Some national media are taking sides in this election, pumping tens of millions of dollars into candidates nationwide from the president all the way down to local campaigns including right here in Nevada. The bias is all public record, in plain sight through four federal, state and non-profit databases. According to one database, OpenSecrets.org, communication and telecom contributions to candidates nation-wide ranks seventh in the nation below healthcare, and they shell out more than the energy and natural resource industries. The sheer number of media juicing politicians would make eyes glaze over like a bad campaign ad. So, I’ve narrowed it down to some of the more prominent Nevada races in the past two-year election cycle.
The most surprising tale comes out of the Nevada Secretary of State’s new Aurora campaign finance search engine. A good place to start is Clear Channel, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations. It syndicates right-wing programs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. It’s also majority owned by Bain Capital where Mitt Romney was once CEO. So, punch the words Clear Channel into the Aurora database and you might expect to see a little love for republicans. Instead, you get $26,000 donated to Democrats this election cycle and not a dime to Republicans. It even pumped $3,000 into Nevada’s Assembly Democratic Caucus. Mitt Romney’s own former company is funding the opposite team in Nevada races.
Those donations are in southern Nevada and since there aren’t many Republican choices down there, it may be that Clear Channel just wants to be on team of the people who have won and are in office. It’s the same story in the high-profile race of Republican Dean Heller vs. Democrat Shelly Berkley. Heller already holds the seat. So, as an incumbent he has an advantage. He is listed in the top 20 senators getting money from the communication and electronics industry, a cool quarter million according to OpenSecrets.org. That database doesn’t break down who those donors are, but the Federal Elections Commission campaign finance database does.
CBS gave the Heller for Senate campaign $1,000 a year ago, Clear Channel (850 radio stations) $3,500; Comcast (NBC Universal) $2,500, Cox Enterprises (Newspapers, 15 TV, 86 radio stations), $9,000; National Association of Broadcasters (industry group) $7,500; News America (Fox) $5,500; and Viacom (BET, MTV, CBS subsidiary) $2,500. Total: $31,500.
Now for Berkley for Senate. Cox, $1,500; National Association of Broadcasters, $7,500; Outdoor Advertising Association of America (billboards) $2,500. Total: $11,500. So, if money talks, national media clearly favors Heller in this election. But in this case, the media may be funding a losing battle, backing the financial underdog and a less popular candidate in terms of individual donations. Heller has $4.76 million from individuals, $2.03 million from corporate committees and is banking $6.84 million total according to the most current FEC filings. Berkley got a half million less from corporations, but she is ahead at $8.34 million total thanks to almost $2 million more individual donations than Heller. In this race, there is a clear distinction. More corporations are supporting Heller, and more individuals are supporting Berkley. More media have chosen to side with Heller.
Here are some other notable media donations from the FollowTheMoney.org state database. Cox, the owner of Reno FOX station KXRI donated $2,500 to Democrat John Lee this year. It also donated $4,500 of in-kind contributions to Republican Gary Hosea. Another of its subsidiaries gave $225.60 of in-kind contributions to the Assembly Democratic Caucus of Nevada this year.
The Nevada Aurora database reveals thousands of donations by individual owners of local Nevada media over the past 6 years. Simply searching the word media on Aurora generates nearly 40 hits and tens of thousands in donations. Maybe you are saying, “So what? The media has its own agenda.” Well, many journalists who work under these corporations believe in independence. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, while not binding on anyone, calls for journalists to “Act independently” and “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” including “political involvement” www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp?mobile=no.
Meanwhile, most of the political donations are coming from the top of media corporations. Therein lies the problem. Corporate media political donations create a perception of conflict of interest among the public that impacts the trust of local journalists who are striving to remain independent. And those media generally do not cover the conflict story.
Here’s an example of the problem. According to FollowTheMoney.org, in 2010, 100 percent of donations from commercial broadcasters to House and Assembly races in Nevada went to Democrats, $20,000. It paid off. Of the 42 winners, 26 were Democrats. Not a single dime of that came from a journalist’s pocket. But when the public sees the employers of journalists making those donations to one party, candidate or ballot measure it erodes the public faith in a journalist’s independence, and it enforces a broad notion that the media is conservative or liberal. This financial favoritism is nationwide and varies by party.
The situation puts journalists in a Catch-22. Criticizing employers for donations is not a good career move. At the same time, the donations are damaging the journalists’ reputation.
The subject of media juice in politics is quietly picking up a little national attention. This year New York Times writer Amy Chozick examined media support for presidential candidates using the Center for Responsive Politics database. It showed media donating three times more money to Obama than Romney. Her report included a disclaimer: “The New York Times Company was not among the center’s ‘heavy hitters’ and does not have a PAC; the newspaper discourages employees from contributing to political campaigns.” Read her report at http://tinyurl.com/8fxlqq9.
The Huffington Post’s Rebecca Shapiro also looked into major media donations to candidates. She put together a slideshow about it at http://tinyurl.com/9k9esys.
Neither Chozick nor Shapiro’s reports included interviews about the blatant ethical conflict of interest. That seems unusual. One would expect the media to address its own donations in politics. However, when I tried to talk to experts about it, I ran into a brick wall. I’ve called, sent e-mails, spoken to CBS, Clear Channel, media ethics professors and even the Society of Professional Journalists and the creators of the databases that make this information available. Of the few who responded, no one wanted to be interviewed for this story. I asked them why. One said he didn’t know enough about it. Another said she had never thought about it before.
The answer could be as simple as—you guessed it—money. It’s understandable that news organizations don’t want to highlight their financial favoritism by trying to explain it. Of the others, university journalism programs are often funded by major media. So they may be reluctant to talk about it, too. The Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the OpenSecrets.org political donation database, also didn’t they want to talk about it. I went to GuideStar.org, another database of federal IRS filings for non-profits. OpenSecrets.org’s funding sources were not all disclosed and that is typical in the database. But scroll down to the very bottom of its federal filing and you find something different: the details of a lengthy contract where OpenSecrets.org is paid $187,000 every three months by Bloomberg, described as “a major news and information service.”
The silence on the topic from journalists to the corporations, universities and database creators could simply be reluctance to bite the billion-dollar media hand that feeds them. To be fair, I’ve only worked on the story for two business days. I had a four-day deadline and I am freelancing for a small weekly paper in a small town media market. So, maybe I am just too insignificant a player on too tight a deadline for them to bother responding. However, the facts remain the same. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says, journalists should avoid conflicts of interest and “nothing should interfere with the public’s right to know.” Eventually you would find out, and that time is now. For now, despite having the information at your fingertips, the silence on media money contributed to politicians in Nevada speaks for whom they favor. Money talks.