This week has been been declared “Sunshine Week” by a coalition including the American Society of News Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Bloomberg LP, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundations. The goal is to celebrate “open government” and access to public information. Some version of this event has been celebrated for the past 10 years.
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner offers an interesting observation about the ostensibly corrupting influence of money in politics, and how this scourge is covered by the media: the Right-leaning Koch Brothers receive far more media attention than the deliberately “obscure” left-wing Tides Foundation – 1,130 hits on the New York Times website for the Kochs, versus only 64 for Tides – but the Tides Foundation actually donates over five and a half times as much money to activist causes.
Consider these numbers, derived from multiple searches of foundation grant databases, IRS Form 990s and other public records:
Three Koch foundations made a total of 181 grants worth $25,405,525in 2010 (most recent available records). The one Tides Foundationmade a total of 2,627 grants worth $143,529,590 in 2010.
Put otherwise, for every one grant made by a Koch foundation, Tides made more than five grants.
There are important qualifications to these numbers, including that the two Koch brothers also contributed to numerous political candidates, there may be other Koch-controlled foundations that didn’t surface in this study, not all of the grants included here went to political or ideological groups or causes, and the two men may have significant influence on yet other foundations not under their direction.
What is crystal clear is this: The Koch Brothers get vastly more attention from two of the nation’s elite media outlets and the grand sire of the “too much money corrupts” school of campaign finance reform than an obscure foundation that bankrolls multiple legions of leftist political groups and causes.
What’s more, as Watchdog.org notes, the Tides Foundation also scoops up gigantic amounts of taxpayer money – $28 million between 2009 and 2011. Emissaries of this foundation visited the Obama White House 92 times last year, and they are noted for employing some very heavy-duty lobbyists. They’re just the kind of secretive big-spending power broker the media would love to investigate to pieces… if reporters didn’t personally agree with its ideology.
This illustrates an important point about campaign finance and transparency. There are, ultimately, three ways money can enter politics. (And it will enter politics – all illusions about “getting the money out of politics” are either fairy-tale talk or veiled efforts to push the American system toward method 1.)
1. The government can exclusively fund and control all elections.
2. Money can be spent fully and freely by anyone and everyone, but with complete legally-enforced transparency.
3. The government hyper-regulates campaign finance through an ever-changing regime of arbitrary laws.
We live in the latest incarnation of Method 3, which has been significantly revised, by both legislation and Supreme Court decisions, dozens of times over the years. (Are we up to a hundred yet?) It makes some degree of sense that regulations would change as new forms of communication, such as the Internet, appear, but that’s not usually what prompts the changes. It’s more likely that the political / media class will detect some form of campaign expenditure it finds distasteful or “unfair” and legislate against it… creating new “loopholes” to be exploited by the next wave of “special interests,” which employ legal experts who dissect campaign finance laws much more thoroughly than the people who write and vote upon them.
“Keeping the money out of politics” therefore becomes comparable to stopping a tsunami with sandbags. The process is also highly subjective: one man’s noble “activist” is another man’s sinister “special interest.” Of course, in the current media culture has some pretty firm ideas about which is which, even though the nature of an interest group’s ideology does not change the simple reality of using big campaign donations to purchase clout in Washington. Among other reliable narratives, corporate interests and champions of capitalism are generally depicted as acting out of simple greed, while the lust for power (and mega-bucks raked in by exploiting regulatory regimes) is ignored as a motivation for selfless, public-spirited left-wing groups.
The media is a big player in shaping popular perception about other organizations that labor to shape popular opinion… or spend millions to buy enough power to over-ride it. In truth, the media is itself a special interest, making immense “in-kind” contributions to favored candidates through its coverage. (Give the government direct control over all campaign money, and the power of the media as the sole external player in political campaigns would increase exponentially. That’s one reason so many Big Media types strongly favor public campaign financing.) No matter what happens next to our tortured campaign finance laws, we will remain painfully distant from an open system in which both freedom of speech, and freedom of information, are fully respected. There are still a lot of very big players the public is almost completely unaware of, even as they are instructed to view some law-abiding advocacy groups as dastardly conspirators.