Last week, I wrote up how The New York Times wrote a demonizing obituary about Harold Simmons, a major MRC donor. NPR’s Peter Overby slimed him after he died as some sort of pioneer of negative advertising. His obituary highlighted how he “backed Swift Boat ads.” I discovered another obvious contrast in obituaries when I came across this piece on Peter Lewis in The Washington Post from November 26:
“Peter Lewis, the longtime head of Progressive Corp., died Saturday at age 80,” wrote Sean Sullivan. “In the business world, Lewis will be remembered for growing a modest automobile insurance company into one of the nation's biggest operations. In the political realm, he'll be remembered for being one of the biggest liberal mega-donors in history.”
Most importantly, in comparison to “Swift Boat” Simmons?
Lewis invested heavily in trying to help now-Secretary of State John Kerry get elected president and boost Democratic causes in 2004. He donated more than $23 million to liberal "527" groups during the 2004 election, according to the Center For Responsive Politics, including $16 million to the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, an organization that spent big money to try to defeat then-President George W. Bush. That year, Lewis also gave big donations to causes ranging from protecting the environment, to advancing gay rights and reforming marijuana laws.
Lewis was also a major funder of the ACLU. So how did the New York Times report on his “liberal mega-donor” ways a few weeks ago?
The obituary writer was the same as for Harold Simmons, Emma G. Fitzsimmons. The November 25 headline didn’t say “Backed Anti-Bush Ads.” It was “Peter B. Lewis, Philanthropist Who Led Progressive Auto Insurance, Dies at 80.” Fitzsimmons began by describing him as “an outspoken and sometimes quarrelsome supporter of liberal causes and the arts,” but the L-word then vanished.
Politics came back up in paragraph seven:
But over the years, Mr. Lewis drew more attention for his philanthropic efforts. He gave away almost half of his $1 billion fortune to various causes, including the Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union, and he famously ended his large donations to the Guggenheim Museum after clashing with its director.
In recent years, he had focused on efforts to legalize marijuana, a campaign he said he supported after using the drug to manage the pain when he had part of a leg amputated in 1998.
Then in paragraph 20, there’s a bit of copy his 2004 spending spree: “Mr. Lewis contributed millions of dollars to Democratic campaigns, but he grew frustrated after John Kerry lost his presidential bid in 2004. He had given more than $20 million to Democratic-oriented groups that year. After that, he turned his attention to financing groups that would set up a permanent infrastructure for Democrats.”
It was mostly focused on his other philanthropic efforts, not the liberal causes.
What about NPR? There was no hate-editorial like Overby’s on Simmons. There was this mention by NPR’s Mara Liasson in mid-2012 that made Lewis look like a critic of negative ads, even as he funded all kinds of attacks on Bush in 2004, including MoveOn.org ads:
MARA LIASSON: It's an ambivalence President Obama famously shared. After telling independent groups to stand down in 2008, he welcomed them back this year. But that hasn't overcome the hesitation of liberal billionaires like Peter Lewis. His spokesman, Jen Frutchy, says Lewis would rather fund progressive think tanks and media groups than television ads.
JEN FRUTCHY: On superPACs, he really believes that the idea of spending fortunes to denigrate opponents is deeply offensive. That is just is not how he wants to spend his fortune, you know, in some kind of arms race. He does not want to be part of the negativity or any kind of corrupting influence that money can have on the electoral process.