A Media Matters analysis of newspaper coverage of anonymously donated "dark money" in three battleground states shows that secret money's growing influence on elections has not necessarily translated to more awareness in the media. While some news outlets are reporting on the influence this new influx of money is having on politics, others are merely providing a platform for dark-money groups to further their causes.
The term "dark money" is used to describe organizations that do not disclose the identity of at least some of their donors and that use money from these anonymous donors to fund political ads, mailers, and staff to try to influence voters and policymakers. Even spending by these groups may be shielded from disclosure, depending on the type of ad they run. Dark-money groups focus heavily on specific policy outcomes and try to connect candidates to their desired outcome through advertising. These groups protect their donors by never officially endorsing a candidate and by limiting their political activity. This allows them to be classified as "social welfare" organizations under the tax code, which means they do not have to disclose their funding.
Spending by dark-money groups in this election cycle is nearing the $200 million mark and is expected to spiral even higher before Election Day. Much of the spending by these groups is focused on influencing Senate races in key states. Media Matters reviewed newspaper coverage in three states with competitive Senate races (North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Colorado) to see how they are covering this influx of anonymous outside funding. The results show large discrepancies in the quality of the coverage of dark-money groups, with some papers doing a significantly better job than others.
Of the three states analyzed, North Carolina's newspapers provided the best overall coverage of dark money influence. North Carolina's Senate race is expected to set a new record for outside spending, with $55.7 million spent so far, even without counting the non-disclosed money. The Raleigh News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, the two largest papers by circulation in the state, went beyond reporting the existence of the groups and attempted to report which outside groups were spending money on which ads -- something these groups often fail to do themselves. The North Carolina papers also reported on how dark-money groups such as the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are using their influence to lobby for specific policies, such as the group's successful campaign to block a special legislative session on economic development.
The Colorado newspapers' coverage of dark-money activity proved to be far less extensive than that of the North Carolina newspapers, producing just 13 stories since July 15. Colorado's Senate race is also poised to break records in outside spending. The Denver Post's coverage did not go into depth the same way North Carolina's newspaper coverage did, but it did highlight efforts by groups like Americans for Prosperity to influence voters with their door-to-door outreach.
Colorado's second biggest paper, The Gazette of Colorado Springs, produced few reports on dark money during the period analyzed. However, a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News produced a report that covered many of the complexities of dark money. The article discussed outside spending by both conservative and liberal groups and explained the difficulty of tracking dark-money donors and the impact of their donations:
"Nonprofit political groups do not have to disclose donors," Viveka Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics said. "So we could only identify organizations that filed 990s (nonprofit tax forms) and that wouldn't include individuals or corporations, so there are still a lot of donors or donations no one would know about."
[Sheldon] Adelson, the Koch Brothers and many other politically active billionaires and multimillionaires across the political spectrum are able to maintain privacy and give endless funds after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
"TV ads are number one, the overwhelming most important tool in winning one of these campaigns," Ciruli said.
In New Hampshire, dark-money groups have spent at least $4.3 million in the Senate race -- overwhelmingly in support of the Republican candidate, as of September 8. This subject has seen poor coverage from the state's largest newspaper, The Union Leader. While the paper mentioned dark-money groups in 11 articles, and another five articles mentioned the groups and specific policies, the paper's coverage mostly provided a platform for groups like AFP to spread their message and did not explain the groups' attempt to influence policy decisions or the Senate race. For example, in a September 30 article, the paper gave AFP state director Greg Moore a platform to attack the state's budget situation and blast the Affordable Care Act, something the group has also done in its advertising against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH):
Greg Moore, state director for Americans for Prosperity, blamed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for much of the shortfall in the two-year budget plan.
"The legislature gave the administration $57 million from the last, fiscally-responsible budget to spend, and expected that surplus to last for the entire, two-year budget, but Governor Hassan took her eyes off the ball and spent even more," Moore said. "Keeping within the budget takes strong executive action and discipline, but we aren't seeing that right now in Concord."
While the use of dark-money groups is not one sided, conservative groups are far more likely to use this route to shield wealthy donors and ensuing spending. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted, in this election cycle, "Overall, 80 percent of pro-Republican nonparty expenditures came from dark money groups, compared to 32 percent of outside spending favoring Democrats." This is not a new trend for conservative supporters, as spending by nondisclosing groups has clearly favored Republican candidates over the past four election cycles:
The problem with dark-money groups, as the Brennan Center's analysis noted, is that "the lack of transparency in the majority of outside spending in competitive races leaves voters unable to evaluate the political messages they see" and that these groups "threaten to make a mockery of contribution limits and their prophylactic effect on corruption and influence buying." This sentiment was echoed by University of Louisville political science professor Laurie A. Rhodebeck in the Los Angeles Times, saying that the flood of dark-money spending is "detrimental to voters because if they don't know who is behind the money, they can't judge whether to trust the ad or not."
The scale of the problem is considerable. The Boston Globe reported on October 22 (emphasis added):
The impact is visible online and on television. One of every 16 television ads in US Senate races from January 2013 through August were paid for by a single group, Americans for Prosperity, according to the nonpartisan investigative Center for Public Integrity and advertising tracking service Kantar Media. AFP serves as a nonprofit advocacy arm of the political network backed by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
The Brennan Center found that during the 2012 election, "three-quarters of outside expenditures were made after September 30, and one-half were made in just the last three weeks of the campaign." This suggests that newspapers in these key battleground states still have the opportunity to report on how dark money is influencing their elections.
Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts of the top newspapers (by circulation) in three highly contested states. The papers analyzed were North Carolina's News and Observer in Raleigh and The Charlotte Observer, New Hampshire's Union Leader, and Colorado's Denver Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette. The Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's second largest newspaper, was excluded because it is not in the Nexis database. The search term "((outside or independent or nondisclos! or non-disclos! or undisclosed or dark or secretive) w/5 (money or expenditure or spending)) or (Americans for Prosperity) or (Crossroads GPS) or (U.S. Chamber of Commerce) or (Patriot Majority USA) or (Concerned Veterans for America) or (Freedom Partners)" was used to search for reports on dark-money spending from July 15, 2014, when the Federal Election Commission's quarterly report was released, through October 24. While dark-money groups do not have to disclose all spending to FEC, as other groups do, this date aligns closely with the increase in outside spending.
North Carolina's three largest papers by circulation gave little news coverage to the Medicaid coverage gap, or the number of North Carolinians who make too much for Medicaid without expansion but not enough for affordable coverage on the exchanges, mentioning the gap in only 8 out of 80 news articles since the end of the previous legislative session. 28 percent of uninsured North Carolinans would fall into the gap including 54 percent of people of color.
Over the past three months, major print outlets throughout the country largely failed to discuss rising structural inequality and poverty in the United States while reporting on policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
As conservative legislators in nine states renew the push for restrictive voter ID laws, their efforts have been aided by state media outlets that continue to ignore or misinform readers on the issue.
Republican lawmakers in several states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- have stated that new or more restrictive voter ID rules will top their agendas in 2013. (Republicans control both houses of the legislature in all those states but New York and West Virginia. In Virginia, the GOP controls the House and maintains a 50/50 split with Democrats in the state Senate.) These proposals come just weeks after the 2012 election, in which there was no evidence of massive voter fraud.
A Media Matters analysis of the largest newspapers in each state found that coverage of these new voter ID initiatives has been largely devoid of context about the overstated dangers of voter fraud or of the significant influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy organization dedicated to pushing a homogeneous conservative agenda state-by-state. Only four of the nine newspapers covered the 2013 initiatives at all, and only one mentioned ALEC.
The Charlotte Observer failed to connect the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to an attack on North Carolina's successful green energy mandates, which is being led by state Republican majority whip -- and ALEC member -- Mike Hager. From the December 31 article:
The N.C. House's new Republican majority whip believes he has the votes to stop North Carolina's green-energy mandate - the first in the Southeast when it was enacted in 2007 - in its tracks.
The law says electric utilities have to derive rising amounts of their retail sales from solar, wind or biomass sources, beginning at 3 percent this year and ending at 12.5 percent by 2021. Separate, smaller targets for solar energy took effect in 2010.
Senate Bill 3, as the law is commonly known, is widely credited with creating markets for renewable energy - especially solar power - that didn't exist in North Carolina before it was adopted. Advocates say it has produced thousands of jobs despite a slumping economy.
But Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherford County views the mandate as the government unfairly "picking winners and losers" in the marketplace. As chairman of the Public Utilities committee, Hager would like to freeze it at the current 3 percent level.
The article misses an important point -- that Hager is a member of ALEC, an organization described in the Observer (in an article re-published from the Anchorage Daily News) only a week earlier as a "secretive legislation mill that combines conservative thought with corporate interests." Hager's agenda regarding North Carolina's green energy mandates parrots one of ALEC's current nation-wide priorities. From The Washington Post (emphasis added):
The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank skeptical of climate change science, has joined with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council to write model legislation aimed at reversing state renewable energy mandates across the country.
The Electricity Freedom Act, adopted by the council's board of directors in October, would repeal state standards requiring utilities to get a portion of their electricity from renewable power, calling it "essentially a tax on consumers of electricity."
The previously-mentioned Anchorage Daily News piece expounded upon ALEC's energy agenda as well, describing the efforts ALEC has taken in Alaska and other states to try to "roll-back" the renewable energy mandate by painting it as a "tax." From the ADN:
Nick Surgey, staff counsel for Common Cause, said one hot ALEC issue is an effort pushed by the coal industry and other traditional energy sources to roll back renewable energy targets and mandates adopted by some 30 states, including Alaska.
Backers of the roll-back call the targets a "tax" on power consumers who might have to pay more, at least in the short term, because the capital costs can be expensive. But supporters say they will reduce carbon emissions, establish 21st-century industries in the United States and make the country less reliant on imports.
The Washington Post noted that ALEC and Heartland "accept money from oil, gas and coal companies that compete against renewable energy suppliers." In fact, Hager has individually received campaign contributions from Duke Energy (his previous employer), Progress Energy (now merged with Duke Energy) and Dominion Resources, all of which are corporate members of ALEC.
While the Charlotte Observer provided balanced discussion of the mandates' costs and benefits, the paper's readership could benefit from an expanded vetting of special interest influences on North Carolina's state legislators.
The Charlotte Observer's reprint of an article on alleged dead registered voters in North Carolina omitted critical information about an activist group pushing voter fraud mythology that were included in the original story, including its ties to a national voter suppression organization.
The paper, which cut its full-time statehouse reporting staff earlier this year, relied on an article published a week earlier in Raleigh's News & Observer to inform its readers on the efforts of the Voter Integrity Project of NC (VIP-NC) to challenge the status of thousands of North Carolina voters. The Charlotte Observer did not print the Raleigh report in full, however, and omitted significant details about the group's faulty tactics and failed to provide broader context about the issue of voter fraud. On top of this, both papers have neglected to identify the connection between VIP-NC and True the Vote, a national Tea Party-affiliated organization formed to fear-monger about voter fraud.
Following are examples of News & Observer's reporting that The Charlotte Observer left out:
"The Voter Integrity Project has not brought forth any information to show that someone is voting in the name of another, and I think citizens of North Carolina need to be aware of that."
They began with last names, then a volunteer would look for potential matches - for example considering an "Elizabeth" and a "Liz" with the same age and address to be a match.
"It took intuition," DeLancy said. "We trained a lot of volunteers."
DeLancy said he's confident that at least 90 percent of the names he delivered should be removed from the rolls.
The nonprofit group used "fuzzy matching," Degraffenreid said. The death data from the Department of Health and Human Services includes age but not a date of birth, which is essential in making matches, she said.
"The Voter Integrity Project doesn't have really the necessary data to make a determination that a voter is deceased," Degraffenreid said.
Even a full match doesn't mean a registered voter has died. Degraffenreid recalled removing a man who matched on first, middle and last names, date of birth and county of residence who turned out to be a different voter. He showed up to the polls and voted a provisional ballot when he was told he had been removed, she said.
Meanwhile, cases of fraud remain rare. In 2009, the board referred 29 cases of double voting to county district attorneys, according to a board report. Since 2000, the board has referred one case of voter impersonation, the report states.
CORRECTION: Media Matters has identified a serious error that resulted in the omission of several Charlotte Observer columns and articles discussing municipal broadband during the time of this debate. We cannot support our earlier conclusion that the Charlotte Observer did not inform its readers on the issue of North Carolina's "digital divide" over the past two years. Media Matters prides itself on a long history of accuracy in its media studies, and we apologize for the error.
The stupidest "story" you'll encounter all day is the Drudge-hyped "gaffe" allegedly committed when an email announcement that next year's Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte mentioned "great barbecue." Politico, for example, says of the email that went out under Michelle Obama's name, "The gaffe was enough to make you wonder whether the White House had simply cut and pasted Southern clichés to create the first lady's announcement."
What's the problem? Well, according to Politico, a Charlotte Observer noted that the "best" barbecue is not in Charlotte, but in Lexington -- which is about an hour from Charlotte. Politico considered that justification for its snide comments about gaffes and cliches. The Associated Press chimed in, too, with an article noting that the "barbecue center" of Shelby is "about an hour west of Charlotte."
So, in describing Charlotte, a city with two separate renowned barbecue destinations within an hour's drive, the Obama email mentioned "great barbecue." And this is supposed to be a "gaffe" and an indication that someone "simply cut and pasted Southern cliches." Yes, that's stupid because it's utterly trivial. But it's also stupid because it's … well, it's stupid. Even if you concede that it's impossible to find good barbecue in Charlotte, that doesn't matter. People who visit a new part of the country do not necessarily confine themselves to city limits. It's like mocking someone for saying that while visiting Los Angeles, they plan to visit Disneyland. Ha! Disneyland is in Anaheim, not L.A.! Or that a visit to New York City might involve catching a Jets game. Ha! They play in New Jersey!
But don't take my word for it. Let's see who else touts "great barbecue" as something to experience while visiting Charlotte:
"My favorite Charlotte event has to be Time Warner Cable BBQ & Blues! [Sept. 9-10] It's the best of a Carolina tradition with great BBQ, music and fun for everyone to enjoy right in the middle of Uptown Charlotte."
That's a quote from Robert Krumbine, chief creative officer of Charlotte Center City Partners, and it can be found in the 2011 Charlotte Official Visitor's Guide produced by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. (The visitor's guide contains listings for businesses in both Lexington and Shelby, another reminder that they're really close to Charlotte.)
The CRVA also produces a "Taste of Charlotte" sample itinerary to help people "discover all the fun things to see & do in Charlotte." And, what do you know, it emphasizes barbecue, too:
Barbecue is a non-negotiable must-have in North Carolina, so stop by Mac's Speed Shop for a taste of some Southern favorites including pulled pork, ribs, chili, Brunswick stew, and Mac's own delectable mac n' cheese. Half biker bar and half restaurant, this spot has earned a tasty reputation. Connoisseurs like renowned chef Mario Batali and Rick Browne of TV's "Barbecue America" are big fans.
It's entirely reasonable to refer to barbecue when talking about visiting Charlotte. And it's entirely trivial and utterly stupid to mock someone who does so for "cut[ting]and past[ing] Southern cliches." If Politico doesn't agree, they should take it up with the Charlotte Regional Visitor's Authority.
Numerous media outlets seized on a dubious January London Sunday Times report which claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 statement on Amazon rain forests was "unsubstantiated" and without scientific basis in order to attack the IPCC's credibility and global warming science in general. However, The Sunday Times has now retracted that claim, noting, "In fact, the IPCC's Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence." Will these media outlets follow suit?
Criticizing a VoteVets.org ad that accused Sen. Elizabeth Dole of voting against funding body armor for U.S. troops, The Charlotte Observer wrote that "[n]either of the two pieces of legislation that VoteVets.org cites mentions body armor" and said with respect to one of the amendments cited in the ad: "The vote was for $1 billion for unspecified equipment, but body armor was not mentioned in the bill or on the floor." However, the Observer did not note that Sen. Chris Dodd repeatedly referenced "body armor" on the Senate floor while discussing the other amendment cited in the ad.