by James A. Bacon
Before it sold off its national newspaper division to Lee Enterprises for a measly $140 million in March, Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway owned most of the newspapers in western and central Virginia, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Roanoke Times, the Daily Progress (in Charlottesville), and the News Virginian (in Waynesboro). Reporting by these newspapers dominated news coverage of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and shaped the pro-environmental narrative that ultimately defeated it.
Earlier this month Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s managing partner, announced that it was abandoning the project and, indeed, was selling its multibillion-dollar gas distribution business to…. Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Upon consummation of the $4 billion transaction, Berkshire Hathaway’s energy subsidiary will carry 18% of all interstate natural gas transmission in the United States.
Arthur Bloom, managing editor of the American Conservative website, doesn’t come right out and say that Berkshire Hathaway used its power of the press to force Dominion into abandoning the pipeline and unloading its gas distribution, but he does suggest that such a thing might be possible. In “The Great Virginia Pipeline Swindle,” he writes:
What is beyond dispute is the death of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has now resulted in a substantial acquisition for Berkshire Hathaway, after various people connected to the company have worked to kill it.
Those who prattle about “social justice,” he adds, should pause to consider how many unionized construction jobs have been killed and how much money was made by “private equity creeps” working behind the curtain.
The Bloom article shines a light on Virginia’s changing political economy. Dominion had succeeded in winning critical legal victories, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning an earlier verdict that the U.S. Forest Service lacked the authority to grant a permit to cross the Appalachian Trail. But the power company succumbed, he argues, to mounting political opposition that had succeeded in delaying the pipeline project and running up the cost from $5 billion to $8 billion.
That opposition came in the form of astroturf groups funded by people connected to Berkshire figures, and Democratic politicians who received donations from people connected to the company (the largest single donor to the Democratic Party of Virginia in 2015 was the son of Buffett partner Charles Munger, Jr, whose money supplied more than half of their funds for statehouse races that year).
Astroturf groups, whose funding sources remain unclear, played an important role in the Dominion beat-down. Ted Weschler, a top investment manager at Berkshire Hathaway, is a Charlottesvillian, who joined the company in 2012 and is frequently discussed as a potential successor to Buffett. Weschler, notes Bloom, is a former business partner of billionaire Michael Bills, the Charlottesville resident who once managed the University of Virginia endowment. Bills launched and funded Clean Virginia, which played a huge role in the P.R. assault on Dominion and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Remember Tom Perriello? Backed by Charlottesville money, including $25,000 from bills and $625,000 from Bills’ wife Sonja Smith, the one-term congressman ran an unexpectedly close campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for governor against Ralph Northam. In 2018 Perriello took a job as head of the U.S. programs of George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Clean Virginia is run now by Brennan Gilmore, Perriello’s campaign chief of staff.
Then there was The Virginia Mercury, “a dark money-funded nonprofit journalism outfit” that amped up negative journalistic coverage of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline debate. The Virginia Mercury was initially funded through the Hopewell Fund, managed by Arabella Advisors. The largest single donor to the Hopewell Fund was the Buffett Foundation. Writes Bloom: “We don’t know who the specific donors for the Virginia Mercury are, but given the various Buffett-connected interests involved here, one has to wonder.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Bloom highlights the murky intersection of Big Money, nonprofit advocacy groups, the environmental movement, and the exercise of power in Virginia. These are all topics that have consumed the attention of Bacon’s Rebellion, although I must confess that Bloom has identified links and connections that I had overlooked. As I wrote recently, citizens need to know: Who Rules Virginia? The last remnants of the plantation aristocracy and old industrial-era money have been swept away. Virginia has a new ruling class now.
My biggest concern with Bloom’s article is the insinuation that reporters and editors affiliated with the former Berkshire Hathaway-owned newspapers might have been dancing to the tune called by someone high in the Berkshire Hathaway organization. As much as I have criticized establishment Virginia journalists, I cannot bring myself to believe that they were tools of shadowy financial masterminds. My sense is that, yes, they are incredibly biased, and, yes, they created a narrative and pursued storylines that favored environmentalists over Dominion, but they did so out of their own convictions. They did not need some muckety muck from Berkshire Hathaway to order them to do so. Furthermore, no one has presented a scintilla of tangible evidence, other than the common ownership highlighted by Bloom, that any corporate dictates took place.
So, to answer the question I posed atop this post, it is a coincidence that Berkshire Hathaway owned a key Virginia newspaper chains that opposed Dominion and also wound up buying Dominion’s gas pipeline business.
Where Bloom is totally on target, however, is his laying bare of the connections between liberal/progressive Charlottesville millionaires and billionaires, liberal/progressive foundation money, campaign contributions, the funding of astroturf organizations and, perhaps even the funding of journalistic organizations such as The Virginia Mercury and, who knows, foundation-funded Virginia Public Media.
When commercially sustained newspapers meet their inevitable, not-to-be-lamented demise, who will inherit the world of journalism in Virginia? Who will report the news? Who will shape the dominant narratives of our times? Will Virginia’s new media have any interest in exposing the machinations of those in power, or will they be lapdogs of the new ruling class?
Update: A search of the Virginia Public Access Project finds no record of Charles Munger Jr. having made any contribution to the Democratic Party of Virginia. My emails to Bloom have bounced back. This certainly undercuts his argument that Berkshire Hathaway has played any behind-the-scenes role in Virginia politics.
Update: Looks like we were talking about the wrong Munger. Bloom has sent me a 2015 Washington Post article saying that Philip Munger, a different son of Charles Munger Sr., had written checks adding up to $1 million to the Virginia Democratic Party, making him the largest individual donor to the state party in the past 20 years, if not all time. VPAP confirms that Philip Munger, of New York, has donated a total of $1,326,000 million.