Media Apply Double Standard When Examining '527' Groups

by Benjamin L. Ginsberg

Think you’re getting unbiased, balanced coverage of politics? Or is there a double standard in the way the media treat Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives? My recent visit to the center of a media storm suggests there is.

Consider this: A $500,000 ad buy made by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth brings searing media scrutiny and “proof” of illegal coordination based on a lawyer (me) representing both the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Swift Boat Veterans; on an accountant working for Tom DeLay’s political action committee; and on a $200,000 contributor to the group who is not a major donor to Bush-Cheney 2004 but who does know Karl Rove.

Meanwhile, the media give practically no scrutiny to a $63-million, five-month, negative-ad buy done by Democratic “527” groups (the Media Fund, and others) with a revolving door of connections to the Kerry campaign.


  • Kerry campaign lawyer Bob Bauer and Democratic National Committee counsel Joe Sandler also represent 527s–not illegal, but doesn’t it deserve a little scrutiny?
  • Jim Jordan, John Kerry’s campaign manager until last November, works for three of the 527s.
  • Harold Ickes, an executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee, heads the Media Fund.
  • Bill Richardson simultaneously chaired the Democrats’ national convention and a 527.
  • Michael Meehan became Kerry’s spokesman after running NARAL Pro-Choice America’s “soft money” programs.
  • Zack Exley went from being a executive to the Kerry campaign.

The coordination law prohibits individuals from “using or conveying” information on the private “plans, needs or projects” of a campaign to a 527 or vice versa. If the media can scrutinize my legal work, which doesn’t even fall under the anti-coordination rules, why can’t they scrutinize these Democrats with equal diligence?

Bob Perry has been criticized and scrutinized for giving $200,000 to the group questioning Kerry’s claims about his Vietnam service and for knowing Rove. But does anyone in the media see a double standard in the lack of reporting on the far more direct connections among major Kerry-Edwards fundraisers who have contributed to their 527s?

These include:

  • Fred Baron, chairman of Kerry Victory 2004, who gave $50,000 to Richardson’s 527.
  • Stephen Bing, John Edwards’s top donor, who contributed $8 million to 527s.
  • Susie Buell, Kerry vice chairman, who raised more than $100,000 for the campaign and gave more than $1 million to 527s.
  • Lewis Cullman, a major DNC donor who raised more than $100,000 for the Democratic Party and gave $1.65 million to 527s.

The point isn’t that they–any more than Bob Perry–have done anything illegal or improper. But the connections of these Democratic donors are far more direct than Perry’s–and there’s been no similar media scrutiny for ad buys 126 times greater than the one Perry helped fund. If the media clamor that President Bush renounce the $500,000 Swift Boat ad is fair, how many reporters asked Kerry whether he would request his 527s to cease their $63 million in negative ads? Also, wouldn’t an unbiased press corps have gotten John Edwards to release his list of major fundraisers, as the Bush-Cheney campaign voluntarily did?

When the Bush-Cheney campaign filed a detailed, 70-page complaint detailing illegal coordination by Democrats, the move produced 14 news articles, with no follow-up. When the Kerry campaign filed an unsupportable charge of coordination about the Swift Boat ads, there were 74 articles, and the pack swarmed.

Perhaps the reason is that, politically and culturally, reporters are far from representative of the voters or politicians they claim to cover objectively and fairly, as shown in a study by the Pew Research Center. That study concluded that “journalists at national and local news organizations are notably different from the general public in their ideology and attitudes toward political and social issues. . . . [N]ews people, especially national journalists, are more liberal, and far less conservative, than the general public. . . . About a third of national journalists (34%) . . . describe themselves as liberals; that compares with 19% of the public. . . . Moreover, there is a relatively small number of conservatives at national and local news organizations. Just 7% of national news people . . . describe themselves as conservatives, compared with a third of all Americans.”

In a 50-50 nation, how do the media square this imbalance with the claim of being objective, fair and nonpartisan? The double standard in reporting on 527s suggests that some of the withering scrutiny visited on the Swift Boat veterans should be directed inward.

Mr. Ginsberg, a partner in the Patton Boggs law firm in Washington, D.C., formerly served as chief outside counsel to the Bush presidential campaign. Before becoming a lawyer, he worked five years as a newspaper reporter. A version of this article appeared in the Washington Post.