Last year, The Washington Post Editorial Board panned a smartphone app that sorts companies by how Democratic or Republican they are. The app, BuyPartisan, provides users who scan the barcodes of products on the shelf with information on the political contributions of PACs associated with a particular company as well as data on the political giving of a company’s employees, board of directors, and chief executive. According to its creator, BuyPartisan is intended to “make ‘every day Election Day’ through ‘spending choices.’”
To its credit, The Post expressed its displeasure with the politicization of everyday purchases quite bluntly: “If the app succeeds, it would be a sign that Democrats and Republicans aren’t even willing to do business with one another any longer… we hope BuyPartisan fails.”
I tipped my hat to WaPo at the time for recognizing that data produced by mandatory disclosure laws can be misused. Sometimes that misuse comes in extreme forms, such as harassment or campaigns to get people fired from their jobs. It also appears more subtly, when our perceptions of someone’s opinions or behaviors are colored by the knowledge of whether they are on “our side” or not. How can we judge people fairly when they come pre-labeled?
WaPo understood that problem and called it out. Apps like BuyPartisan don’t encourage more thoughtful consumer choices. They enable people to act in accordance with their prejudices.
Today, we are met with another opportunity to call out an inappropriate, pointless use of disclosure data. That’s thanks to The Hill, which has apparently deemed it worthwhile to report on the political contributions of a Minnesota dentist who is currently in the news for killing a popular Zimbabwe lion. The article makes no attempt to explain why the dentist’s political contributions are relevant. It just throws them out there:
“The Minnesota dentist who authorities say killed a beloved Zimbabwe lion named Cecil donated to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Federal Elections (sic) Commission (FEC) forms show Walter James Palmer, a dentist in Eden Prairie, Minn., donated $5,000 to the Romney campaign in 2012. Palmer also donated $250 to former Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) in 1990 and $250 to Ramstad in 1992.”
There is no further discussion of the dentist’s contributions or political views. The rest of the article simply reviews what’s already in the news. I have to ask: What is the point of this kind of reporting?
Does it help us understand what happened? No.
Does it tell us why the dentist killed the lion? No.
Does it help us understand the controversy surrounding the dentist’s actions? No.
Does it tell us anything about the politicians he contributed to? No.
In short: it’s not useful information, it’s junk. The only reason I can imagine to publish it is to unfairly smear by association those politicians to whom the dentist contributed, or to make the dentist appear (even more) unsympathetic to readers who dislike those politicians. Are either of those good reasons to run a story?
Just because information is public doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy. Under current law, every individual who contributes as little as $200 to a federal candidate has their name, address, occupation, and employer reported to the government and uploaded to a publicly available Internet database.
If members of the media cannot use that information responsibly, it’s time we seriously consider raising the threshold at which disclosure of private information is required. This is getting ridiculous.