In his weekly “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
Scoping out the new election economy:
No matter what you think about the court decisions, including Citizens United, that have unraveled campaign-finance restrictions, it’s clear that the resulting gusher of contributions has created an industry of breathtaking scale.
Estimates now put overall federal campaign spending for 2012 at about $6 billion - more than half of Hollywood’s entire box-office gross last year. And that’s only for presidential and congressional campaigns.
So it’s time for a comprehensive report, perhaps from the Wall Street Journal or Reuters or Bloomberg Businessweek, on Elections Inc.
Who are the biggest players among the consultants, ad agencies and ad buyers, mail-order houses, pollsters and media companies? (I noticed that Gannett attributed much of its improved earnings this quarter to political ads on its local television outlets.)
And can we see sidebar profiles of the three or four biggest Election Inc. moguls - the ones who are making a fortune taking salaries and fees to deploy all of this money?
Who’s behind those Ohio and Wisconsin billboards?
Perhaps the most cynical political advertising of the year - and that’s a high bar — are the billboards that suddenly appeared in minority communities in Milwaukee, WI, and Cleveland and Columbus, OH, declaring: “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” Featuring a looming judge’s gavel, the ad warns that the penalty is a $10,000 fine and three and a half years in prison.
Based on the neighborhoods where they were placed and the fact that they simply announce a law that has been on the books for years but that has rarely come into play - because there has been no voter fraud - it seems clear they’re meant to intimidate voters likely to support Democrats. The billboards suggest there are some new laws that could get them into trouble if they show up at the polls.
What’s worse, the billboards say only that the sponsor of the ads is “a private family foundation.”
Clear Channel Communications, which owns the billboards, told NPR last week that the contract allowing the ads to be anonymous “was a mistake” that violates the company’s policy. But, ClearChannel said, it cannot break the contract by disclosing the buyer. (As of this writing, however, the billboards are reportedly going to be taken down.)
The continuing anonymity of the “family foundation” that threw its money around for something like this illustrates a sad irony of the new media age: At a time when there are countless political pundits, many of whom claim to be reporters, filling million of Web pages and blogs and hundreds of hours of cable and online television, why hasn’t some reporter done the basic, if difficult, work of finding someone at Clear Channel, at the contractor that posted the billboards or at the agency that created the ad who might know something.
There have to be dozens of potential sources.
It might take almost that many closed doors or slammed-down phones, but I bet someone would provide a lead on who this buyer is. (A major investor in Clear Channel happens to be Bain Capital - something that might excite conspiracy buffs on the left. But I doubt it would have anything to do with getting someone down in the weeds at Clear Channel Outdoor to talk.)
Another potential avenue could be Internal Revenue Service records of foundations based in Ohio or Wisconsin. It’s a good guess that’s where the foundation is located, and reporting like this is all about testing good guesses. Something in their publicly available Form 990’s could provide a hint of political activity or the kind of political leanings that could lead to the buyer.
Still another path could be to pinpoint the billboards on publicly owned land. The municipality involved probably has to keep records of the revenues it gets from Clear Channel’s sales and might have to make those records available to a reporter (or might want to if the local agency is controlled by Democrats).