Lots of Legs, Slow Chase

Most of our Echo Chamber stories here at Campaign Desk tell the doleful tale of reporters mindlessly repeating and amplifying the same story until it grows all out of proportion to whatever initial event inspired it.

But this is a story about an echo that didn’t happen for weeks — one that should have.

Now that he’s out of his campaign job, Joe Trippi, the Internet and media wunderkind behind Howard Dean’s high-flying debut on the national stage, is back in the news. Over the past couple of days, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others have reported belatedly that Trippi’s decision to dump millions into television ads for Dean may well have been influenced by the fact that his own media-consulting company earned a seven percent commission with each placement. (That’s a common practice in the ad business, where the cut sometimes is as high as fifteen percent).

Nice story, guys — but about three months late.

In brief, the story is this: As devoted Deaniacs everywhere were hitting their send buttons, donating money to the campaign, Trippi’s firm was spending the incoming cash to buy up airtime at a rate that stunned other political consultants — and running through $41 million even before crunch time. What’s more, he was keeping a nice cut for himself. Trippi’s arrangement on the commissions became news when he was fired from the Dean campaign in late January, but the story then died.

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times reported that nearly a quarter of the $31 million raised by the Dean campaign as of December 31, 2003 went to Trippi’s consulting firm to purchase ads. That amounts to $7.2 million. But the Times didn’t take the next step to calculate Trippi & Co.’s take-home pay, based on its commissions from those sales.

A day before the Times article appeared, San Jose Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold delivered a nice explainer about television ad commissions and political campaigns, describing them as “an old-style system of back-scratching between television stations and political consultants.” Wrote Herhold: “In effect, the campaign pays $500,000 - but the consultant keeps $75,000 as a commission, or ‘agency fee.’” (Herhold based his numbers on the usual 15 percent commission.) Not a bad reason for the consultant to keep buying ads.

In a follow-up story today the Times’ Joseph Menn also fails to put the pieces together. He quotes Trippi as saying that he actually lost money because his full-time role in the Dean campaign prevented him from doing other work (and, presumably, generating commissions). Trippi said he earned $165,000, which was his take of the total commissions paid by the Dean campaign to his three-person firm. But again the article doesn’t address the potential conflict.

Today’s front-page account in The Washington Post by Paul Farhi finally delivers the goods, pointing out the inherent problems with the arrangement. As head of Dean’s campaign — and a partner in the company that handled the media buys — Trippi enjoyed a dual role. The more ads, the more commissions. Farhi reports that Trippi’s company reportedly received $700,000 in commissions through the end of January.

Given the fact that Trippi revolutionized campaign financing and mobilization, one might think the conflict of interest issue has legs — in fact, we’re surprised somebody didn’t mistake it for a centipede long ago.


Because details of the commission arrangement with the firm of Trippi, McMahon and Squier have been out there for some time — since November 21, in fact.

A simple Nexis search reveals that the first person to detail Trippi’s dual role was Eamon Javers, reporter for CNBC’s “Capitol Report,” who described the arrangement 11 weeks ago. “One campaign vet told me it’s like the foxes guarding the hen house,” said Javers at the time.

We here at Campaign Desk are old enough to fondly remember a time when a phrase like that would have sent other enterprising reporters racing for more detail, pronto.

That time was called … the Twentieth Century.

—Susan Q. Stranahan

Note: A point in the above post regarding the development of the story has been clarified since it was first published.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.