Another post in the never ending saga of why media reporting on campaign finance reform so often misinforms the public

We have noted here on many occasions in the past how bad media reporting helps explain public misunderstandings of campaign finance law.

A pair of pieces in the Saturday New York times, one news and one opinion, provide more examples of how this works.

The first is a front page news story that promises to be a lurid a story about “secret” money in campaigns, etc. etc., of the type that have been so common since 2010. But if you really read past the lurid headline about a “mystery” donor and hundreds of thousands of dollars “flowing] to the campaign accounts of powerful political players across the country,” there’s not much there.

It appears a fellow named James Roberts Williams has donated a lot of money to candidates over the years, and nobody knows how he can afford to do so (or, better put, the reporter doing the story doesn’t know how he can afford to do so). Despite the term “mystery donor” in the headline, the donor is well known and fully disclosed. That is, Mr. Williams is fully disclosed as the donor. He may be “mysterious,” but his identity is not a “mystery.”**  Unless, of course, he is a conduit donor, that is, he’s making donations in his name that really come from someone else. But if that’s the case, he’s violating the law already, and there is no proposed disclosure bill that would require more disclosure of Mr. Williams (nor is it quite clear what that would mean to have “more disclosure,” since the presumption in this case would be that Mr. Williams is already violating disclosure laws).
The story offers no hint of any public corruption here, no favoritism in contracting or regulatory waivers or obtaining Department of Energy loans, and so on. His donations have gone to both parties, suggesting there is not some partisan funneling money through Williams. If anything is at all improper – and we must emphasize that we don’t know that, we’re just putting the worst case view on things for the purpose of argument –  it would appear that he was using money from investors to make campaign contributions to attract more money from investors by convincing them he was a political big shot, even though none of the investors actually benefited from any government favors. This, if true, might be a mildly interesting story of relatively small time fraud, but it’s no more a campaign finance story than the Bernie Madoff scandal was a campaign finance story because he bankrupted the JEHT Foundation, which had been a major source of funds for the campaign finance “reform” movement.
On to the second story, an opinion piece by Charles Blow. Mr. Blow, quoting Senator Bernie Sanders (D. Vt.) writes:
According to a report by Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, “So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s only what has been publicly disclosed.” That didn’t include “about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season.”

During a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Sanders put it this way: “What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: ‘You own and control the economy; you own Wall Street; you own the coal companies; you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.’

…If Democrats don’t wake up soon, this election might not just be won or lost, it could be bought or stolen.”

Notice how Blow/Sanders casually mixes up corporate spending and individual spending, contributions to campaigns and Super PACs and independent expenditures, money actually spent and money not raised or spent, to inform us with no particular basis – the leap of logic – that the election is being “bought or stolen.” In fact, while Messrs. Adelson and Koch and Koch are spending lots of money, they’ve spent no where near $500 million between them, and whether they will reach even ten percent of that figure is very uncertain – saying you are willing to spend that money is different from doing it. Furthermore, unlimited spending by the Kochs and Mr. Adelson is not the result of Citizens United, but was perfectly legal for them to do even before Citizens United. Third, all Super PAC donations are disclosed – anything not publicly disclosed was not given to or spent by a candidate, a party, or a PAC of any kind.
There is a story here, about wealthy people spending lots of money, if you think that kind of thing is an important story. But Blow lumps together a host of different concepts, so that many casual readers would likely come away thinking 1) the Kochs and Adelson will definitely spend $500 million; 2) their legal right to do so is the result of Citizens United;  3) much money given to “Super PACs” is not disclosed; and 4) this has bought the U.S. government (though thankfully, it appears that Senator Sanders believes that he cannot be bought, even if he thinks less of other government officials.)
This is, needless to say, not very helpful to the public’s understanding of this complex issue. At the end of the day, I suspect a typical reader who picked up the Times and glanced at these two pieces would come away knowing less, rather than more, about campaign finance.
**(Note: The Times headline now reads “mysterious donor.”)

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