How to cover the ’16 campaign: follow the money, but few are, says one reporter
Shane Goldmacher, the senior political correspondent for National Journal, has a “totally selfish reason” for covering campaign finance that has little to do with high-minded notions of holding people to account.
No, it’s got a lot more to do with this: the distinct lack of competition from other journalists, he told a boot camp for presidential campaign journalists last week.
Isn’t this a seemingly golden age of political reporting, at least quantitatively, with high-traffic political sites like Politico and tons of cable TV and internet coverage? Even C-SPAN no longer has a de facto monopoly on bread-and-butter, off-the-beaten-track events.
And aren’t giant salaries being paid to solid specialists like Mark Halperin and John Heilemann of Bloomberg News? And the ambitious folks at CBS News and CNN, among others, are ramping up and offering 24/7 news content on multiple vehicles.
So it would seem to follow that there’s got to be far more campaign finance reporting. It is, after all, labor that's far easier these days with the demise of hard to find paper records in dusty file cabinets and the coming of online databases you can search while in your pajamas.
Goldmacher said no, there isn’t any new rush, as he counseled those assembled by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and the Nieman Foundation. His particular session was on “How to Follow Money in Politics (And Why)” and included co-panelist and journalist Carrie Levine, of The Center for Public Integrity.
He noted that, on the very day he was speaking, there were at minimum a combined total of 150 reporters covering a conservative conference in South Carolina and a Jeb Bush speech in Virginia.
“Almost nobody is going to get something original out of that,” he said. “But if you spent the same amount of time, you’re probably the only person looking at X, Y, Z campaign filings.”
His implicit and diplomatically phrased message was abundantly clear: Most political reporters go for the easy story and don’t want to do the real work of inspecting, assessing and double-checking campaign finance data. Punditry is rather less arduous than mining and dissecting data, which can then actually bring real scoops.
It’s a form of reporting, he said, that is also a “great equalizer,” meaning anybody can go do it.
“You can play on the same playground as well as those people who are getting their phone calls returned.”
“It’s way easier to break a story on this beat because so few people are looking. And everybody is looking at (campaign) expenditures and expenses in aggregate. The stories are in the details.” He meant that people tend to pluck and report simply the grand totals raised or spent by a campaign during a particular reporting period but don’t really break down specifics and incongruities of donations and expenditures.
Those details include what he stumbled upon in simply preparing for the Chicago conference: Dissecting Sen. Rand Paul’s expenditures, he found that Paul had paid $100,000 to procure the domain name RandPaul.com from a group of supporters who had previously set up the pro-Paul site.
Goldmacher and Levine gave lots of guidance on where to find information and how to take the time to read the reports carefully. Thus, $500,000 in political spending by Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson got missed because his name was listed erroneously as “Sheldon Adelstein” on some federal records.
“Sometimes that data is wrong,” said Goldmacher.
And while the Federal Election Commission’s own website is “lousy,” he said, including search bars that don’t work, its press office could not be more helpful.
They’re at 202-694-1220, he said, and “They will do your work for you if you are nice.”
The A-list event played out over two days and offered a treasure trove of expertise. However, participants agreed that the first day was off the record, though several attendees later told me they didn’t find that it proved to be terribly necessary.
Panelists that day included top Republican and Democratic Party officials, as well as journalists Chuck Todd of NBC, John Dickerson of CBS, Julianna Goldman of CBS, Peter Hamby of CNN/Snapchat, and Sasha Issenberg and Halperin of Bloomberg.
In addition, A-list political analysts, pollsters and consultants Amy Walter, Peter Hart, Kevin Madden, Stephanie Cutter and the institute’s founder, journalist turned consultant David Axelrod, participated on the first day.
Videos of the second day’s events, “Covering Campaigns,” are available via Nieman.
Correction: The Bloomberg reporter is Sasha Issenberg not Sasha Goldman. Also, Carrie Levine is currently a journalist at the Center for Public Integrity, not a former journalist.