Follow the Money  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2004

Follow the Money   

The campaign finance beat is important—and challenging. The tangled web of rules that govern fundraising and spending can be hard to penetrate, and doesn’t necessarily make for sparkling copy. How are the news media doing this time around?

By Rachel Smolkin
     

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   » Campaign Finance on the Web

Hundreds of moneyed Republicans converged at the refined Ritz-Carlton Lodge on Lake Oconee near Greensboro, Georgia, joined by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and a couple of uninvited journalists.

On Friday night, April 2, after Bush and Cheney had departed, two Washington Post reporters appeared at the Ritz-Carlton. Thomas B. Edsall and James V. Grimaldi – who together "looked like Mutt and Jeff," the shorter Grimaldi says – walked into the lobby and started interviewing Bush "Pioneers" who had raised at least $100,000 each for Bush's reelection campaign from friends and associates and "Rangers," who had solicited $200,000 each. The Pioneers and Rangers looked uncomfortable. A hotel staffer asked if the reporters were guests, and they said no. They were asked to leave.

They returned the next morning and found discarded papers, including a list of attendees and a schedule of events, in the hotel and in a spacious tent outside. Grimaldi, a projects reporter less recognized by many of the fundraisers and campaign staff than beat reporter Edsall, walked into a session in a windowless conference room and sat down. There, more than 300 of Bush's Pioneers and Rangers were learning that the Rangers would lose their star status, just as the Pioneers had before them. To qualify as a "Super Ranger," they would need to raise an additional $300,000 for the Republican National Committee, where the individual contribution limit is $25,000.

The April "appreciation weekend" for fundraisers and the insights from that session formed the beginning and end of a May 16, front-page Post story about "The Bush Money Machine" by Edsall, Grimaldi and Post database editor Sarah Cohen. It was the first of a two-day series that explored links between fundraising and access to the administration and included a memorable "Spheres of Influence" graphic showing ties between Bush and his fundraisers.

More than two decades ago, Deep Throat advised another pair of Post reporters to "follow the money," and their diligence helped topple a president (see "Watergate Revisited"). Seldom is the link between money and political corruption so clear-cut, and the Post series on Pioneers did not establish any wrongdoing. But the search for connections among big dollars, coveted access and impropriety or its appearance remains a priority at the nation's top newspapers.

The 2004 presidential race has presented fresh challenges as reporters scramble to chronicle not only the mammoth fundraising operations of Bush and challenger John Kerry, but also to understand and document the ramifications of the campaign finance bill that Congress passed two years ago. Dubbed the McCain-Feingold law after its two main sponsors, it raised the limit on individual contributions to federal candidates from $1,000 to $2,000 and banned unlimited "soft money" contributions from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals to political parties.

The money-and-politics beat has yielded illuminating and important stories during this election season, but also bewildering and even mind-numbing accounts. "Confusing" is a criticism leveled repeatedly at the media's sometimes-conflicting political money coverage. Following the money is a daunting and often thankless task, and getting tossed out of posh, private fundraisers is the least of reporters' troubles.

"It really is a thicket of legalistic rules and regulations and laws that are so complicated that half the people involved in fundraising can't follow them themselves," says Grimaldi, who covered the subject at the Orange County Register and Seattle Times before joining the Post in 2000. "Unless you follow it constantly, you're at an extreme disadvantage."

Even for the regulars, it isn't easy. Reporters often succumb to jargon – or ignore it at their own peril. "It's a beat with too many technicalities, but the problem is, when you oversimplify those, you can really distort the truth," says Edsall, who has covered money and politics intermittently for more than three decades. "It's very hard to figure out the balance between readability and real accuracy."

Reporters' intense interest in money – an "obsession" in the eyes of some critics – has led to some misapprehensions about presidential nominees.

"For a profession so deeply worried about the corrupting influence of money, we spend an awful lot of time and energy pumping the fundraising angle – not just following the money, as we should, but allowing money to dominate and frame the entire conversation about who should run the country," National Journal media critic William Powers wrote last July. Noting a wave of stories about Howard Dean's fundraising prowess and sudden viability as a candidate, Powers observed that in assessing presidential candidates, "the media place one qualification above all others: the ability to raise dough."

His commentary proved prescient: After overlooking the former Vermont governor's powerful antiwar message, the media then proclaimed a cash-flush Dean the front-runner, only to see his formidable war chest fail to translate into votes.

Brooks Jackson, who covered money and politics for three decades at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN, says that reporters operate "from a set of unexamined assumptions that are not always correct. For example, 'Money is always decisive.' That's just false, and yet I bet you that every reporter who covers this has at one time or another written stories to that effect." What really matters, Jackson adds, is for a challenger to raise enough money to compete effectively.

Even framing a debate as being about campaign finance "reform" can open reporters to charges that they're siding with groups advocating stricter rules.

"Basically, the Washington press corps cannot be educated on this subject," says Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism. Michael, who opposes campaign finance regulations on First Amendment grounds, except for strong disclosure requirements, says the press is "basically enthralled with the idea that money drives everything." He contends stories hint at corruption "without every really showing the nexus" and argues reporters "often seek overheated quotes from ethics industry spokesmen to suggest the appearance of corruption they can't prove factually."

Jack Shafer, Slate's media critic and editor at large, last July exhorted journalists to purge the "crappy, meaningless" word "reform" from their copy. "Newspapers shouldn't feel obliged to repeat the pointless R word just because politicians label their every action 'reform,' " Shafer wrote. "A Nexis dump and unscientific study of news stories from the past two years reveals the mediocre records the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have compiled in policing the R word. These papers generally treat the word as if it were value-neutral when reporting the campaign finance, Medicare and tort debates."

A Lexis-Nexis search of news stories from the past six months shows improved performances by the New York Times and Washington Post, but Los Angeles Times reporters continue to scatter the "R word" through their campaign finance stories, frequently citing the 2002 "campaign finance reform law." USA Today avoids the word, as Shafer noted in his column.

"There are words that have value judgments implicit, and 'reform' tends to be one of those," says Jim Drinkard, who launched the money-and-politics beat at the Associated Press in 1993 and now covers it for USA Today. "There are people opposed to it who did not see it as reform."

When journalists lean too heavily on the "R word," it is perhaps because many terms associated with the campaign-finance debate are so esoteric. Choked off from the political parties, some of the old soft money is gushing into nonparty political organizations called 527s, named for the section of the tax code that governs them.

Threatened with a story about a subject named for the federal tax code, most reporters would rather flee. "That's why God created the AP," or "It's too inside-the-Beltway" are serviceable excuses. Those who try face inevitable criticism for lack of clarity.

In February, the Federal Election Commission voted to limit the nonparty political groups but stopped short of severely curtailing their activities. Conflicting headlines followed. "Advocacy Groups Win Fund Ruling," said the New York Times on page one. "FEC Moves to Regulate Groups Opposing Bush," said the Washington Post on page 6.

"I remember reading those stories," The Weekly Standard's David Tell wrote March 8, after referencing the Post and an early Times edition with a slightly different headline. "I remember being totally confused by them..the coverage itself was confused."

Nick Confessore, an editor at The Washington Monthly, a politics and policy magazine, expresses empathy for reporters writing about complex developments on deadline, but says of the press' coverage, "It did not give readers a clear picture of the issues at hand."

The Post's Edsall defends his reporting, saying he was a "little bothered" by The Weekly Standard story, which "basically affirmed that my piece was accurate, but it never said so. In fact, one [story] was right and one was wrong. At that stage, [the groups] did not win the ruling and there was still plenty of possibility that there could be restrictions applied."

Times reporter Glen Justice also stands by his story. "You're dealing with interpretations of the law, not necessarily questions of legal, hard fact," he says. His follow-up story the next day was headlined "Final Word Still to Come On Interest Group Money" – a point Edsall made in his lead the previous day.

USA Today's Drinkard wrote a short story that avoided the term "527s," referring instead to "non-party political committees." The headline was similar to the Post's but clearer and more specific: "FEC OKs limits on non-party political committees."

Drinkard explained in his lead that the FEC had taken a step toward "limiting the activities of political groups that seek to help or defeat" Bush and then explained the action in simple, declarative language. "The commission voted 4–2 to advise some groups that they may not use unlimited contributions known as 'soft money' for TV ads, mailings and other communications that 'promote, support, attack or oppose' a candidate for federal office," he wrote.

On May 13, the FEC rejected a plan that would have reined in the heavily pro-Democratic 527 groups. As Drinkard anticipated in a front-page story published that day, commissioners indicated they might later adopt new rules but those would not take effect until after the election.

The next day, the coverage again perplexed. Edsall's lead plainly stated the commission "cleared the way for liberal groups yesterday to continue to raise and spend millions of dollars in unrestricted contributions." But the Post headline proclaimed, "In Boost for Democrats, FEC Rejects Proposed Limits on Small Donors." While all terms are relative, billionaires such as George Soros, cited in the story for giving $7.5 million to two prominent liberal groups, scarcely seem to qualify as "small" donors.

Some coverage of the 527 groups has been clear and insightful. The Post's Dan Balz and Edsall wrote a March 10, front-page story on the parallel Democratic campaign underway by a coalition of interest groups "led by veterans of presidential and congressional campaigns" and "armed with millions of dollars in soft money." Justice wrote in a page-one Times story May 29 that after months of trying to close down Democratic groups, Republicans were "scrambling to set up similar organizations."

And a June 7 Wall Street Journal article by Jeanne Cummings surveyed the top 20 corporate donors to national political party committees during the 2002 election cycle and found that more than half – including Citigroup, Pfizer and Microsoft – were "resisting giving big-dollar donations to the new, independent organizations." Cummings wrote that this corporate reticence "to get sucked back into the world of unlimited political contributions" places Republicans at a fundraising disadvantage against well-financed groups bolstering the Democrats.

As reporters try to explain the volatile situation surrounding the 527 groups, they have come under fire for overlooking the role of other tax-exempt groups. In May, The Washington Monthly's Confessore explored another category of nonprofit organizations called 501(c)s, which include groups such as the AARP and the Nature Conservancy. Most of these groups, established under another section of the tax code, are allowed to raise and spend a limited amount of money for political purposes, including broadcasting "issue ads" about candidates.

In his story, "Bush's Secret Stash," Confessore noted that some of these groups, including the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee, are "vital allies of the GOP." He asked why "the press and campaign finance groups haven't blown the whistle, even as they pound away at the Democrats' 527s."

Confessore then suggested several explanations, including Republicans' success in defining the debate and different disclosure requirements. "Because 527s must disclose their donors and expenditures every quarter, it's easier for political reporters and watchdog groups to blow the whistle on them in real time, issuing reports and press releases about the latest soft-money outrage," he wrote. "The 501(c)s disclose virtually nothing – and by the screwy rules of Washington, no data, no foul."

With such complex issues to untangle and good visuals hard to come by, the money chase remains the province of print journalists. "You don't get TV shots of lobbyists handing big bags of loot to politicians," says Jackson, a pioneer in TV follow-the-money stories and now director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "It just doesn't happen that way."

When possible, Jackson would cover lavish parties at the national conventions or extravagant fundraisers, his camera crew shooting video over fences or through restaurant windows of lobbyists and wealthy donors "sipping Chablis and eating canapes." But he was always at a disadvantage to print. "It's really tough to get the pictures that tell the story."

From January to May, the networks' weekday nightly newscasts devoted a combined 11 minutes to issue ads by independent activist groups including 527s like MoveOn.org; five minutes to presidential fundraising and zero to the campaign finance law, according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of a weekly newsletter monitoring broadcast television news.

Tyndall says the fundraising prowess of Dean and Bush has been mentioned as part of broader political coverage, but fundraising during Campaign 2004 "has been little covered as a separate story." The Justice Department's investigation into alleged abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign generated by far the most television news on these topics in the last seven years – 481 minutes combined on the networks' weekday newscasts.

Lisa Myers, a senior investigative correspondent for NBC, followed the Justice Department's 1997 investigation. In her money stories, she has tried to pinpoint the relationship between large contributions and government action, particularly when such actions benefit only one or two people. Myers finds it easier to translate these stories for television when they revolve around a central character or theme, such as Democratic fundraiser Johnny Chung – who in 1998 pleaded guilty to charges stemming from illegal campaign contributions – or President Clinton's opening of the Lincoln bedroom to big donors.

"There was a tremendous amount of coverage in '97, a tremendous amount of coverage when [Sen. John] McCain was fighting to get McCain-Feingold through," Myers says. She believes TV's coverage of money stories may have trailed off in part because after the Justice Department probe, "the fact that no one of any importance was indicted for misconduct left the impression, I think, that anything goes."

Ironically, the success of McCain and his allies in rewriting the campaign finance laws also may have diminished television's appetite for chasing the money. "The public doesn't really understand and isn't really interested in the details of the laws that govern campaign finance and how money is raised and spent," says Linda Douglass, the chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News. "It's a much greater challenge to get those stories on TV now that McCain-Feingold has passed."

During the 1996 campaign, Douglass, then at CBS News, established a campaign finance feature called "Follow the Dollar." She says before the new law, she could track soft money wending its way from corporations and businesses to elected officials through the political parties. She reported on donors proud to admit they "successfully got the ear of an officeholder" they wanted to persuade.

"Now what you have is a murkier connection between people who give money and people who benefit from that donation," Douglass says. "When you ask me how I get these stories on the air, well, guess what? I haven't done these stories this year."

Douglass says she's tried to pitch stories about the "obvious stuff" such as the activism of financier Soros, but "it's not as clean a hit as it used to be, and we have to be more creative about how to tell these stories on TV." Adds Myers, "It was hard enough when it was soft money, and now you have to explain what a 527 is – hello?!.. It's not just TV. If you read the print stories, they're almost indecipherable. By the time you put in all the nuances and caveats and the denials, they're very difficult for readers to get through."

As journalists ferret out new trends in giving and spending, the Internet provides an invaluable resource. Reporters who once trudged to the FEC and spent bleary-eyed hours combing through microfilm or copying smudged papers now can surf myriad Web sites, including the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org), PoliticalMoneyLine.com (www.politicalmoneyline.com) and the FEC's own site (www.fec.gov).

Perusing the Center for Responsive Politics' Web site, the Wall Street Journal's Cummings noticed that Wal-Mart's political action committee ranked as the largest corporate donor. Curious why the "famously apolitical retailer" had plunged into the political money game, she produced a front-page, March 24 story that explored Wal-Mart's transformation, including its heavy giving to Republicans and to Bush.

"Not only has the number of stories about campaign finance grown significantly because of the Web, but the nature of those stories has changed," according to a 2002 study commissioned by George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. In early June, GW's Institute for Politics and its School of Media and Public Affairs held a conference on the changed landscape of the 2004 election (transcript available at www.smpa. gwu.edu/changedlandscape). "In the old days, just getting the number [for how much cash a candidate raised] was a victory," USA Today's Drinkard said there. "That was news. Now the number's out there and it's easy. So what do you do?"

Drinkard's answer is to adopt a more sophisticated approach, drawing the "tightest picture you can of cause-and- effect, fundraising and lobbying, and then how a donor or that person's business or industry or interest benefited from it."

Although the Internet has revolutionized campaign finance reporting, the press was slow to catch on to the Web's influence on fundraising itself. After Dean shocked journalists by raising more than $7 million last summer, much of it over the Internet, a spate of page-one stories followed.

But Al May, principal author of the GW study and interim director of its School of Media and Public Affairs, says "most of the attention has been on this quirky, coffee klatch society of people meeting and the Internet as an organizing tool." What's been overlooked, in his view, is the Internet's role in spurring people to give for the first time and to give modest sums.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit group Democracy 21 and a major supporter of the McCain-Feingold bill, agrees that while stories covering presidential fundraising have been comprehensive and generally well done, the media are missing an opportunity to explore Internet giving more fully.

"One area that hasn't had as much attention as it should is the Internet success of Howard Dean and then John Kerry, because that is one of the most significant campaign-finance developments in years in terms of its potential long-term impact on the way campaigns are financed," Wertheimer says. "If in fact substantial numbers of candidates can figure out how to raise substantial amounts of money through the Internet, you will have a brand-new dynamic in the financing of campaigns."

Kent Cooper, cofounder and vice president of PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a Web site that tracks money and politics, says reporters outside Washington also could do a better job tracking new trends in campaign finance. With "a national story about 527s, people's eyes glaze over," says Cooper, who ran the public records office at the FEC for 22 years. But a local reporter can tackle fundraising from a perspective more compelling to local readers or viewers. If a local business leader suddenly decides to give $2,000 to a political candidate, Cooper says, a reporter "should talk to the person and say, 'What caused you to give this time around?' "

When wealthy Republicans flocked to the Ritz-Carlton Lodge on the Reynolds Plantation for the "appreciation weekend," Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Moni Basu wrote an April 1 feature about the event, although the resort staff wouldn't release details about preparations or even the "culinary delights." That day, Basu's colleague Matthew C. Quinn waited in the lobby at the resort, reading "The Da Vinci Code" and chatting with guests.

He saw Mercer Reynolds III, Bush's national fundraising chairman and owner of the hotel and golf resort, introduced himself and said he'd like to ask some questions. Reynolds said he wasn't sure Quinn was supposed to be there but sat down and politely entertained a few queries.

Soon after, someone from hotel security asked Quinn whether he was a registered guest. He had spent the night, he said, but no longer was. The official told him he would need to leave. Quinn dictated a brief story to his editor about his Reynolds interview while he drove away.

"Showing up at these events is how you bring it alive," Grimaldi says of campaign finance reporting. He and Edsall showed up the next day after the Secret Service had departed. Before the paper published their story, the reporters called the Bush campaign to read the quotes they were using from the Saturday session and allow the campaign to comment.

"They were quite angry that we were there," Edsall recalls. "They said we had gone into a private meeting and implied that a good reporter would not do that."

"A Post reporter walked into the session, which the campaign described later as an event closed to the media," their story stated. "The speakers 'were under the belief that they were speaking privately with our contributors,' " campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said in the article.

The story described how "Wall Street mingled with Texas" as Pioneers and Rangers sipped imported mineral water and coffee. Travis Thomas, the Bush-Cheney finance director, told those assembled that they could hold fundraisers in their homes, which "are more comfortable for the president," the story said. "And, Thomas added, 'If it is in a private residence, it can be closed to the press.' "

The press has been guilty of some missteps in its money coverage, including a preoccupation with dollars as the decisive characteristic in the presidential race and a tendency toward pro-"reformer" bias in its coverage. Some stories rely too heavily on jargon or fail to offer clear enough explanations for readers not steeped in the arcana of campaign finance law.

But holding presidential fundraisers in private residences or channeling money into more secretive organizations is unlikely to stifle journalists' interest in a beat that inspired a generation of reporters and remains a priority at the nation's top papers. Where the money goes, the press will follow.


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