$tunned into $ilence

Why isn’t the media asking more questions about Obama’s fundraising success?

So far, 2008 seems to be the year of the big, round numbers: the $700 billion bailout, the $10 trillion national debt, or, if you like, the $4 gallon of gas. Now, there’s a new number in play: the record $150 million Obama raised in the month of September.

Just like all those other numbers, Obama’s $150 million isn’t as simple as it looks. First of all, Obama promised to campaign with money raised via public financing, before abruptly changing his mind when he realized he could be more effective without it. The McCain campaign has raised the real possibility that some of the anonymous $200-and-under donations may be coming from foreign donors, or individuals exceeding the $2,300 contribution limit. Throw in a dash of philosophical quandary (what does it mean for the country that the man who raises the most money may win?) and a pinch of history (McCain, after all, is the guy who shared top-billing on a high-profile campaign finance reform bill) and you’ve got a relatively complex picture.

But the coming out party for Mr. $150 Million has been largely devoid of these questions. Instead of raising and, heaven forbid, addressing these serious issues, so far the story about the money has been brimming with wow!

Oh, goodie! proclaimed the Los Angeles Times:

With Obama’s $150 million from September plus $49 million raised by the Democratic National Committee, the Democrats have a vast cash advantage heading into the Nov. 4 election. Obama can go on offense in states that Republicans must hold and still spend freely on costly TV ads.

“It is working out brilliantly,” California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said of Obama’s decision to forgo public funding.

And, yippee! cooed the Washington Post (emphasis mine):

The campaign has raised so much money that it is considering passing some along to Democratic Party committees to try to help grow the party’s majorities in Congress, according to a campaign source.

The odd thing shared by all these stories is their implicit acknowledgement of the larger issues beneath the big number. Something’s going on here, they seem to whisper.

Mr. $150 Million is definitely a big deal says The New York Times:

It is a remarkable ascent to previously unimagined financial heights—Mr. Obama’s September total more than doubled the record $66 million he collected in August—that has been cheered by some and decried by others concerned about the influence of money in politics. The impact on the way presidential campaigns are financed is likely to be profound, potentially providing an epitaph on the tombstone of the existing public finance system.

Concern is good, and warranted. This fundraising milestone has been celebrated as a good thing for Obama and the Democrats, but there are plenty of questions about this election’s long-term effects on the public financing system, which was designed with the goal of making campaigns more transparent and less vulnerable to big-money interests.

The press, meanwhile, has left it to McCain to call for disclosure of the small donors’ identities, as mentioned in The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama campaign has also fielded criticism from Republicans for what they say is a lack of donor transparency. Federal rules don’t require disclosure of donors giving less than $200. Small donors account for about half of Sen. Obama’s 3.1 million contributors.

Granted, Obama isn’t obligated to reveal those donors, but given that McCain has done so (with his dramatically smaller number), perhaps the press, too, should sound the call for greater transparency on Obama’s part. Armed with that information, they could more clearly explore the legitimacy of McCain’s claims.

It isn’t enough to quote Democrats making pronouncements like this one in The New York Times:

Tad Devine, a former senior strategist for Senator John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, said there were plenty of arguments that what Mr. Obama had done was healthy for the democratic process.

“What we’re going to have to figure out,” Mr. Devine said, “is why this is not only good for the Democratic Party but it’s good for the country.”

The answer might be that it isn’t. One reason that small donors aren’t typically disclosed, writes former New York Sun reporter Josh Gerstein, has to do with privacy protections awarded to those donors, and the associated data-mining that occurs after information is disclosed (that is, donate once, and get bombarded with requests for more donations with no ability to opt out of the mail storm).

There are many other problems with the fundraising system. That the McCain campaign is raising these issues does not make them any less valid, and marginalizing them as partisan sniping doesn’t advance the story.

For example, speaking to the McCain camp’s allegations of fraud, the Washington Post offers this insight from the Center for Responsive Politics:

Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, said the Obama campaign could have avoided questions about its donations had it responded. At the same time, Ritsch said, there is nothing to suggest that fake or foreign donations are a large-scale problem.

“It’s very hard to corrupt the system on a large scale,” he said. “The amount of coordination that would be required to corrupt a campaign that’s raised more than half a billion dollars is really just impossible.”

But would it really be “very hard” for an organization to break up a $200,000 donation into one thousand donations of $200? It’s not impossible to imagine. If, say, the Remington Arms Company decided to donate $200,000 to McCain in this manner, for example, the GOP wouldn’t be to blame, but the system’s faults would be exposed for all to see. Taking a serious look at these problems would be a better use of column inches and airtime, than the “golly gee, look at this pile of cash” reporting that has prevailed.

To be honest, I don’t really understand how campaign finance works, and I read the newspaper. For a living. And, I haven’t learned enough about its mechanics as a result of this record-shattering campaign. I’m not holding myself up as a barometer of the media’s success to explore this issue. I don’t know if Obama’s online fundraising is, in fact, “arguably more democratic” as the Times suggests or what to make of the fact that his success could be the ”epitaph of the federal campaign finance system”.

These are big questions and they deserve considered answers. Papers might be reluctant to allocate resources to an extensive explainer piece, but they should. Before the first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi, a reporter at the local paper told me that area schools seized on the teaching opportunity of the election and dedicated the first half of the year to learning about the democratic process. Newspapers, too, have a chance to explore the inner workings of campaign financing. We call that a news peg, and we should use it.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.