Ezra Klein Really Sorry About All That Evil Money Talk

May 8, 2013   •  By Sarah Lee   •  
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Tuesday, Washington Post’s Ezra Klein took to his Wonk Blog and offered something of an apology for getting “way too excited” over the influence of money in the last election. Given that nearly everyone’s in agreement that the hysteria over big donors buying elections was overblown, Klein feels inclined to begin his mea culpa by mentioning that it wasn’t just him:

This time last year, I was working with three political scientists — John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Seth Hill — to build a really, really simple model for predicting the election. The model only needed to know three things: Was an incumbent running? What was the president’s approval rating in June? And what was economic growth like in the first three quarters of the year?

The model kept telling us that President Obama was likely to win. It told us he was likely to win under circumstances where I didn’t think he was likely to win. That model offended my gut. And so I spent a lot of time coming up with things the model might be missing.

That model ended up predicting the popular vote to within one tenth of a percentage point.

Was the model really that accurate? Clearly not. Hitting the popular vote on the nose like that was a bit of luck. But the model was right. President Obama was the favorite in that election. His position was stronger than I thought, even though I had a lot more information than the model did. And one reason I think the model beat me was that I was reading a lot of stories about super PACs and campaign fundraising and my model wasn’t.

He is not the first to fall into the same trap.  Unfortunately we see judges doing the same thing, especially ones that likely read The New York Times.   See this case, to take just one example.

There’s something else compelling at work here: the power of journalism to influence public opinion and misinform.  The fact is the reporting on campaign finance law and the First Amendment is often wrong,  misleading or both.

For an issue like campaign finance, it’s incredibly easy to mislead the public about what’s happening because the specifics — the cases and their implications — are only completely understood by a short list of people (several of whom work here at CCP). And while Klein uses the excuse that he and his compatriots could only be really, really, super sure of the relative non-influence of money AFTER the election, he was certainly vocal — and adamant — pre-election (both in 2010 and last year) that his opinion on the matter was the correct one.

Compare this from 2010:

The 2010 election cost more than $4 billion—a staggering sum…Some of that money came from small donors, people who felt strongly about the direction of their country and dug into their own pockets to make it better. That’s all for the good. But much of it came from corporations trying to buy access with winners, secret donors trying to purchase the votes that will make them richer, and ideological hit groups that delight in the scurrilous attacks that candidates themselves would never make. Pity our democracy, yes. But pity our politicians, too.

To Tuesday’s piece:

But it’s hard to look at the 2012 election, with its record fundraising and the flood of super PACs and all the rest of it, and come away really persuaded that money was a decisive player. And yet the way we talked about money in the run-up to the 2012 election, we really suggested it would be a decisive player. In fact, we suggested, quite often, that it wouldn’t just decide the election, but that it would imperil democracy itself.

So I think we have some explaining to do. And I think this panel is a good time to start.

Well yes, he does.  But our hope is that he won’t simply seek to find an explanation to justify something he wrote previously.  We hope he will take this opportunity to learn more, a lot more, about the First Amendment and its value to “democracy itself.”

At CCP we stand ready to meet with any journalist who wants to explore the meaning and importance of free political speech and how campaign finance laws today pose real dangers to “democracy itself.”  We are generous with our time.  The First Amendment is not just important for democracy itself, it’s vital to a free and independent press.

So, in future, give us a call on matters that require a little more old-school reporting (you know, facts, figures, history, data relating to a subject almost everyone finds a bit esoteric), and we’ll help round out your pieces so you can avoid being called out by Esquire Magazine (on a separate subject but the shoe still fits) as someone who is:

…so entirely a creature of this exploitative new journalism order that he seems to believe, as Molly Ivins once put it of Camille Paglia, that he is the cosmos…Ezra, dude, all of journalism is not the op-ed page.

You can start with this and this (we have free copies in our office) heading into the midterms.

Sarah Lee

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