COLORADO—The first rule of reporting is to be skeptical, or—maybe you’ve heard this one before?—if your mother says she loves you, check it out.
And checking it out is particularly essential in political reporting.
Two news organizations here in Denver were reminded of that old journalistic saw following a quarterly campaign fundraising deadline earlier this month. If a campaign says it has raised $X, check it out. (And, preferably, before you run with a story.)
April 15 was the deadline for Congressional candidates to file reports with the FEC detailing how much they’ve raised (and, from whom) and spent (and, on what) in the first three months of this year. And yet, on April 10, the Associated Press reported out of Denver (a report picked up by the Denver Post) that Joe Coors Jr., who is hoping to unseat the incumbent in Colorado’s
2nd 7th Congressional District, had outraised his Democratic opponent by $77,000. The AP’s lede (emphasis mine):
Republican congressional candidate Joe Coors Jr., of the famed Coors family, disclosed impressive fundraising figures Tuesday, leaping over incumbent Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter by more than $77,000 since announcing his candidacy.
Coors’ campaign said Tuesday he raised about $449,300 for the period that ends April 15 .
Perlmutter’s campaign said he’s expected to report later next week that he raised about $371,600.
Those top line figures—as one could confirm once Coors’s and Perlmutter’s reports were filed and available online several days later—were accurate. Problem is, those figures alone didn’t (do they ever?) tell the whole story—in this case, that nearly half of Joe Coors’s $449,300 haul came from Joe Coors. And yet, the story—“Coors Outraises Perlmutter”— was already written, as hand-fed to the press by the Coors campaign days before reporters had access to the full filings.
Coors’s opposition complained, with justification, that the story misled readers, inflating Coors’s popularity by implying supporters gave him twice as much financial help as they in fact did. (Now, looking at Perlmutter’s full filing reveals that individual supporters gave him less than half of his quarterly haul and the rest—more than half—came from a long list of political action committees with familiar names like Raytheon and Goldman Sachs. Another story not told by the top-line numbers).
A week after the AP report ran in the Denver Post, the Post’s editorial page director, Curtis Hubbard, to his credit, addressed the misstep in a blog post. “When wealthy politicians tell you about their impressive fundraising, ask how much lighter they are in the wallet,” Hubbard began. (Or, better still, I’d say, find out for yourself—by scanning the actual FEC reports—how much lighter they are in the wallet).
In the digital age campaigns regularly send out press releases spinning their numbers in advance of the report actually being filed with the FEC (and subsequently made available to reporters online) to see if anyone takes the bait.
Earlier this month the Coors campaign sent out a release on its fund-raising, and The Associated Press and all who ran their story, including The Denver Post, swallowed hard
[the Post’s] Lynn Bartels, with the benefit of the complete filing, pointed that out in her story this morning.
Reporters ought to wait until they have “the benefit of the complete filing” (as opposed to just the spin from a campaign) to write any story about fundraising totals. That way, they can offer readers more than merely the one-dimensional, “Candidate X Outraised Candidate Y” (the typical and typically unhelpful approach, as I wrote earlier this month, to these sorts of stories).
The kicker is, this wasn’t the only time this month that the Post did not, in reporting on fundraising totals, note a wealthy candidate’s contributions to himself. As the Post’s Bartels wrote on Sunday:
Monday was the deadline for candidates to file first-quarter reports showing how much money they raised and spent. An earlier Denver Post story about first-quarter fundraising mistakenly omitted [Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared] Polis’ contribution to himself.And, self-contributions account for roughly one-sixth of Polis’s first quarter fundraising haul—and more than half of his fundraising total this election cycle.
As the role of money in politics grows, so must reporters’ attention to the basics of the job. One such basic ought to be: don’t file your report on campaign fundraising before the campaigns have filed (and you have seen) theirs.
Correction: This piece originally misidentified the Colorado Congressional District in which Joe Coors Jr. is running. It is the 7th, not the 2nd. CJR regrets the error.