In some circles it’s taken for granted that money corrupts. But how much for granted should we be taking it?
For instance, last month Lisa Rosenberg wrote for Sunlight that without additional election spending disclosure we are headed toward the “corruption of our democracy by secret campaign spending.” And MAPLight.org describes its mission as being a watchdog for when “[e]lected officials collect large sums of money to run their campaigns, and they often pay back campaign contributors with special access and favorable laws.”
I certainly don’t doubt that money can corrupt, especially systemically. My favorite open secret is that Members of Congress are assigned to committee in part by how well they have fund-raised for the party (which to me sounds like a simple bribe).
But where I get worried is when an organization’s reporting arm gets caught up in reporting only on one side, making the body of evidence appear to support that corruption is wide-spread when in fact it is the exception rather than the rule, let alone a systemic problem.
What prompted me to write this was actually a blog post over at the Center for Responsive Politics that exemplifies exactly the type of reporting that is often missing. Megan Wilson writes on OpenSecrets today that “General Motors’ Political Committee Cut Big Checks to Lawmakers Who Voted Against Company’s Bailout.” Wison calls it “ironic,” that GM’s PAC seemed to be promoting candidates against its own interests. Well, not exclusively but at least two-to-one (“$63,500 to [congressmen] who voted against federal assistance for the company. That’s more than one-third of the overall amount GM gave to all House candidates this election cycle.”).
Ironic is one way to look at it. But more interesting to me is that of all times you might think we would see some easily understood evidence of a corrupting influence of money, lo and behold we see clearly that that’s not the case.
There is hope for our system after all.
I’m going to take a little shot at a post Wilson wrote in September, “Journalists, Media Professionals Donating Frequently to Federal Political Candidates this Election Cycle“. She wrote, “235 people … identified themselves on government documents as journalists, or as working for news organizations, who together have donated more than $469,900 to federal political candidates, committees and parties during the 2010 election cycle … with the median amount donated coming in at $500.”
As she noted, many of the donations came from those employed by “lighter fare” such as ESPN, or were employed in a non-reporting (i.e. business) role. She provided a spreadsheet of the numbers she used. When I looked over it, to me it appeared as if around half of the contributions were from individuals whose job description clearly indicated there was no conflict of interest: science writers, radio talk show hosts, etc.
If you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt here, or even if you don’t, we’re talking about about 100-200 people nation-wide who were journalists who might have made a conflict-of-interest mistake. That sounds pretty good to me! Where’s the reporting on the other 90,000 journalists that abstained from contributing to a candidate? Is there any substantial impact on reporting or on policymaking that resulted from any of these so-thought bad contributions? I doubt it. (If any of the contributions were in any sense nefarious, they are from people who do more political damage by what they report, rather than by who they give money to.)
So, those are my thoughts tonight.