Progressive Local News
By Jeremy David Stolen
Perhaps you've seen the billboard on Hawthorne with the photo of a cherubic little girl waving an American flag, and the words, "What makes us great. Unity. Pass it on." Or possibly one with the Chinese pro-democracy activist facing down tanks in Tianneman Square, and the caption, "Sometimes it's a lone voice. Courage. Pass it on." Or maybe you've gone to the Movies 12 in Springfield and sat through a thirty-second "Pass it on" commercial set to America the Beautiful that advertises a soft-focused, amber-tinged version of American life in which small farmers still make a living, people of different races get along, and professional baseball is a sport akin to kid's play rather than a corporate industry full of overpaid prima donnas.
If you've seen these, or any of the other "Pass it on" billboards or commercials, and have been suspicious about their source, youčre not alone. On Feb. 18, "REXELLA" posted to the Portland Indymedia website expressing annoyance ("Gross, isn't it?") about the little girl billboard, pointed out that "The Foundation for a Better Life" is the apparent funder, and surmised, "From the amount of exposure they're able to afford, it wouldn't be a long shot to assume there's big money somewhere. Anybody have any leads?"
As it turns out, several people did have leads that they posted to the Portland Indymedia newswire as they found them. Before long, a money trail was uncovered that led to Philip Anschutz, whom the BBC has described as having "a reputation as one of the hungriest of U.S. corporate vultures." Anschutz owns a vast empire of entertainment and communications holdings, including several sports teams and Qwest. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and GOP candidates, and his oil exploration corporation received permission from the Bush Administration to drill in Montana's Valley of Chiefs, an area which has been designated as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern" and is sacred to many Native Americans.
According to the Foundation's website, the "Pass it on" campaign is appearing on 10,000 billboards, on over 900 television stations, and in every United Artists, Regal and Edwards movie theater in the country. Those three theater chains together have over 6,000 screens, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. total. While this is useful information, there isn't much more on the website, not even how to contact them.
On the Portland Indymedia website, "rEvolutionary [sic] investigator" posted the domain name registration for the Foundation's website, forbetterlife.org, and noted that the "Anschutz Corp" was listed as the registrant. The address was the same as that of the Anschutz Exploration Corporation (AEC) of Denver, Colorado, the company pushing for the Valley of the Chiefs drilling.
IndyMedia journalist "anaisX" added a link to a Box Office Online article that describes how Anschutz used predatory business practices to gain ownership of the United Artists, Regal and Edwards movie theater chains. Suddenly, it made sense that the campaign was playing in all those theaters.
Another IndyMedia journalist, "anonymous activist research nerd," dug into Internal Revenue Service records and found that Philip Anschutz was listed as the Director of the Foundation, with other posts filled by his wife and several apparent family members. "nerd" [sic] also mentioned that Anschutz used to own Southern Pacific Railroad, from which he spun off the much-disdained Qwest Communications.
Further research revealed that the "Pass it on" campaign was created by Jay Schulberg (of "Got Milk?" fame); Nancy Fletcher, President and CEO of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and Gary Dixon, current President of the Foundation. According to an OAAA press release, $10,000,000 of the cost of the billboard campaign is being donated by OAAA member companies, which - when one recalls that Anschutz owns all those movie theaters - begs the question of whether the Foundation is paying much of anything out of pocket.
I wrote to the billing and administrative contacts listed on forbetterlife.org's domain name registration in an attempt to contact someone from the Foundation and heard back from Gary Dixon himself (or someone using his name). I submitted a set of questions to him about the Foundation's funding sources, its connection to Philip Anschutz, and how much of the campaign's cost has been donated. Dixon politely declined to provide any answers, saying, "Our focus has been to put the emphasis on the message and not the messenger."
Queries to Bonneville Communi-cations, of Salt Lake City, Utah, the ad shop that produced the campaign, and to the OAAA, were unanswered.
While some of the individual ads express positive messages with which few would argue (Mother Teresa and the phrase, "Reaching beyond yourself"), others are transparently pro-war (emergency workers raising the American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the words, "No setback will set us back"). Though the Foundation's campaign was planned before the attacks on the East Coast on Sept. 11, it was "expanded upon" afterwards, according to the OAAA. The new additions are easily identifiable. "anonymous [sic] activist research nerd" characterized "Pass it on" as a "vague, nonsensical propaganda campaign;" but perhaps some people are falling for it. Others have taken to billboard liberation-style culture-jamming and have edited signs to send an anti-capitalist message instead.
This is not the first time that private individuals or organizations have helped the government spread pro-war propaganda. The big players in business and government have often been closely connected, if not actually the same people, and those relationships are especially cozy now. But the Foundation for a Better Life's "Pass it on" campaign enjoys a remarkably broad market penetration due to the properties and friends of Philip Anschutz.
And it could get worse. After Anschutz sold his railroad holdings, he retained the right to lay digital lines along the tracks; Qwest's new division, Qwest Digital Media, teamed up with Twentieth Century Fox, owned by the British right winger, Rupert Murdoch, to show digital screenings of Fox's "Titan A.E." last year. Put these two developments together and you get what Box Office Online speculates will be a nationwide digital delivery network. If the Foundation's "Pass it on" campaign is any indication of the content Anschutz plans to produce, then we're in for a lot more slick propaganda spread far and wide. When production, distribution and point-of-sale are under the control of one person or corporation like this, what you have is a vertical monopoly. Standard Oil was busted up at the turn of the last century for structuring itself in this way, but with Anschutz's highly-placed friends, such a challenge seems doubtful in the near future. Eventually, all monopolies crash under their own weight, but they often do a lot of damage in the meantime.
By contrast, the collaborative investigation process that occurred on Portland Indymedia during the uncovering of this story points to the power of a truly democratic medium. The open publishing newswire on the Portland Indymedia website allows anyone to publish their own articles and photos almost instantly, without a meddlesome editorial approval process intervening. In the case of this story, not only did the participants become the media, they also did a better job, collectively, than corporate outlets like the Houston Chronicle and USA Today, which wrote about the "Pass it on" campaign but ignored the Anschutz connection.
Uncovered any good corporate dirt lately? Post it to Portland Indymedia, and youčll have comrades to help you find more and an audience to see it. portland.indymedia.org.
Jeremy David Stolen is a former Portland Indymedia journalist who is currently organizing an Indymedia site in the Eugene-Springfield area. He is a regular contributor to The Portland Alliance. Contributors to Portland Indymedia for this story include: anaisX, anonymous activist research nerd, drew, Erik, know the truth, Madison (Wisconsin) Indymedia, Lefty, REXELLA, and SWT.