Deep Throat’s three words are even truer today; money remains at the root of corruption in government and politics. Efforts to reform campaign finance in the decades since Watergate have been upended, unleashing torrents of cash from undisclosed sources.
Following the money is journalist Matea Gold’s beat. A political reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, she says the story of the 2012 elections was the dark money spent to influence the outcome. Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship spoke with her at last week’s Lessons of Watergate conference, organized by the citizen’s lobby Common Cause.
40 Years After Watergate
Listen to more interviews from the Common Cause conference, including:
Matea Gold: Correct.
Michael Winship: How was that transition for you? How did that work?
Matea Gold: Well, I had covered the 2000 and the 2004 presidential campaigns, so it was actually fun to get back into the political world and to do it through money and politics was kind of happenstance. They needed some more folks on that beat and so I jumped in, and it ended up being I think really one of the best political beats for the last few cycles.
Michael Winship: What was the biggest difference to you from covering the elections in 2000, 2004, what were the surprises for you now?
Matea Gold: Well, the pace was just immensely different. I was really lucky to do it before Twitter. I can’t really imagine what it was like for my poor colleagues on the campaign trail after they had to tweet every utterance of the candidates. So I think we had a lot more time to ruminate, and even though we were filing blog posts in 2004, we still had more time to think about, you know, kind of ponder what the candidates were saying and try to do some more analytical pieces. So the pace is immensely different. And I think in a lot of ways it’s just a lot harder to cover the full story from the trail now, because so much of the action has really moved to a lot of these outside groups that are playing in the campaigns. It’s such an intensive paper trail to follow that it’s really, really enormously difficult to get people to spill the beans and shed any light on what’s happening in a lot of these outside groups. And when you cover other beats usually you manage to work up some good sources and you have some people who provide you guidance and some intel occasionally, and here we’re really going blind, and while it’s been fascinating to really do these deep dives into 990 documents and corporate registries all over the country, it’s limiting, and so I do think it’s hard to make the stories human and real without really getting at some of the people involved. So that’s really definitely been a challenge.
Michael Winship: What about the money? I mean that must be an enormous difference as well, the amount of money in politics now.
Matea Gold: Sure, and so President Obama really changed that singlehandedly when he went outside the public finance system in 2008, decided not to take matching federal funds in the general election, which meant he could raise and spend unlimited amounts. And so John McCain chose not to do that and was really fighting with one arm tied behind his back, and I think after that it was inevitable that the public financing system really would end as we knew it for general elections. And so that was a huge change that occurred in 2008, and I think in a lot of ways ushered in this era we’re seeing of just this incredible inflationary spending, in especially the presidential campaigns. But obviously, then two years later Citizens United occurred and the Supreme Court decided that corporations could spend unlimited sums of money independently, and there as another federal court decision that followed that that really led to the creation of what we now call super PACs. And so it’s really turned into what a lot of campaign finance lawyers call the “wild, wild west” now, and a lot of the kind of limits and transparency that we saw put in place after Watergate have been upended in the process.
Michael Winship: How much money are we talking about?
Matea Gold: Well, the Center for Responsive Politics came out with their best calculation for the 2012 race and it was $6.3 billion. And that’s a really rough estimate because a lot of these outside groups are formed as 501(c)(4), so-called nonprofit social welfare organizations that don’t report their spending and they don’t report their donors. And so possibly hundreds of millions of dollars more were spent trying to influence the presidential campaign that we have no way to account for.
Michael Winship: Trevor Potter today, from the Campaign Legal Center, referred to the 501(c)(4)s as “pirate flags of convenience.”
Matea Gold: [laughs] Yeah. I think that, you know, there was a real focus on super PACs after the 2010 races and after 2012, but I think the real story is with their kind of dark box cousin, which are these (c)(4)s that offer the same kind of freedom to spend and raise these unlimited sums without the transparency. And President Obama has now embraced a group like that to advocate on behalf of his second term agenda, so I think that is a real turning point in our politics.
Michael Winship: You were covering that story yesterday, I believe.
Matea Gold: I was, yes.
Michael Winship: What was that about?
Matea Gold: So last night President Obama spent two hours with supporters of this new organization, which I think was incredibly symbolic. It really underscored how Organizing for Action is going to play an unprecedented role. It’s an outside arm of the presidency, of the White House, that will be advocating on his behalf, outside of the bounds of the campaign finance system and it will be fascinating to see how that plays out and what kind of influence it has.
Michael Winship: So he kept the initials, OFA.
Matea Gold: [laughs] Makes it more convenient, makes it easier for people to remember. In fact, he and others refer to it as “OFA 4.0.” If you recall, there was his first Obama for America race in 2008, and then they tried to roll that into something called Organizing for America, and that was his attempt after that campaign to keep the grassroots engaged. But it was set up within the confines of the Democratic National Committee, and so I think had a lot more limitations on how flexible it could be and really the kind of campaigns it did, and a lot of activists felt really removed from its efforts. So then came OFA 3.0, which was the 2012 race, and now we’re in the fourth incarnation.
Michael Winship: So Obama has gone from someone who supported campaign finance reform and supported public financing of campaigns and so forth and now seems to have come completely around the other way. And somebody was talking earlier today about the fact that one of the problems with the campaign finance reform movement is that once somebody gets into office, having gone through this awful process — you know, what we’re talking about, I think the FEC figure this week was senators having to raise $14,000 a day to hold onto a senate seat, that once they get in, the impetus for the campaign finance reform seems to fade.
Matea Gold: There’s no question that I think President Obama has dropped at least his rhetoric and the frequency with which he has decried the system. This was a fundamental plank that he originally ran for when he first launched his presidential bid in 2007, to change the way Washington works, to elevate the role of the average American against the special interests. And I think he did encounter a system that was much more difficult to transform than he thought, and critics say he also has not put a lot of energy into trying to fix it. I mean he did usher in, in a lot of ways, this big money climate that we have, as I said, by going outside the public financing system to begin with. And despite the fact that he criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the White House has not put a lot of political muscle behind trying to push for campaign finance reforms on Capitol Hill, including disclosure efforts that a lot of folks believe would at least shine a light on who is spending this money. And so there’s an incredible amount of disillusionment I think in the campaign finance reform community about this, and I think a certain amount of irony that a president who came into office really running on this platform has overseen such a return of big money into our system.
Michael Winship: Well, it’s interesting, we’re here at a conference that Common Cause held that’s marking the 40th anniversary of Watergate, and there was this great impetus for campaign finance reform. And it was already eroding before Citizens United. What do you think happened?
Matea Gold: Well, Watergate was this incredibly all-encompassing scandal that I think gave so much power to the reform movement at the time that we just haven’t had anything comparable since. There’s been plenty of other scandals in the wake of that, but nothing that really encompassed the presidency. And there is an incredible amount of pushback from folks who believe that there should be unlimited amounts of money in the system, that that equals speech, and so there’s a real ideological drive, and I think folks have put a lot of money into trying to overturn a lot of these measures, and as something like Watergate fades from the public consciousness, I think it’s harder for the advocates of reform to really make the case why these things are so essential. So a lot of critics who believe there needs to be really more disclosure and stricter rules now are saying that what we have now is a system in which, you know, it’s a scandal waiting to happen, and so perhaps the next big controversy will generate calls for more reform, but for now the pendulum definitely seems to be swinging towards a loosening of the rules.
Michael Winship: Well, John McCain, of McCain-Feingold fame, has been saying steadily it’s going to take another Watergate scandal, or worse, to get reform back. And some argue that the scandal’s already here, it’s just more diffuse.
Matea Gold: And it’s harder to explain its import and its impact, I think, to people. It feels — you know, the American public in some ways is so cynical now about the role of money in politics that telling them that some special interest is trying to influence a member of Congress, or even the administration, through donations seems like, you know, every day in Washington. So it’s very hard to kind of gin up outrage over that. So our challenge as reporters is to continue to try to make a connection between the people who are trying to influence the process and the outcome so the public can really decide for themselves if that’s the way they want the system to work. But that’s not always easy to do.
Michael Winship: Do you think that reform is possible when there’s just so damn much money?
Matea Gold: I would not purport to be an expert on whether that movement is going to get another victory or not. I do think that there are — in some ways, like everything else in American politics, the issue of campaign finance is more polarized than ever before. I mean really in the wake of Watergate, you had a lot of people on both sides of the aisle calling for reform, and in fact, Republicans really embraced disclosure and that was something that was a rallying cry on the right, that, you know, all we really need is sunshine and you don’t need limits on donations, but if everybody knows where the money’s coming from this is all kosher and we can be confident that we know who’s trying to influence the process. Now disclosure is verbatim (verboten) in conservative circles and that’s something that they are really fighting against. So that deepening polarization that has occurred in kind of every ideological battle has really impacted this conversation as well.
Michael Winship: You’ve written a lot, too, about the role of campaign consultants in all this.
Matea Gold: Sure.
Michael Winship: That it’s become such a huge industry as a result of all this. Is that sort of impacting and being impacted?
Matea Gold: Well, there’s no question there are people who are profiting generously from this situation, and I’ve been very amused to watch the new super PAC filings just since Election Day. You know, there’s dozens of super PACs that have cropped up, some of which have no intention of actually participating in the process but probably just are hoping to take advantage of some poor donors who think Americans for Apple Pie is going to do good in their community. I believe there’s already three Hilary Clinton super PACs that are vying to occupy that space. So, yes, there’s a political industrial complex that definitely furthers this whole world.
Michael Winship: And you talked too, yesterday, about the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights as being a classic example of one of these. Is it a (c)(4)?
Matea Gold: Well, it’s a (c)(4), and it’s actually something that’s kind of an interesting new phenomena, which are these pass through organizations, in an effort to evade disclosure — apparently; we don’t really know the motivation. But whoever is behind the curtain has been setting up pass through organizations in which donations are funneled from one group with kind of anodyne name to, you know, 12 other groups. So there could be tax reasons for doing that, and there also could be just an effort to create kind of a double blind, so if there is a push for disclosure on one level you kind of run into a wall to find out who the original source is. And that’s exactly what happened in California this year when a group donated $11 million to influence ballot initiatives, and when California regulators tried to follow the trail back they ran into three different (c)(4)s that had been kind of the daisy chain of sources but never the original donor.
Michael Winship: Turning a corner here, with media consolidation now and cutbacks in salaries and time, and just shoe leather and people being able to cover the stories, do you think that we could cover Watergate today? I mean do we have the capacity to cover a scandal of that level? Do we have the will to do it?
Matea Gold: Right. I actually think there’s an enormous appetite in this town for controversy, so I have no doubt that there’s plenty of journalists that would rush to a story of that significance. The question is who has the resources to do the kind of dogged reporting to get behind kind of the flashier one-day scoops. And I mean our industry has changed so radically and there are fewer voices, there are fewer reporters on the beat, but there also are all of these new media organizations, online organizations that have sprung up, and so in some ways it’s more competitive, but it’s almost more competitive for kind of the initial scoop, and there are fewer and fewer people doing the deep dives and the long reads, and that’s where I think some of the most essential journalism occurs.
Michael Winship: Is it too fragmented? I mean there’s so many sources of information now. You know, when I was here during Watergate, you had the Washington Post, Washington Star. I did some writing for the Washington Star. There were three networks, public television, maybe a couple of other stations. And now with the Internet and everything else there’s just so many sources of information without a lot of analysis. I wonder sometimes if we aren’t too afflicted with cognitive dissonance and a short attention span to really understand.
Matea Gold: I’m sure that’s true. I think competition is great. My concern is I think that people now are personalizing their news sources in a way that they don’t necessarily encounter stories that are naturally ones that they would gravitate towards on their own. So if you’re not picking up a newspaper and having that serendipitous encounter with a story that you just wouldn’t have looked for, you’re really missing out on a big part of the world. And so by just getting our news through whatever the headlines are on Google and Yahoo, and as those become increasingly more personalized for those users, I think the risk we face is becoming more and more compartmentalized as a society, that there’ll be a certain segment of people that follow X topic and a certain segment of people that follow Y, and never the twain shall meet. So that is really the hard thing for us as kind of a mainstream news organization trying to reach everybody.
Michael Winship: Is the public worn out, do you think? I mean you talk about people being really enthusiastic about the big scoop here in D.C., but beyond the District, I mean are people sort of worn out by all this?
Matea Gold: Well, I’d have to say, I worry, covering the money in politics beat, that I’m just contributing to the overall cynicism that our readers have about the way this town works, and that it’ll actually just kind of turn them off and at a certain point. I do get a lot of feedback from readers that seem really engaged in this story, but I think for a lot of folks this is just business as usual. So I don’t know how much of a disconnect there is, but I’m sure there’s a pretty substantial one, and so that makes it even more essential for us to try to drive these stories home in a real way that affects people’s lives. If we’re doing a story about moneyed interests trying to influence policy, make it clear how that affects people at home. And that’s not easy to do.
Michael Winship: There’s been a certain sub-current at this conference and some talk about whether or not the press is as willing to go after Obama as they have been past presidents. Do you sense any difference at all?
Matea Gold: You know, I wasn’t in Washington covering previous administrations, but I don’t sense any reluctance among my colleagues to cast a critical eye on this administration. If anything, I think that there’s probably in some ways a worse relationship between this White House press corps and this administration than past administrations. So I just think that –
Michael Winship: Why is that?
Matea Gold: Well, it’s a much more closed-off White House. The president has made himself available for much fewer question-and-answer sessions. He hasn’t sat down with a newspaper reporter for ages. And this White House has become incredibly adept at managing the message, and they control the message themselves and they distribute the message on Facebook and Twitter and really bypass the press corps. And, you know, kudos to them for figuring that out, that they don’t need us, but I do think that the lack of access makes it harder in some ways for a modern day White House reporter to cover the White House.
Michael Winship: And what about Congress?
Matea Gold: I think Congress is still a terrific place to find great stories, and there is an accessibility there that you can’t find down the other end of town on Pennsylvania Avenue. And, you know, there still is a lot of efforts to try to frame the story and spin the story, but you as a reporter can just walk around and run into a member of Congress and chat them up, so I think that’s great.
Michael Winship: Finally, just circling back to campaign finance for a minute, you talked yesterday about what’s happening on the state level and local level, so if you could talk a little bit about that in terms of campaign finance.
Matea Gold: Sure. I think one of the most fascinating developments for those of us campaign finance geeks that are following every in and out is that, while at a federal level there’s a bit of paralysis in terms of trying to uncover who some of these players are that are pouring money into (c)(4)s, state regulators are being very aggressive about going after them. It’s probably not a coincidence this is happening in majority Democratic states with Democratic AGs, but it’s not exclusively New York and California. So I wrote about Idaho, for example, where they really pushed to uncover the donors behind a ballot initiative on education reform, and lo and behold, it was Michael Bloomberg. So there are a lot of efforts to peel back the curtain that are happening at the state level, and I think that that’s going to be really a place to watch, if you’re interested in the disclosure fight.
Michael Winship: Matea Gold, thank you very much.
Matea Gold: It was my pleasure, thanks for having me.