Press claims Chamber of Commerce story's too "convoluted." Like Whitewater wasn't?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Question: When are allegations of foreign sources funding American elections deemed to be deeply troubling and instantly newsworthy?

Answer: When the money is allegedly flowing to Democrats.

And when are the same type of allegations dismissed as perplexing and unbelievable?

Yep -- when the money benefits Republican candidates.

Last week, ThinkProgress made news by reporting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, committed to spending tens of millions of dollars blanketing television markets with partisan, anti-Democratic ads this year, "funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding." In other words, donations gathered from around the world from foreign corporations are being used by the lobbying behemoth to influence elections in America and specifically, to defeat as many Democrats as possible.

That's big news. Period.

But note how Time's Mark Halperin, speaking on behalf of "elites," moved this week to quickly dismiss the Chamber story [emphasis added]:

Not only is this issue convoluted and far-fetched, but it also distracts from the issues voters care about, frustrating political insiders and alienating struggling citizens (not that many are following such an offbeat story line).

Read that highlighted portion again as the Time scribe downplayed allegations that the Chamber of Commerce is using foreign funds as part of its 2010 blitzkrieg to take down the Democratic Party in November. I'm still a bit shocked that a journalist would dismiss any news story based on the premise that it's "convoluted and far-fetched."

I'm pretty sure Iran-Contra at first seemed "convoluted and far-fetched." And so did Watergate and so did the Valerie Plame story and so did dozens of other big, juicy news Beltway stories over the years. (And even modestly juicy ones, which the Chamber story might qualify as.) Instead Halperin, playing news editor, waves journalists off the Chamber story because it's "convoluted and far-fetched." Oh, and because voters aren't following the "offbeat" story.

And could that be because journalists like Halperin are not covering it?

Note that Halperin spent more time in his Time piece mocking the story than actually explaining the details of the unsettling allegations. Note that the fact the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will spend tens of millions of dollars this election year airingtens of thousands of attack ads that are often riddled with inaccuracies is of little concern or interest to a media player like Halperin.

His only take on the story was to belittle Obama for talking about it. The Chamber is spending more money than God trying to defeat Democrats, and some of that money might be coming from foreign sources (it's impossible to tell for certain since the Chamber won't disclose its donor list), but for Halperin, the only take-away is that Obama looks small for defending Democrats against the Chamber's tidal wave of attacks.

Oh brother.

And here's the kicker: Halperin is part of the same Beltway press corps that during the Clinton years chased every conceivable harebrained conspiracy theory dreamt up by the Clinton's right-wing haters. During the `90s, the press preferred it when the Clinton gotcha stories were "convoluted and far-fetched." That only added to the intrigue and drama.

Go to Nexis, search the years between 1993 and 2000, type in "Bill Clinton and Whitewater," and prepare to be drowned by the more than 35,000 news hits for the preposterous financial "scandal" that literally defined the phrase "convoluted and far-fetched."

And specifically, in terms of convoluted, far-fetched, offbeat stories about foreign money allegedly making its way into stateside political coffers? When Clinton was in the White House the press loved those impossible-to-follow stories. The Beltway press couldn't stop covering those types of dense, "far-fetched" gotchas.

Don't believe me? Go back to Nexis and search "Al Gore and Buddhist temple" and be amazed by the nearly 800 news matches that turn up between 1996 and 2000 for that over-inflated scandal.

Better yet, type in "Bill Clinton and Loral and satellite" and behold the nearly two thousand matches that appear for that news search. (Between them, the Washington Post and New York Times published more than 100 articles or columns on the topic during the Clinton years.)

Not familiar with that long-forgotten Clinton-era scandal manufactured by Republicans and proudly sponsored by the Beltway press corps for years? That's the one where the allegedly treasonous president, obsessed with chasing foreign money, put China's national interest ahead of America by granting privileges to Loral Communications (whose chairman was a big Democratic donor) so it could launch its satellites and then slip China classified information.

How's that for a "convoluted" and "far-fetched" premise? (Paging Wen Ho Lee….) And keep in mind, this was very big news when a Democrat occupied the Oval Office. Reporters and pundits instantly pounced on the satellite story and wouldn't let go for years as they doggedly demanded the administration answer every conceivable (and inconceivable) question about sources of possible outside campaign donations. Shadowy foreigners were influencing elections!

But today, one week after questions were raised about the Chamber of Commerce's foreign funding and its role in the Chamber's rabidly partisan ad campaign, writers like Halperin are already shoveling on the dirt and writing up the story's obit.

Elites to the masses: Nothing to see here folks, keep moving along.

Even more telling are Beltway editorials denouncing the White House for having the audacity to question the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This, from the same type of editorial pages that thundered against a Democratic White House when bogus allegations were raised about it wallowing in foreign campaign money. But suddenly, it's the accuser who's at fault for raising concerns about the possibility of foreign money paying for U.S. campaigns.

Interviewing White House aide David Axelrod on CBS's Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer belittled claims about Chamber's foreign funding even though, after low-balling the figure, he conceded that the anti-Democratic behemoth has received tens of thousands of dollars in foreign donations that were possibly being funneled into American campaigns. The figure was "small peanuts," scoffed Schieffer. (So spending some foreign money to influence U.S. elections is now okay?)

Schieffer though, didn't have all the facts about the Chamber story. And so far neither do any other reporters for the simple reason that the Chamber wont' disclose who all their donors are. Instead, the Chamber has told reporters that it has a "system" in place to make sure foreign donations doesn't end up paying for ads in U.S. campaigns. See, there's a "system" in place, and that's all reporters need to know, as they dutifully report on the Chamber's (utterly vague) defense regarding fungible funds. (i.e. Trust us.)

But can you imagine if, during the `90's, Al Gore's only defense during the Buddhist temple controversy was that had had some full-proof "system" in place to make sure he wasn't illegally raising foreign contributions. He had a "system," but he just couldn't tell reporters what it was. Nor would he release the names of his donors.

Or if the Clinton White House told reporters it had a "system" in place to safeguard against Chinese donations washing up onshore but that, no, the White House could not actually detail the "system," or release a list of financial supporters

Both Swiss-cheese explanations would have been universally mocked by the press corps if used by Democrats. But the Chamber of Commerce assures the press everything's under control and that its "system" is working to perfection and writers like Halperin nod and say, Well of course it is.

Sorry, but that doesn't cut it. Instead of robotically going to bat for a right-wing pro-business lobbying group, maybe journalists ought to practice their craft instead. As ThinkProgress noted in the wake of its reporting, the Chamber of Commerce bumbled its response to the allegation of foreign funding sources and issued no less than five different statements in an attempt to quell the story. But none of them directly addressed the questions at hand:

1) What is this "system" they claim to have in place to keep foreign money out of their election program?

2) Why do they refuse to even say whether or not the foreign money is going into the same general fund that is used to pay for their attack ads?
3) If the foreign money isn't paying for "political activities," then what is it paying for? Lobbying?

And oh yeah, contrary to Halperin's spin, the Chamber story is not "convoluted" or all that "far-fetched":

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