Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Hill Spews Squid's Ink All Over Campaign Money Story

"Mainstream" journalism--that which emanates from what our conservative friends insist is the "liberal media"--has many damnable practices. Its obsessed with trivialities--endless acres of trees die and barrels of ink are wasted on tales of the private lives of celebrities, countless hours of airtime are devoted to so-called "human interest" stories like the current one about the rescue of the Chilean miners (which, with a national congressional election looming, has been the top news story for weeks). Such stories, which don't affect anyone on earth other than those few directly involved, are used to replace hard news about real subjects that really matter and that affect everyone. Then, there's "he said/she said" reporting, wherein news reports only showcase conflicting claims, while making no effort to ascertain the truth behind them. This leaves the news consumer with the (usually false) impression that either claim may be true, and lets him choose what he wants to believe based on his own biases, rather than on facts. Our press also gives us regular doses of false equivalence. This is a con-game wherein Subject A lies like a rug about everything, but, in reporting his lies, the journalist feels the need to "balance" his story by including a lie or two from Subject B, his opponent. Subject B's few, usually minor, sometimes imaginary lies are thus made the equivalent of Subject A's real, massive, ongoing, comprehensive lies, leaving the impression that "they all do it," and that it's all just the same.

Just yesterday, I was writing/ranting about a story that has gotten far too little coverage in the press. This election cycle has seen an unprecedented influx of money being funneled through outside groups, many of which don't publicly disclose the source of these funds. There have been allegations that some of this money may be coming from foreign sources. Whatever the sources, though, it's a matter of inherent (and grave) concern for everyone with any sense of responsible citizenship that there's this historically unprecedented influx of cash from utterly unknown sources aimed at manipulating the outcome of a federal congressional election. It's a documented fact that Republicans are the overwhelming beneficiaries of this secret money this year. In that sense, the story does have a partisan character, but it gets that character because that's who is benefiting from the money, not because some partisan decreed it. Republican elected officials willingly made themselves accomplices to this by standing, as a monolith, against changing the law in such a way as to force these shadowy groups to disclose the source of their funds (as everyone else must do).

As I was writing here yesterday, it has been almost impossible to get the "mainstream" press to cover any of this, and when it has, it's handling of it has often been horrendous. Today offered up another specimen of that sort of horrendous reporting, a textbook example of That Damnable False Equivalence that seemed worthy of showcasing. It comes to us from the Hill, an article by Michael O'Brien and Hayleigh Colombo under the heading "Democrats Have Raised $1 Million From Foreign-Affiliated PACs." If the title doesn't give away the character of the piece, the lead paragraph settles the matter:
"Democratic leaders in the House and Senate criticizing GOP groups for allegedly funneling foreign money into campaign ads have seen their party raise more than $1 million from political action committees affiliated with foreign companies."
They all do it, you see?

Except that, if you read the article, the utter inappropriateness of framing the story in this way becomes immediately apparent:
"The PACS are funded entirely by contributions from U.S. employees of subsidiaries of foreign companies. All of the contributions are made public under Federal Elections Commission rules, and the PACs affiliated with the subsidiaries of foreign corporations are governed by the same rules that American firms' PACs or other PACs would face."
Whoops! It seems these aren't "foreign contributions" at all. They come, instead, from Americans who work in Toyota plants. Unlike with the outside groups, the donors are all publicly identified; unlike with the outside groups, all of the money is openly disclosed; unlike with the outside groups, all of it is subject to finance rules.

In other words, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story of these outside groups and their shadowy benefactors, yet O'Brien and Colombo have chosen to explicitly offer this as a counter to that story. That's how they framed their entire article. They even give a spokesman for American Crossroads--a group backed by Karl Rove that has poured millions into congressional elections without disclosing where a penny of it came from--a platform for an unrebutted rant against Democrats for their "hypocrisy."

The only "story" O'Brien and Colombo really have is that Americans citizens legally donated to legally-constituted PACs that fully disclose those donations, and the PACs then made legal campaign contributions, also fully disclosed.[1] Not that this is unimportant--money given to campaigns in large amounts is always offered as a means of buying influence, and that's never unimportant, and desperately needs much more coverage--but O'Brien and Colombo don't offer it as a story concerned with money in politics. It's structured only as a counter to the story of the outside groups, and, so presented, it has no real reason for even existing, and amounts to nothing more than the journalistic equivalent of squid's ink, something squirted into the water only to muddy it so the squid that has been caught can escape.[2]

That this kind of story isn't at all unusual doesn't render it any less disgraceful.


[1] And, of course, both parties draw from these PACs, with Democrats getting slightly less than twice what Republicans get.

[2] I post, from time to time, over at the conservative site "The Next Right," and the Hill story has already been thrown at me, by one of the conservative posters, as a counter to my rant from yesterday. The comments section of the original story at the Hill site is packed with dozens of similar responses. The article's target audience perfectly understood its purpose.


'Niceguy' Eddie said...

You know what you call what's left over from when my [Japanese] company pays me a salary, and I pay my taxes on it?

I call it, "MY MONEY!"

So unless I'm a foreign firm (and I'm not: I'm a single US Citizen) I can do whatever I want with MY MONEY, within the bounds of Federal and State Laws, including donating it to a candidate or PAC.

Calling THAT "foreign money" would be like calling what the supermarket does, "EXPORTING," when I buy groceries!

It's completely Right-Wing biased, and it's completely idiotic!


steeve said...

Asking the media to cover an important story well is like asking republican politicians to govern in the interest of the country. I think the only proper action to take towards the media is to seek its destruction.

I long for the day when the media does nothing but stupid human interest stories and celebrity gossip. That way it won't screw up anything important, and more and more people will realize that real news has to come from somewhere else.