Paying the piper, voter rights, bias and ‘Ratf**ked’

Who pays for it all?

Our political funding work is at the center of the history of the Center for Public Integrity and no more so than in this election year — though the rise of a candidate “theoretically” less beholden to vested interests has made that approach to money and politics challenging.

Michael Beckel analyzes the latest advertising data from affiliates of the Hillary Clinton campaign to illuminate the funders behind the most powerful super-PAC in the election: Priorities USA Action.

It is so far the primary vehicle for her attacks on Donald Trump’s character with 36,000 TV ads run since May, almost all in the key swing states. As Michael shows from our advertising data project, if you live in Florida you may have been exposed to one of these anti-Trump ads every 15 minutes. 

So who pays for it all? Michael reveals that it is a group of “liberal billionaires” with famous names like George Soros, Steven Spielberg, members of the Pritzker family as well as labor groups such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America. The group’s raised more than $110 million since January 2015. (I also appreciated the way Michael noted that Soros’ Open Society Foundations philanthropy group supports the Center.)

It’s been an ironic element of this campaign that Hillary Clinton is the prime beneficiary of the big spending of super PACs unleashed by the Citizens United case — a case involving  a group trying to raise money to fight her. Here is Dave Levinthal’s strong piece on that irony. And here’s deputy executive editor John Dunbar’s evergreen piece on what Citizens United is all about a piece that continues to draw huge numbers of eyeballs almost four years after it was written.

Take a look at the entire Buying of the President 2016 package from the federal political team, including Carrie Levine. Our news applications developer Chris Zubak-Skees has also updated his presidential advertising tracker.

Dave also had a nice scoop on Bernie Sanders managing to entirely avoid his already heavily delayed income disclosure. It was picked up widely with Dave appearing on SiriusXM and the piece quoted in the New York Daily News (including an editorial), run on NBC and the Huffington Post, among others. It is a good example of how widely Center for Public Integrity stories often travel.

Voter rights from young journalists

Each year in the dog days of August we have had a habit of opening our site to journalism students from the News 21 project hosted at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. It is a terrific program run by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. It’s supported by Carnegie Corporation and the James L. Knight Foundation and we are delighted to showcase the project’s work on our site.

I think it has been particularly relevant and additive to our own work this year because much of the project has been about voting rights and the various attempts to set barriers — often affecting minorities — to exercising democratic rights. For example, this piece on how voting rights legislation may affect African-Americans and this on Asian-Americans. They’re all in Accountability.

Our appreciation here also to our digital editor Jared Bennett, who managed publication of the hefty project on our site.

What we’re reading and thinking about …

Partisanship and bias

We have had some interesting conversations in the office about the implications of the Trump candidacy on our policy of non-partisanship. In my view as a relative newcomer to the U.S his personal comments and platforms — as opposed to Republican Party policy platforms — challenge some of the notions of what it is to stand for the most powerful office.

For example, his challenges to the First Amendment, singling out of racial and religious groups and perhaps his “sarcastic” incitement to violence against his rival. We have no intention of shifting policies and the team is dedicated to tackling both candidates hard, as the investigations into Hillary’s funding shows and the work the team has done on Donald Trump’s team illustrates. Not to mention John Dunbar’s recent “Propagandist in Chief” analysis.

I was struck by this commentary from the former editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Peter Preston, arguing that the Washington Post had decided to abandon impartiality in its treatment of Donald Trump. Preston writes in his column in The Observer in London: “There’s no pretence of artificial fairness here, more a howl of foreboding as stumble turns to freefall in a hapless row over assassinating Clinton,” adding: “The U.S. press that perennially makes a big, often self-regarding issue of its fairness and balance (in contrast to utterly unbalanced cable news) seems to declare Trump a special case where the rules don’t apply.” Preston makes an interesting comparison with the case of the BBC whose bias rules hampered its coverage of the Brexit vote. For what it is worth, I find the Washington Post’s editorial line understandable and committed and in line with the excoriating warning its editorial board issues in this piece which branded Donald Trump a unique threat to American democracy.

Our National Security editor R. Jeffrey Smith calls out this New York Review of Books piece, by noted political journalist Elizabeth Drew, of the of a new book “about how one party (the Republicans) completely mastered the process of gerrymandering over the past decade and shrewdly produced a chamber in Congress that will durably overrepresent their genuine constituency as a proportion of the voting public. It’s a topic that got only sporadic journalistic attention while it was under way, and the book appears to contain some revealing data and emails about how it unfolded. You have to look past the hyperventilating book title, though: “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.”

I welcome feedback on this note.

Peter Bale
CEO, The Center for Public Integrity
[email protected]
@peterbale