The problem for the media is that stories like Pear’s—which focus on relationships, access, and D.C.’s intellectual environment—are less common than articles that are, in one way or another, about money. Some of those stories, like the ones about Duke Cunningham or William Jefferson, concern the exceptions to the rule, the times when votes really are sold. These are “news stories” in the classic sense—accounts of the system breaking down and the public trust being exploited by villains. They are also much better reads than stories about how lobbying normally works, which, Drutman notes, is “kind of boring.” Antique commodes and cases of cash in a freezer will always trump a couple of guys in pin-striped suits arguing.
But there is also another class of news story—what Drutman calls “hand-wavey” accounts—that note that money is pouring into D.C., but don’t spell out how that money is, or isn’t, moving votes. These articles often make use of figures compiled by organizations such as the Center for Responsive Politics, which make data on campaign contributions easier to access, organize, and report on than ever before.
But, Drutman worries, there’s often too little qualitative reporting to back up that quantitative material, and, as a result, a lot of questions go unanswered: “What are these lobbyists doing? How are they making the case? How are they changing minds? Are they changing minds? Or does everybody already buy into the banking industry’s story more or less, because that’s the only story that they’ve been hearing for their entire time in Congress?”
His plea is, essentially, for reporters to do more reporting. “I think the story that needs to be told is just following around both members of Congress as they’re being lobbied, and lobbyists as they’re lobbying members of Congress and seeing what is happening on a day-to-day level that may or may not be moving particular key votes.”
That may be easier said than done. In this case, though, the Times’s Pear delivered something very much like it—and, in the process, helped show readers how the business of lobbying works.