Thanks to compulsory disclosure laws, citizens who contribute to candidates or political organizations are forced to have their name, address, and employer made publicly available in a government database. These laws are often justified as necessary to inform the public, but studies show they fail to achieve even this basic goal. Instead, information about contributors is often misunderstood or manipulated by actors with self-serving motives, leading to more confusion.
Knowing who spent what doesn’t tell you why they spent it, but some activists and members of the media love pretending to have it all figured out. Recently, a video game developer was targeted and harassed into early retirement for his political contributions, which were twisted to unfairly infer that he had anti-LGBTQ views. Our elected representatives join in the fun, too. Congressman Tom Suozzi had the bright idea to use the FEC database to create an enemies list of New Yorkers who gave to candidates opposing his pet issue, singling out donors for views they do not necessarily hold. (How many people really donated to candidates based on their position on the SALT cap?)
This time, it’s the media outlet Axios misusing data and misleading the public, writing:
Dallas-based AT&T is taking heat for the company’s contributions to the conservative politicians who passed Texas’ unpopular abortion bill…
The corporation is one of the top donors to the sponsors of Texas’ abortion ban. Since 2018, the company has donated $301,000 to the bill’s sponsors, according to popular.info…
Here, Axios – and especially the activist outfit popular.info – conflates employee contributions to AT&T’s PAC with direct corporate to candidate contributions, which are illegal in Texas. AT&T’s state employee PAC is funded by voluntary contributions from its employees, not the AT&T corporate treasury. And since the company cannot give money to its PAC, the corporation did not contribute to state legislators.
Beyond this glaring error, the report also subtly reinforces the false narrative that the contributions were based on a candidate’s support for Senate Bill 8. Although Axios may only be reporting claims made by another outlet, choosing to highlight cherry-picked data from an activist website bolsters out of context claims and will confuse the average reader. The most important information is tacked on near the end of the article:
“We have never taken a position on the issue of abortion, and the Texas legislation was no exception,” an AT&T spokesperson told Axios. “We did not endorse nor support passage of Senate Bill 8 in the Texas legislature. Our employee political action committees have never based contribution decisions on a legislator’s positions on the issue of abortion, and employee PAC contributions to Texas legislators went to both opponents and supporters of Senate Bill 8.”
AT&T provides a perfectly clear explanation, yet Axios relegates its strong defense as a minor point rather than a reason to debunk the original claim.
Members of the media should know better. But because citizens generally don’t care to look up disclosure data on their own, whatever yarn activists and outlets want to spin can easily turn into a popular narrative. It’s a story we see too often. Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time readers are misled.