The unwritten rule in Washington journalism circles is to never — ever — mention cash. Though the lifeblood of Washington runs as green as a $100 bill, loyal Beltway reporters know that to ascend the career ladder, they must turn the journalism 101 aphorism on its head — rather than doggedly follow the money, they must pretend it either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist as a decisive factor in American politics.
Why? Because covering the influence of money would offend powerful media moguls, advertisers and politicians who rely on the monied system for influence — and in “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” fashion, that’s anathema to today’s D.C. reporters. Additionally, acknowledging the almighty dollar would also force those reporters to admit the hideous and humiliating realities of their own jobs — it would effectively admit that political reporters are not doing God’s work in some venerable system of honest ideas and principles, but that instead they are bottom-feeding in a swamp of blatant corruption and crime.
To know that money is most often written out of America’s political story even as it sculpts that story, is to simply behold most stories about government and elected officials. But if you happen to be on the hunt for one particularly blatant example of the “No Money” rule in journalism, behold the series on the Ryan family being published by the New York Times in the lead up to Paul Ryan’s Republican convention speech.
In the first story, on Ryan’s, Janna, we are treated to a soft-lit fable about an innocent young woman who in aw-shucks fashion miraculously finds herself married to the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee. As the Times tells it, Janna is connected to Democratic Party aristocracy in Oklahoma, and eventually opted to leave the Sooner State to allegedly “dabble in liberal causes” and follow a supposed “interest in social justice and the broader world around her” at Wellesley College. In this magnificent mythology, Janna — through none of the corrupting forces of monied Washington — miraculously obtained a job “working on Capitol Hill for a family friend, Representative Bill Brewster” and there “gained a reputation for being smart and social.” Ultimately, we are told that Janna selflessly decided to “give up her career” to “become a wife and mother in Janesville, Wis., as her husband built his career as the ideological leader of his party in Congress.”
If this sounds a little too much like a fairy tale, that’s because it is — it glosses over the ugly horror story that is Janna Ryan’s career.
That’s right, in a 1,235 word piece, the Times gives readers just one fleeting and gauzy sentence about Janna Ryan’s work as a lobbyist, and then moves on to other more important things – like, say, quoting her friends calling her “down to earth.” Thanks to the unwritten “No Money” rule, there isn’t a single dollar sign in the entire piece, despite her making millions for her lobbying firms. Thanks to the rule, readers aren’t told the sordid details about how Janna became not just any old lobbyist — but a high-powered shill for some of the most powerful corporate interests in Washington. In other words, readers don’t get the true story — the real macabre tale of a politically connected daughter of privilege using her connections to get a D.C. job, then getting moneyed up by lobbying firms, and finally coming out on the other side of the machine as the life companion of one of the most loyal corporate-directed Republican lawmakers in Congress.
A few days after the Janna Ryan hagiography, the Times’ crack political team moved on to her husband — and once again pretended money had nothing to do with his ascent. In this spectacular dollop of revisionism, Ryan is reimagined as an earnest policy wonk who “took an early interest in economics”; who “came to realize that the best place to morph theory into policy was Washington”; and whose alleged principles “placed him outside his party’s mainstream.” Respecting the “No Money” rule, the Times leave unmentioned the fact that Ryan’s record is that of a standard-issue Huge Government Republican and a professional politician who famously traded legislative favors for campaign contributions. Also unmentioned is Ryan’s record as one of the most prolific corporate fundraisers in modern Republican history. All readers are given is newspeak — such as cheery references to Ryan never “miss(ing) an opportunity to network” and Ryan always “highlight(ing) the work of his conservative contacts.” Euphemisms never looked so absurd — and deceptive.
Put it all together, and the truth is clear: the power couple that is the Ryans is one that rose to prominence atop a mountain of cash. Without that mountain, there would likely be no political “power” in the duo. That this obvious truism is apparently too taboo for many news outlets to even mention shows just how much the “No Money” rule now dominates campaign coverage — and how much that dominance deprives voters of critical information.