Last week, I was critical of a New York Times story that promoted the false impression that a majority of political advertising has been driven by so-called “Dark Money” organizations. That article, as I said at the time, “only compares ads run by ‘outside groups’– ignoring all spending by candidates, political action committees, and political parties (the primary sources of election spending).” This leaves the reader with the misleading sense that “Dark Money” is the primary source of election funds – when, in reality, it is just over 5 percent of political funding. (This is further exacerbated by the inflammatory language of the piece’s headline, “Secret Money Fueling a Flood of Political Ads.”)
It turns out that one of those misled by the piece was … a writer for The New York Times. In Sunday’s column, “The Cost of Campaigns,” Times’ columnist Clyde Haberman inaccurately represents the paper’s own analysis: “This year, an analysis by The New York Times shows, more than half of broadcast advertising in the midterm elections has been paid for by groups that reveal little or nothing about their donors.” This is factually wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and more wrong. As we have repeatedly shown, this overstates the amount of so-called “Dark Money” in elections by an order of magnitude, and therefore, the impact by at least that amount.
While it is entertaining to rib the Times for not understanding their own analysis, the implications are more serious than that. This is how misinformation is created. An incomplete, misleading study is cited imprecisely in a prominent article. That article is referenced incorrectly in highly publicized opinion pieces. Soon those pieces will serve as the talking points for political pundits, which will become the three word tagline in political attack ads. Before you know it, the false claim that over half of all ads are paid for with “Dark Money” will become accepted “conventional wisdom” that “everybody knows.”
This is a disservice to the public debate. We cannot discuss the relative impact of so-called “Dark Money” in political elections honestly, if much of the country is receiving factually inaccurate information.
It is wrong to suggest to that there is a flood, flash flood, river, tsunami, or any other water-related metaphor of “secret money” in our political campaigns. The Times should not mislead its readers into believing otherwise.