Campaign finance articles are a staple of good journalism, as campaign contributions may signal to the public more credibly than campaign promises the type of interests a politician will represent once in office. But good campaign finance reporting requires that a newspaper be willing to invest in investigative reporting and report the results even if they alienate important newspaper stakeholders, such as advertisers. This is something the bottom-line oriented Capital has not been willing to do.
Sunday’s Capital ran a front page article that is an example of exceptionally bad campaign finance reporting. The premise of the article is fine. The article, “County executive race drawing heavy out-of-county donations,”implies that receiving out-of-county donations represents a conflict of interest for representatives, as they will be more beholden to outside interests than constituents. For example, the article cites an expert who says “donors, particularly businesses and unions outside the county, could… make donations because they have particular interests in Anne Arundel County.” But this assertion requires evidence, and the article doesn’t provide adequate evidence for readers to assess it.
Regardless of whether outside funding is good or bad, the article would be newsworthy if one candidate alleged that the other shouldn’t be trusted because he/she received such funding. But the candidates in this article are portrayed as above the fray and not making such a claim.
Here are the types of questions a serious article on campaign finance would have addressed:
- The two major sources of campaign resources in Anne Arundel county executive politics are developers and public unions. Which candidate is more beholden to these groups?
- Political scientists view many small donations as less corrupting than a few big ones. Which candidates receive the greatest proportion of their overall funding from small donations?
- A candidate’s personal finances can provide a clue to their likely positions. What relevant information have candidates disclosed to the Anne Arundel Ethics Commission, and is it accurate?
- Many candidates receive much of their funding from outside their district, and this isn’t necessarily unpopular. For example, many constituents would be more alarmed to hear that a candidate received substantial funding from a local developer whose development they oppose than from the candidate’s out-of-town friends and colleagues. What outside funding sources had narrow government interests in the County?
Campaign finance is a category of news that is an Achilles’ heel for theCapital. On the one hand, every credible newspaper has to cover it. On the other hand, the sources of campaign resources are bread & butter constituencies for not only political candidates but also the Capital. Given such incentives, the muddled story framing and lack of due diligence that mark this story as bad journalism nevertheless make for good business.
Moreover, like politicians who love to tax out-of-district constituencies at disproportionate rates because they cannot vote against you (e.g., think hotel and rental car taxes), this article made its bogeyman out-of-district interests that pose no threat to the Capital’s bottom line. I imagine theCapital reasoned that if it has to run this type of article, it might as well do it in a way that minimizes the harm.
The public rightly fears distant corporate behemoths that own local newspaper monopolies and try to squeeze every penny of profit out of them. When such corporations take control of a newspaper such as theCapital, the result tends to be the type of inexpensive, pseudo-investigative journalism illustrated in this campaign finance article. No wonder the Capitalpretends, whenever possible, to be locally owned and controlled.
Instead of doing such an amateurish job reporting on candidates’ non-local financial dependencies, the Capital would have provided a more useful reader service by sharing its expertise on its own non-local financial dependencies. But that assumes the Capital would have an incentives to report on its owners without fear or favor. Given reality, then, I’d suggest we be thankful for the reporting that we got.
For this author’s general critique of the Capital’s news biases, seeUnderstanding The Capital Gazette’s Political Biases.