Who Said You Said, Oct. 16, 2010
The Denver Post made a serious error in news judgment by devoting a sizable story on the cover of its Oct. 9 "Denver & The West" section to an unsubstantiated smear of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its role in the 2010 elections, including in Colorado's U.S. Senate race.
"Group's bucks to Buck eyed," was the headline on the print version of the story, referring to Republican candidate Ken Buck. "Democrats question U.S. Chamber of Commerce money spent on Buck" was the online version.
While the existence of a smear may sometimes be newsworthy in itself – mainly because of what it reveals about the person or group making the smear – the media should be careful not to give smears undue credibility. For example, if some attack group claimed that a candidate was a child molester, yet offered not a scintilla of evidence, it would be an error for a newspaper to cover the charge as if it might be true, and to devote much of the article to the accuser's claims. The better approach would be to cover the smear, at most, in a short blog item, while directly stating that the accuser had offered no evidence to substantiate the smear.
The Denver Post was not alone in its approach on the Chamber story. Other media outlets published similar reports without due diligence, some keying off President Obama's comments that "one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign sources."
I sent an e-mail to Michael Booth, The Denver Post reporter, providing him the details of my critique below and offering him a chance to comment. He politely declined.
The perpetrator of the smear in question is ThinkProgress, a liberal blog funded by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Center for American Progress (CAP) has been heavily funded by donors such as George Soros, and CAP has been influential in the Obama Administration.
The smear of the Chamber was echoed by the Democratic National Committee; by Pres. Obama and his surrogates such as David Axelrod; and by the campaign of Buck's rival, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
According to ThinkProgress, et al., the United States Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to help fund its political advertising in the United States.
Such use of foreign money is a federal felony. (14 U.S. Code sect. 441e.) The media should be cautious about publicizing an accusation of felony conduct, unless there is some evidence to substantiate the accusation. They should be especially cautious when the persons making, or implying, a felony accusation have obvious motives of self-interest.
The same day that The Denver Post published its print and online article broadcasting the smear (while including a few paragraphs of rebuttal by the targets), The New York Times published a much more rigorous piece on the topic. The Times explained that many interest groups and organizations, across the political spectrum, receive some funds from overseas, such as dues from members who live abroad. While the Chamber does collect some overseas funds, such as due from overseas affiliates, The Times explained…
"The Chamber of Commerce says it has a vigorous process for ensuring that does not happen, and no evidence has emerged to suggest that is untrue."
Also quoted in the article was Professor Richard L. Hasen, an election-law expert at Loyola of Los Angeles Law School. Professor Hasen has written many articles advocating for additional campaign finance laws, and criticizing Supreme Court decisions which have found some restrictions to be unconstitutional. He told The Times: "I've seen no proof of the chamber funneling a penny of foreign money into U.S. elections."
A report by FactCheck.org, published on October 11, and updated on October 12, is titled "Foreign Money? Really? Democrats peddle an unproven claim." FactCheck, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania, advanced The Times story with additional details. FactCheck called the ThinkProgress charge "a claim with little basis in fact," and pointed out that the people using the ThinkProgress talking points are calling the Chamber, "guilty of using foreign contributions until proven innocent." FactCheck concluded…
"Accusing anybody of violating the law is a serious matter requiring serious evidence to back it up. So far Democrats have produced none."
Neither The New York Times nor FactCheck.org is infallible. However, in the days since The Denver Post has published its article publicizing the charges and treating them with credence, no one has offered a scintilla of evidence to indicate that the charges are valid.
Accordingly, The Post should publish a correction about its article, and should update the online version of the article to provide a more accurate treatment of the facts. In the future, The Post should do much more background research (not merely collecting quotes from both sides) before publicizing an allegation – or implication – of felony conduct; and should be especially skeptical and cautious if the accusations come from organizations or campaigns that have an obvious political interest in advancing the story.
The Denver Post this week ran a follow-up story by the Associated Press. That article responsibly pointed out that, "Democrats sought to discredit the chamber by questioning its sources of funding but have offered no proof to back up their claims."