored by A-Mark Foundation, but what is A-Mark? It’s the brainchild of Steven C. Markoff, a native of Los Angeles, who made his fortune in the precious metals and coin business with his A-Mark Financial Corporation. He branched into film production with A-Mark Entertainment, a company that he co-chairs with Bruce McNall who once owned the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League. Markoff also owns part of the Desert Hot Springs resort Two Bunch Palms, and the Hollywood tourist mecca Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Markoff founded the A-Mark Foundation in 1997 to "help a few people and organizations that serve a charitable, educational or humanitarian purpose, and to produce and support nonpartisan research."

Initially, A-Mark offered nonpartisan searchable databases on significant social issues, including the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. wars, Barack Obama’s history from birth to the end of last year, and the U.S. embargo of Cuba. A-Mark also sponsored the Richard A. Clarke National Scholarly Monograph Competitions to examine the lessons of 9/11 and how the U.S. can prevent violent extremism.

Markoff’s commitment to NPR came out of his respect for the public radio network’s thorough, objective news gathering efforts. His contribution dwarfs most readers’ pledge drive efforts, at between $100,000 and $499,999 a year according to NPR.

A-Mark’s biggest beneficiary was born from an experience that Markoff relates repeatedly. In 1985, he was invited to a celebrity fundraising dinner with embattled California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird. She had made history as the first female justice on the court, but was under vicious attack for her opposition to the death penalty. Markoff had asked the researcher in his office to prepare a one-page summary of her points of view so he could talk intelligently about her positions. When he brought up her antagonism to the death penalty, she laced into him by asserting that although she had a personal objection, it was the law of California and she’d enforce it if necessary. In the days that followed, Markoff researched her positions trying to find the truth in a mass of contradictory quotations. Bird made history again the next year as the only California Chief Justice to be removed from office by the voters. The margin of rejection wasn’t close: 67 to 33 percent, not for any malfeasance, but because of an unrelenting media campaign that emphasized Bird’s uncritical opposition to the death penalty.

Haunted by the thought that the reason for the rejection wasn’t justified, Markoff founded what became ProCon.org and served as chairman. Now ProCon.org is the principal beneficiary of A-Mark Foundation’s largesse.  At ProCon’s Santa Monica office under the leadership of President and Managing Editor Kamy Akhavan, teams of highly educated researchers and writers tackle the most controversial issues of the day from marijuana legalization to Obamacare, pushing each other in a constant effort to leave their personal biases behind and get to the objective truth by juxtaposing informed arguments on the page. Over the last 10 years, ProCon.org has been used by 5,758 schools in 73 countries. It has been relied upon by 24 foreign governments and has been cited in the media 1,551 times. The site has proven so valuable that now it is also backed by the Annenberg Foundation, Google, and the Herb Block Foundation.

Of course, Steven Markoff is not the only funder worried about the plight of objective facts in an age when public discourse is shaped by news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, and where even most think tanks are now dedicated to ideological warfare. The Hewlett Foundation is focusing far bigger money on this problem as part of its Madison Project, and other funderslike the Annenberg, Stanton, and Arnold foundationshave put money into FactCheck.org, which works night and day, picking apart the distortions that run rife in amid today's hyper polarization. 

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