Follow the Money: The Campaign Finance Beat Is Important-And Challenging. the Tangled Web of Rules That Govern Fundraising and Spending Can Be Hard to Penetrate, and Doesn't Necessarily Make for Sparkling Copy. How Are the News Media Doing This Time Around?
Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review
HUNDREDS OF MONEYED REPUBLICANS converged at the refined Ritz-Carlton Lodge on Lake Oconee near Greensboro, Georgia, joined by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and a couple of uninvited journalists.
On Friday night, April 2, after Bush and Cheney had departed, two Washington Post reporters appeared at the Ritz-Carlton. Thomas B. Edsall and James V. Grimaldi--who together "looked like Mutt and Jeff," the shorter Grimaldi says--walked into the lobby and started interviewing Bush "Pioneers" who had raised at least $100,000 each for Bush's reelection campaign from friends and associates and "Rangers," who had solicited $200,000 each. The Pioneers and Rangers looked uncomfortable. A hotel staffer asked if the reporters were guests, and they said no. They were asked to leave.
They returned the next morning and found discarded papers, including a list of attendees and a schedule of events, in the hotel and in a spacious tent outside. Grimaldi, a projects reporter less recognized by many of the fundraisers and campaign staff than beat reporter Edsall, walked into a session in a windowless conference room and sat down. There, more than 300 of Bush's Pioneers and Rangers were learning that the Rangers would lose their star status, just as the Pioneers had before them. To qualify as a "Super Ranger," they would need to raise an additional $300,000 for the Republican National Committee, where the individual contribution limit is $25,000.
The April "appreciation weekend" for fundraisers and the insights from that session formed the beginning and end of a May 16, front-page Post story about "The Bush Money Machine" by Edsall, Grimaldi and Post database editor Sarah Cohen. It was the first of a two-day series that explored links between fundraising and access to the administration and included a memorable "Spheres of Influence" graphic showing ties between Bush and his fundraisers.
More than two decades ago, Deep Throat advised another pair of Post reporters to "follow the money," and their diligence helped topple a president (see "Watergate Revisited," page 60). Seldom is the link between money and political corruption so clear-cut, and the Post series on Pioneers did not establish any wrongdoing. But the search for connections among big dollars, coveted access and impropriety or its appearance remains a priority at the nation's top newspapers.
The 2004 presidential race has presented fresh challenges as reporters scramble to chronicle not only the mammoth fundraising operations of Bush and challenger John Kerry, but also to understand and document the ramifications of the campaign finance bill that Congress passed two years ago. Dubbed the McCain-Feingold law after its two main sponsors, it raised the limit on individual contributions to federal candidates from $1,000 to $2,000 and banned unlimited "soft money" contributions from labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals to political parties.
The money-and-politics beat has yielded illuminating and important stories during this election season, but also bewildering and even mind-numbing accounts. "Confusing" is a criticism leveled repeatedly at the media's sometimes-conflicting political money coverage. Following the money is a daunting and often thankless task, and getting tossed out of posh, private fundraisers is the least of reporters' troubles.
"It really is a thicket of legalistic rules and regulations and laws that are so complicated that half the people involved in fundraising can't follow them themselves," says Grimaldi, who covered the subject at the Orange County Register and Seattle Times before joining the Post in 2000. "Unless you follow it constantly, you're at an extreme disadvantage."
Even for the regulars, it isn't easy. Reporters often succumb to jargon--or ignore it at their own peril. "It's a beat with too many technicalities, but the problem is, when you oversimplify those, you can really distort the truth," says Edsall, who has covered money and politics intermittently for more than three decades. …