Who’s Behind “OptOut Media”?

Originally published on Substack by The Kennedy Beacon

On October 19, Rolling Stone published an article entitled “America’s Biggest Charities Bankrolled RFK Jr.’s Anti-Vax Outfit,” dramatically asserting that “Children’s Health Defense and other groups promoting vaccine misinformation discreetly raked in money from anonymous donors through some of the largest charities in the country.”

Despite the provocative language, the piece is actually an attempt to portray normal philanthropic activities as sinister and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s ideas as dangerous. By the end, the authors seem to inadvertently highlight the hypocrisy of their premise and their own double-standards.

The article, co-published with the OptOut Media Foundation, focuses on the use of “donor-advised funds” to direct money to causes chosen by individual donors while benefiting from a degree of anonymity from those who may seek to criticize their advocacy. Such donor-advised fund services are offered to clients of large corporate financial firms such as FidelityVanguard, the Charles Schwab Corporation, and Morgan Stanley.

As the authors explain, decisions about where the money is directed are made by the client, not by the host of the fund, allowing donors to maintain control over how their philanthropic contributions are used. This use of donor-advised funds is ubiquitous across the political spectrum; as summarized last year by Politico, large “dark money” donors on both the left and the right benefit from the protection offered by these funds.

Rather than provide the full context of how donor-advised funds are used around the country, the authors of the Rolling Stone article make the case that it is a problem for certain organizations to have the same access to funding from their supporters if their ideas are controversial in the eyes of the political establishment.

Following RFK Jr.’s recent announcement declaring his independence from both the Democratic and Republican parties, various outlets and political activists, on both sides of the aisle, have sought to undermine Kennedy’s credibility as a candidate.

As The Kennedy Beacon has previously shown, hit pieces and paid advertisements can be made to look like real news. In his August column, John Leake highlighted Rolling Stone’s partisan capture via its parent company, Penske Media. With this in mind, we decided to investigate whether the latest Rolling Stone article was yet another hit piece motivated by something other than “the truth.”

The article’s authors, Alex Kotch and Walker Bragman, are co-founders of the OptOut Media Foundation, with which Rolling Stone produced the piece. According to the foundation’s website, it is “a digital news ecosystem that’s entirely independent and reliable,” free of influence from “corporate media narratives.” However, the professional backgrounds of its directors and staff suggest the foundation’s activities may not be entirely free of bias or ideology.

Co-founder and executive director Kotch, for example, previously worked on staff at a number of outlets and organizations funded by the usual suspects lining the pockets of the Democratic Party. According to his personal website, Kotch is a musician by training. He entered into investigative journalism in 2014 for a three-year gig as a research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies, writing articles primarily about Republican campaign financing. As described by InfluenceWatch, the Institute “advocates for liberal political and social causes in the Southern United States.” The Institute’s website discloses funding from Democratic mega donor George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Ford Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the New World Foundation, where Hillary Clinton previously served as board chair (as noted by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting).

Ironically, the Tides Foundation offers liberal-leaning philanthropists the same donor-advised fund services that Kotch and Rolling Stone enthusiastically criticize. Federal filings show that the Institute also received “general operating support” from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which was co-launched by Whitney Williams, whom ELLE Magazine described as a close ally of Bill and Melinda Gates and the Clintons.

Kotch went on to work as a Senior Investigative Reporter and Editor at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) from January 2020 until September 2022. CMD is known for its flagship SourceWatch research database, along with similar projects ALEC ExposedPR Watch and BanksterUSA—resources which are generally very useful when investigating activities among Republican-allied corporate circles.

However, CMD has itself been a recipient of anonymous contributions through Schwab Charitable, as highlighted in a 2013 report by the Wisconsin Reporter. A followup article by the Wisconsin State Journal noted that the report “suggested CMD is playing by different rules than the ones it wishes to impose on conservative groups,” going on to further elaborate on the bipartisan use of donor-advised funds.

The website for PR Watch reveals that another CMD donor is the Bauman Family Foundation. As highlighted by The New York Times, Patricia Bauman, who serves as the foundation’s president, also provides funding for Indivisible, a political action committee founded and run by institutional Democratic Party operatives. We previously covered Indivisible’s origin and activities in the current election cycle. Additional funding has come from Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Associates, the Rockefeller Family Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Turner Foundation, founded by the globally-influential media mogul and father of CNN, Ted Turner.

Interestingly, the SourceWatch page for the Democratic National Committee was deleted in September 2016, as revealed in the page’s activity logs. This was done in the heat of the 2016 presidential race, and not long after the Democratic nomination was seized from Bernie Sanders. An archived version from April 2015 is available on the Wayback Machine.

Kotch’s work has appeared in a variety of other institutional outlets whose allegiances are more well known, including The New York Times, the AtlanticSalonVICE, and Media Matters for America (whose history and backers we’ve also previously covered). Also of note is his work for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a controversial “anti-racism” organization which reportedly “suffers from a ‘systemic culture of racism and sexism within its workplace,’” according to a 2019 CNN article. It also has a long history of stashing away much of its hundreds of millions of dollars in the tax-sheltered Cayman Islands and Bermuda, as reported in 2012 by the Daily Kos and as recently as April 2020 by the Washington Free Beacon. Finally, as with other organizations for which Kotch has worked, annual filings from the SPLC compiled by the Center for Public Integrity reveal that the organization has received millions of dollars over the years through the donor-advised funds run by Fidelity, Schwab Charitable, and Vanguard.

The rest of the team at OptOut Media share many of these same hypocrisies and political conflicts of interest. Co-author and co-founder, Walker Bragman, also writes for the Center for Media and Democracy, as well as Truthout, an “independent” non-profit outlet paid for by the Rockefeller Family Fund. Further funding for Truthout is routed through the Bright Funds Foundation, which hosts various donor-advised funds on its platform, along with those hosted by Fidelity CharitableVanguard Charitable and the Oregon Community Foundation.

OptOut Media’s climate editor, Amanda Magnani, continues the trend. She contributes to The New Humanitarian, which discloses funding by the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s Humanity United, and Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

As is often the case, these are examples of people and organizations whose corporate profiteering is under threat by a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. presidency. In 2021, Magnani received a fellowship from Climate Tracker, another ostensibly “pro-climate” organization funded by the world’s largest corporate-funded supranational organizations: the United Nations Development Programme, UNESCO, and once again, Open Society Foundations. A list of the United Nations’ corporate funders can be viewed on the Campfire Wiki, a project of Operation Uplift.

In summary, the authors at OptOut Media Foundation appear to have used their article published in Rolling Stone to continue a well-documented history of accusing others of doing precisely what their employers do on a daily basis.

While there is no doubt that “dark money” continues to be a problem in American politics, authors Kotch and Bragman miss the mark by attempting to conflate it with the unproblematic and unremarkable fundraising activities of non-profits like Children’s Health Defense, the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) and the Brownstone Institute.

Rather than engage with the policies and politics of their real target, Kennedy, the authors demonstrated a willingness to lean on hypocrisy and slurs such as “anti-vax,” “conspiracy” and “misinformation.”