A Darker Side of Dark Money: Negative Ads Are Just the Start

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People in media and politics love dark money, especially if they are gettin’ some. –Spocko

On Fresh Air yesterday they talked to campaign expert Neil Oxman about making political ads. He talks about how much money congressional campaigns spend on TV and how much it costs today.

Even beyond the cost of the way college in tuition have gone up. I mean, the cost of American television has exceeded every year the cost of inflation by many times.

He talks about the new role in social media but explains why it’s still not as important as reaching voters, whom he points out are older people.

And older people watch TV. They’re much more passive about how they get their information. They sit in front of the television. They don’t flick away from commercials. They watch TV. Kids today don’t watch TV on TV. They watch it on every other thing they can get. They watch it on their phones. They watch on their iPads. They watch it on computers.

So his premise, and I’m sure he has data to back it up, is that this expensive medium is the best way to reach the target voter. For conservatives this is great, especially if they don’t care about reaching the “kids today.” If you are progressive, and also convinced that your voters are olds, you join the TV arms race.

This process lines the pockets of the ad makers, media buyers, radio and TV stations. It’s a Win/Win/Win! This isn’t news to most people, but the part that really struck me was the size of the dark money pool and how it will be used.

DAVIES: So the people that are hiring you to make ads aren’t candidates?

OXMAN: No, they’re independent committees because the reporting rules are a lot different. And you can have – it’s not about personal money. You can give corporate money. And so if somebody goes to a friend and says, hey, give me a $100,000 from your corporation – if it’s a privately held corporation – instead of $2,500 from you and this $100,000 is never going to be reported, that’s why so much of this independent money is being raised.

DAVIES: And so if the court decisions now mean there are these independent groups who have a lot of money to put into political advertising, does the character of the advertising itself change? If it’s not the candidate putting their name to it, doesn’t mean it’s…

OXMAN: It’s become much more negative. The ratio of negative to positive has gotten much higher.

We know negative advertising works, and we know why candidates don’t want to be associated with it. Especially when they are now required to say, “I’m Nicey McNicely and I approve this message.”

 But dark money independent committees can run really nasty ads.  Later, the candidate they are supporting can come out and denounce the ad, since technically he isn’t supposed to know about it or coordinate with the groups. But by then the image, smear or idea is stuck in the heads of voters.

 Following The Money is Confusing and Boring. Follow The People

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of people telling me, “Follow the money.” That comment makes all these assumptions like:

  • The money trail will lead to someone doing something illegal
  • Campaign finance laws that still exist have been violated
  • The penalty for violating the law is criminal and substantial
  • The people doing the financing are stupid
  • Journalists covering politics care about any of this
  • The public will do something after getting the information

I wondered, after Citizens United made almost everything legal, why would anyone still feel the need to use dark money? Habit?

Check out this OpenSecrets.org #darkmoney chart. and this is the easy one to follow!

 Who or what are they afraid of?  (And I, of course, like to add, “How can we make their fears come true?“)

 To understand the reasons they want to hide you would have to ask them. Some like Sheldon Aldeson don’t care who knows, “I’m old, rich and I bought these ads with my own money. It’s all legal and you can’t hurt me, piss off.”

 But donors must have reasons to stay dark, some more serious than others:

  • They don’t want to be forced to report their giving to shareholders
  • They don’t want their own employees and customers to know
  • They do not want to be publicly associated with an issue or candidate that is controversial in any direction.
  • They are a foreign entity, like Burger King wants to be, but still want to influence elections
  • They are afraid of public disapproval 
    —Do not discount this last one. As we know, the rich have really thin skins. Also, private corporations are not immune to disapproval, especially from people on the inside who disagree with how the money is spent.

The new reality is that with social media we have all new ways to express our disapproval to people and companies.

Later in the Fresh Air piece, Davies laments how distorted and unfair the ads are, and asks Oxman,”- do you ever feel like, gosh, this is just – we’re not doing a very good job of informing our electorate?”  Oxman agrees and says, 

That’s why I wish newspapers still existed.”- Neil Oxman

That comment might have been a slip, but to Oxman’s mind, and to a lot of people, newspapers (and the people who did journalism) aren’t the force they once were. Newspapers’ priorities have changed. It’s not about serving the public, its about serving the shareholders.

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – Some king

 If the laws have changed and newspapers, radio and TV are out of the picture, who is left?  Those who has been effectively exposing them like Mother Jones, ProPublica, OpenSecrets.org or my friends at the Center for Media and Democracy.

The people donating the money won’t personally tell Karl Rove of Cross Roads GPS to shut these groups up.  They expect the recipients to “receive their meaning.” If the second level recipients do something especially nasty, the donors get plausible deniability, and the damage is still done. They love this system!

I’ll tell you a secret. The donors to groups like The Center To Protect Patient Rights or Freedom Partners are humans, men and women. They have ethical lines they will not cross in the course of business. They fight over who to fund, and how to spend the money, they love their children and care for their pets.

One of the things that I learned in defunding RW radio were the number of good men and women working in corporate communications and advertising. Rush Limbaugh’s attack on women disgusted them and they showed their disgust by stopping the money flow.

The Dark Side of Dark Money
So let’s say for example someone at American Future Fund, Americans For Prosperity, Concerned Women for America or the 60 Plus Association didn’t just run negative ads, but hired some shady characters to intimidate, stalk, threaten or sexual harass people looking into their donor’s donors. How might the group head act if they were confronted with this?

1) Massive denial 2) Pretend it’s all a misunderstanding or a joke 3) Distance themselves from the “bad actors”  4) Blame bloggers and George Soros 5) Suppress furious internal memos from top level donors that outnumber praise 6) Pray the loss of confidence from unhappy donors doesn’t impact how much money is received in the future 7) Create “never again” guidelines 8) Drink heavily.

The people two levels up never get their hands dirty. Publicly they denounce the tactics but internally is where the action is. Are donors so disgusted by the actions they will stop the money flow? What does it say about the judgement of the staff and directors who went down this dirty path? Can they be trusted in the future to not embarrass the donors?

Yes, some donors will reward the people who hired the ‘bad actors’ and tell them to be more careful to not get caught in the future. But these people can’t be reached, unless they are video taped kicking a dog.

What Is To Be Done?
Top level donors are afraid of external public disapproval because that can lead to internal disapproval, which is harder to ignore. Wife to husband, “Explain to me again how hiring a known creep to go after female non-profit staff increases American prosperity and freedom?”

Top level operatives know that upset donors can lead to losing what they care about most, money.

Therefore, the next time you read of a especially nasty action by one of these dark money groups, contact the people running the groups. Let them know you noticed what they are doing. Question why some groups fund stalkers and felons while others put out 30 second TV spots.

You’ll be surprised how many people within the groups are just as upset about certain actions and behaviors as you are, and there will be consequences.

You might not see it at first but you will start seeing the fall out from the public disapproval, like when corporations leave ALEC  and advertisers leave Rush.

Image by TMAB2003 Creative Commons license

Cross posted at Hullabaloo and FireDogLake

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