At the beginning of the week, Rachel Maddow reported on a small change in FCC filing procedures that’s put up online public records of election advertising. Those were previously only accessible in physical form and piecemeal spread out across several locations. While this does reduce the difficulty for the average person to access vital information, it’s not by much. Say, for instance, you’re interested in seeing what groups have purchased advertising advocating against the proposed labeling of genetically modified products in California – searching for ad buys across the entire state requires a state code that’s not listed on the “transparency” website. Even if you want to electronically go through the major media markets in the state, many stations haven’t bothered to list their political advertising, or incompletely list that an unspecified amount of time was purchase for an unspecified amount of money by mostly unspecified donors to the official anti-labeling fund.
With such spotting records of how the opponents to this public proposition (number 37 on the ballot this fall) have spent their funds, it makes more sense to look at their overall total “war chest” – which the California Secretary of State is obligated to make available online. Of course, the average person is going to simply look in those files under general information, which misleadingly only lists the total contributions as of June 30, 2012, creating the impression that only slightly more than a million dollars has been donated to this campaign. Oddly enough, the same general information section also specifies the subtotal of those funds raised in the previous three months, because that’s truly key information.
If a reader were to dig deeper, however, they might notice that the “Contributions Received” subsection strangely lists donations during the first half of the year and the month of July, with the additional information of what company or individual donated but without a helpful total (so grab a calculator if you really want to know). Additionally confusing, however, is that the section for “Late and $5000+ Contributions Received,” which seems like a narrow category is actually the most complete list, containing all contributions of more than $5000 and all contributions following the later end of July cut-off date. It still fails to provide any sort of tabulation of the overall amount donated into this fund – so again hopefully you’re quite good with sums.
While I don’t know the origins of this convoluted tracking and “transparency” system, companies seem quite capable of manipulating them – as the scarce million dollars most clearly listed are dwarfed by the more than twenty-five million dollars actually donated to this fund. Most companies, namely Monsanto which alone donated more than four million dollars, have waited until after the two cut-off points for “on-time” donations, and consequently aren’t overtly listed. Their reasons for funding the opposition to this proposition are clear – labeling allows genetically modified food products to enter the market place without being subject to public scrutiny, something that the public has strongly opposed, and for quite some time. Already, with ads suggesting that the regulations are inconsistent or nonsensical and fundamentally unrelated to genetically modified products, powerful businesses have been able to reduce the massive super majority in favor of labeling into a significant majority in favor of the proposition.
Making a further dent into public opinion, however, is going to require serious investment in advertisements like the above that can call into question the clarity of the issue. Likewise, the businesses that would suffer from the details of their products being known cannot be seen as pushing this information (that tends to make concerned consumers only more vocal) – so donating after their contributions would be more clearly listed gives them some cover from negative reporting.
In spite of that apparent strategy, some media sources, namely the Los Angeles Times and Ballotopedia, were able to report accurate figures of how much known companies were contributing to oppose proposition 37. Unfortunately, both point back to California Secretary of State’s records, which seem to disagree with them – stating that only a mere million dollars have been contributed to the campaign. You can see where this could easily go if reporting on the attempt to swing this election were to gain traction, as recent problems with “fact-checking” show.
The only long term solution here is to fundamentally repair these efforts at transparency – recording both how much advertising a campaign purchases and how much and from whom a campaign raises funds. The currently inconsistent records at best leave an incomplete picture on how public opinion is being manufactured and at worst are deliberately manipulated by funders to gain at least a sheen of innocuousness. Our current system isn’t transparent, but translucent, and the powerful seem to manage what can be seen of their actions and what can’t.