With a series of strong stories, Sun’s Damon shines

Articles ID big-money groups, track transparency battles, and call out a "laughable" ad

NEVADA — One need only look at the last week’s worth of work by Las Vegas Sun reporter Anjeanette Damon to conclude that her recent promotion to senior political editor was a wise and well-earned advancement. (But a look at earlier work, too, won’t disappoint.)

On July 19, Damon introduced readers to, as the headline had it, “Seven organizations trying to sway your vote this election.” These seven names—including American Crossroads and Priorities USA—likely ring a bell for television-watching Las Vegans, who have been overwhelmed by their attack ad handiwork this year. With this piece, Damon enabled readers (who may want to clip and save the article beside their TV remotes), to put faces and facts and, in some cases, figures with these names.

Wrote Damon:

These groups with non-descript names, usually including the word “American” or “patriot,” aren’t necessarily working to capture your vote for a particular candidate. Often, they’re pushing an ideology espoused by powerful donors, who, in many cases, they keep secret.

In individual summaries of the various organizations, Damon identified each group’s position (anti-Obama, anti-Romney, etc.), type (nonprofit/nondisclosing, super PAC, both), known funders, raison d’etre, and, when available, information on how much the group has spent or plans to spend. For example:

Americans for Prosperity

Position: Anti-Obama, Anti-Berkley

Type: Nonprofit issue advocacy group, which is not required to report all of its donors.

Major backers: The Koch brothers and their network of conservative, limited government organizations help fund AFP. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has also pledged $10 million to the group this year.

Intent: The Koch brothers have spent decades pushing a libertarian, pro-business philosophy through various political organizations. In 2010, AFP played a key role in helping Republicans take over the House.

In Nevada, the group will play heavily in both the Senate and presidential races. So far, they’ve spent $700,000 on air, with plans for more. But AFP isn’t just on TV. It plans to organize a ground game in Nevada, identifying and turning out voters. Today, the organization is launching an anti-Berkley bus tour of the state.

As Damon pointed out, these groups aren’t all backed by conservative big-spenders. Her list also included the Patriot Majority (founded by Craig Varoga, a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and “heavily funded by labor unions”) and Priorities USA, “co-founded by former Obama press secretary Bill Burton and former Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala” with major funders including “labor unions and Hollywood millionaires.” (Damon’s piece would have been even more useful to readers had the online version included more links. Each group got a link to its own web site, but readers could have used links to, say, each group’s spending data at OpenSecrets.org—there is one such link in the piece and one other, inexplicably un-linked reference to such data.)

While many of these groups try to shield their funders’ names from public view, Damon pointed out—in a different story, published Monday—that one such nonprofit organization may be forced to disclose its donors thanks to a Nevada state law. She wrote:

Americans for Prosperity spent tens of millions of dollars on the 2010 election and will spend tens of millions more this year to see conservative advocates of limited government elected—all without revealing any of its contributors.

Taking advantage of a complex web of federal laws, the group, founded and financed by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, has successfully kept its donors secret.
But when AFP decided to wade into a Nevada Senate primary in June, it may have triggered a state law that could open its donor list to the public.

In a complaint filed Thursday, the Nevada Democratic Party asked Secretary of State Ross Miller to investigate whether the nonprofit organization must report the contributions it received to fund mailers attacking state Senate candidate Kelvin Atkinson, a Democratic assemblyman from North Las Vegas.

Secretary of State Miller, as Damon noted, is suing others that he feels have run afoul of this state law. But, Damon added, those cases are tied up in court, so any resolution—including of this latest complaint—this year (before, as Damon wrote, “the elections the groups sought to influence”) is highly improbable.

Finally, Damon wrote this week’s installment of “Line of Attack,” the Sun’s relatively new factcheck-like feature in which the paper “will parse a political attack, looking at the strategy behind it, how the campaign is delivering it and what facts support or refute it, [and]…assign it a rating on the fairness meter: Legit, Eye Roll, Guffaw, Laughable or Outrageous.” To the Romney campaign’s presentation, including in an attack ad, of snippets from a recent Obama speech in Roanoke, VA, Damon assigned a “laughable” rating, noting that “this is a classic example of cherry-picking a speech for comments to wield as an out-of-context sword in a campaign ad”—before providing readers with that missing context. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker came to a similar conclusion this week, assigning the ad in question “three Pinocchios.”)

With this item, Damon gave Sun readers far more than readers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal got—a brief summary of the ad, its claims, the strategy behind it, and links to the ad and to the full Obama speech from which the ad (misleadingly, though the Review-Journal doesn’t get into this) lifts.

Such journalism goes well beyond the basics by providing information and analysis that Nevadans can actually use to make informed decisions at their polling places. Yes, such efforts take more time, but the value of the reporting soars.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.