Never believe a political ad

The rise of big-money opinion launderers in politics makes distrust the rational response to everything

Published October 4, 2010 4:55PM (EDT)

I have a suggestion for anyone who sees a political advertisement in the next month before Election Day. Assume it's nothing but lies.

You should assume the falsehood of these messages because at least some of the people aiming them at you are too dishonorable to tell you where they got their money. They are opinion launderers. They are poisoning what's left of the American political system.

Assuming the falsehood of all political advertising is the only short-term defense we can mount against this 21st century media plague: the onslaught of ads run by groups that have serious-sounding names but are often funded by unnamed people and corporations that want to tilt elections to their own ends.

Opinion laundering isn't new. It's been practiced by wealthy individuals and companies for years; read the New Yorker's recent piece on the Koch brothers, the billionaire right-wingers who are "waging a war against Obama."

Sometimes the rich and powerful do this in jaw-droppingly stupid ways, such as the 2001 case when Microsoft orchestrated a "grass-roots" letter-writing campaign to drum up support for its monopolistic excesses, a move that backfired when some letters to state officials were sent over the signatures of dead people. (I had some fun with that in the newspaper column I was writing at the time, asking readers for some more creative dead people than the ones Microsoft had used; my favorite was this quote from Buddha: "An OS is able if Microsoft releases it.")

What's going on now is the opposite of humorous. It's dangerous.

It's bad enough that the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate money in the political arena. The case turned on the conservative majority's excessively liberal interpretation of the First Amendment, though it's important to recognize that the constitutional argument was not a trivial one.

Citizen United liberated what the Washington Post called "Super PACs," or "independent expenditure-only committees" that have absolutely no restraints on the amounts they can raise from individuals and corporations and then spend to run attack ads. At least in theory, these groups are supposed to eventually report who gave them the money, the Post said, but the current system invites non-timely disclosure.

What's absolutely disgraceful is the huge growth in 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporations, which require no disclosure at all. As the New York Times reported in late September in a story focusing on Crossroads GPS, a Republican outfit that's one of the prime movers in this category:

The rule of thumb, in fact, is that more than 50 percent of a 501(c)(4)’s activities cannot be political. But that has not stopped Crossroads and a raft of other nonprofit advocacy groups like it -- mostly on the Republican side, so far -- from becoming some of the biggest players in this year’s midterm elections, in part because of the anonymity they afford donors, prompting outcries from campaign finance watchdogs.

The chances, however, that the flotilla of groups will draw much legal scrutiny for their campaign activities seem slim, because the organizations, which have been growing in popularity as conduits for large, unrestricted donations among both Republicans and Democrats since the 2006 election, fall into something of a regulatory netherworld.

Neither the Internal Revenue Service, which has jurisdiction over nonprofits, nor the Federal Election Commission, which regulates the financing of federal races, appears likely to examine them closely, according to campaign finance watchdogs, lawyers who specialize in the field and current and former federal officials.

Politicians attacking each other directly have to say so directly in their advertisements. But the new advocates, the opinion launderers, can launch these attacks in slightly indirect ways, for example, attacking a target's positions on issues in such a way that leaves no doubt that the goal is to unseat him or her.

Our political class refuses to mandate disclosure of donors, much less timely disclosure. (It's too late if we learn that someone has spent millions poisoning the air if the election is already over, and that happens again and again.) Why should they? They're being paid off, with campaign contributions among other benefits, by the interests that like the new system.

This is all about media, too. But media organizations aren't giving this the attention it deserves. To be sure, there have been some honorable exceptions, mostly in newspapers. But in a rational world, a scandal of this size -- the overt and covert buying of the conversation that will help decide our future -- would be at least as important as, say, the latest evidence that a certain Senate candidate in Maryland had a colorful past.

One reason for the journalists' inaction is obvious, and it parallels the political class' refusal to deal with this: Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing to big and small media companies in the form of political advertising. When you benefit from corruption, that's a powerful reason to not notice, though it's worth noting that newspapers have been somewhat more willing to take this on than broadcasters, which are raking in the biggest bucks.

In the absence of any action from Washington and most of the media, what can we do? Good-government and transparency groups have been working on this, primarily to push for more disclosure. And they deserve our thanks, but they're not making much headway.

We're probably too late in this election cycle to do much of anything proactive, but here are some suggestions.

First, we should find a way to crowdsource -- that is, get the help of lots of people who can each contribute a small amount of time -- an "expose the opinion launderers" campaign that outs these polluters. I'm not sure it's even possible, given their exemption from disclosure, but we should at least try.

Second, those of us who care about restoring a shred of honor to politics should push lawmakers to require full and timely disclosure. Any donation over, say, $200 should be immediately put online upon receipt. If that amount is too low, I'm fine with raising it; the point is to expose the big opinion launderers, not average citizens who just want to make a point.

Third, as I said upfront, we should actively disbelieve everything we see at this point. Not merely discount it: Assume it's a lie. When the people behind these things don't want you to know who they are, they are either cowardly or dishonest. Probably both, and they deserve your contempt.

This story has been changed since publication: A photo caption referred to Karl Rove as a founder of the group American Crossroads. A spokesman for the group says Rove was not a founder and has no formal ties to the group.

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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2010 Elections