In an article titled, “How to Push Back Against Billionaire Donors,” Atlantic contributor Peter Beinart urges reporters to “do whatever it takes, consistent with journalistic ethics and the law,” to “scare away” donors to Super PACs. Hang on, it gets worse. He then points to the boycotting of hoteliers Matt Weiderpass and Ian Reisner as “a great example of what such reporting [on political donors] can achieve.”
Who are these billionaire oligarchs hiding in the shadows, you ask? Well, Weiderpass has contributed a total of roughly $10,000 to political causes since 2008, according to Open Secrets. Reisner has contributed less than $20,000 in total dating back to 1998.
The Koch brothers, they ain’t.
But a close reading of the article reveals that Beinart is not actually concerned with the money, despite the title of the article, and his bluster about “a cultural guerrilla war” against “oligarchy.” In fact, he never once mentions Weiderpass’s and Reisner’s donation histories, or the political influence they supposedly purchased. Instead, he singles them out for retribution because they “held an event for Ted Cruz” – a candidate to whom neither of them has contributed.
In other words: this is not about money or influence or billionaires or oligarchy at all. This is about attacking people who associate with Ted Cruz. Weiderpass and Reisner are being punished not for the money they’ve spent, but for the people they are willing to talk to. This is the sort of nasty, us-vs-them politics that disclosure advocates unwittingly (or perhaps intentionally) encourage when they demand that everyone who gives money to a candidate or Super PAC be subjected to public scrutiny.
It’s also a shallow way to live your life. If you cared to look, you would quickly see that Weiderpass and Reisner give most of their money to Democrats. As Reisner tried to explain to The New York Times, meeting with candidates to discuss the issues is not the same as supporting them. “I was given the opportunity to have a candid conversation with Senator Ted Cruz on where he stood on all issues, foreign and domestic… It was just three months ago that I hosted a ‘Ready for Hillary’ event for a record turnout of 900 people at the Out Hotel.”
Weiderpass had perhaps the best take on the matter: “People on both sides of the aisle need to be able to communicate with one another even when they ideologically disagree.”
Well said. Sadly, there’s no room for that kind of nuance in the black-and-white world of disclosure laws. And apparently there is limited space for it in the media as well, if Beinart’s article is any indication.
The inability of journalists and disclosure advocates to discern between those with actual power and those with opinions they disagree with is striking, and provides good reason to be cautious when shining the harsh light of media attention on private citizens who dare to participate in politics. Engaging in discussion with people we disagree with, as Weiderpass and Reisner did, is not a threat to democracy. It is democracy.