Anonymous cowards are buying the 2010 election

This article was originally published on Salon on October 18, 2010.

It’s beginning to penetrate the public consciousness that the 2010 elections are being purchased, mostly for Republicans, by a shadowy group of wealthy cowards. These anonymous buyers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into attack ads, mostly against Democrats, via organizations that launder their money into an increasingly corrupt political system.

There’s not much anyone can do about it during this election cycle. The response time of the people being attacked has been slow, at best, while journalists have been in typical form, discovering the problem too late to matter. The campaign season is essentially over, and what was plainly going to be a big Republican gain could well become a rout, no small thanks to the opinion launderers and their paymasters.

But unless we want our nation to be entirely governed by puppets, on strings wielded by people who stay entirely in the shadows, we’ll need to find a way to put a hard stop to this — or force the anonymous cowards into the open where we can learn who’s doing the manipulating.

My short-term, personal response to the attack ads, and the one I hope you’re adopting (as I suggested several weeks ago) has been to treat them exactly the way I treat anonymous comments on news sites and blogs: Someone who is so cowardly that he attacks others anonymously doesn’t just deserve to be ignored; he invites active disbelief. Even the political organizations that do disclose their donors rarely do so in a timely way, so I’ve come to treat all attack ads as lies.

Maybe Congress will act, but probably not. The political class is most culpable in this growing offense against our republic’s bedrock, fair elections. A bill in Congress, called the DISCLOSE Act, has languisheddue to the opposition of Senate Republicans who say they’ll filibuster against it, and who have tacit collaboration from Democrats — always hypocritical on these issues, but never mind that — who never actually force Republicans to actually filibuster, that is, stand up and talk for hours or days on end.

Journalists, by and large, are nowhere near up to the task of sorting out truth from lies in this media avalanche, and they barely care enough even to attempt to learn who’s behind the onslaught. A few news organizations have devoted some resources to the issue during the past few weeks, such as the New York Times, NPR and Rachel Maddow’s teamat MSNBC. Naturally, there’s been near-silence from the media companies profiting the most from the lies, namely the local TV and radio stations that have been absolutely raking in cash this summer and fall.

The American public knows something is wrong. Several new polls showa deep unease with a system that allows anonymous but wealthy cowards to pollute the airwaves with their lies and deceptions. But if people don’t have a clear sense of how vast this pollution has become, it’s because they haven’t been given the data.

One way we could begin to get a grip on the size of the spending at local levels — apart from anecdotal guesswork — is to look at what broadcasters are raking in from the opinion launderers. Every local station is required by federal law to keep logs of political ad spending. NPR looked at stations in Pittsburgh last week, and in an unsurprising finding, reported major spending on behalf of Republicans by shadowy groups. From the show’s transcript:

PETER: So the groups are filing their paperwork with stations but they’re not taking it very seriously.

Some answer a few questions, most leave the important lines blank. It’s an indication that TV stations can’t act as a watchdog of these groups.

ANDREA: This is where the trail goes cold. We called some of the groups behind these ads. They either said they were busy, they’re complying with the law, or they didn’t call us back at all.

And they don’t have to. For most of these groups there’s almost nothing required in terms of donor disclosure. They can keep their funding sources comfortably hidden.

But from sifting through the public files at two Pittsburgh TV stations we did learn a few things.

PETER: We learned that these groups are spending amounts of money that were unimaginable just a few years ago. One group can easily spend $100,000 or more at one station, in a few weeks.

Multiply that by four or five local stations in each area, and five or six groups spending at that level, and the amount of money flowing from secret sources to fund attack ads across the nation is easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But how can we, as a nation, get the actual number? What we need is a compilation of every station’s logs. And while no single media organization could possibly do such a project on its own, and it’s obvious that local media outlets aren’t doing it themselves, there are ways to pull this data together — and the best way is to crowdsource it.

If I could be media czar for a day, I’d get every newspaper behind this project:

  • The first step would be, with the public’s help, to visit every station, get a copy of every log of political advertising, and then compile numbers at local, state and federal levels.
  • The next step would be to see who’s benefiting from the spending, i.e. who’s not being attacked, and disclose that.
  • Then, see if the spenders are following the law in how they describe what they’re doing with the money; as NPR observed, the gaps in the forms showed that the spenders were blatantly flouting even the minimal disclosure requirements.
  • Then get every media outlet that cared to trumpet the results for their own regions and the nation.

That’s the easy part, unfortunately. Learning how much is being spent, and on whose behalf, won’t uncover the names and businesses of the anonymous cowards who are pouring so much cash into buying a new Congress. But perhaps, just perhaps, wider understanding of the vastness of this enterprise would generate sufficient public outrage to force some changes later on.

It’s getting harder to be optimistic about our future. I fear that the corruption of the public sphere has become so overwhelming, and the public’s helpless acceptance such a dead weight for reform, that no amount of disclosure will help.

But if we don’t even try, we’re lost.

Whitman and Fiorina: Silicon Valley’s shabby side

This article was originally published on Salon on June 9, 2010.

The top California Republican candidates are a reminder of the tech industry’s less-admirable values

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who won their primary races to become California’s Republican candidates for governor and U.S. senator, came to great public visibility — and wealth — in the technology world. They represent elements of a Silicon Valley culture that was most evident during the bubble years of the late 1990s.

The culture had evolved by then. Getting rich was always a motivation for people in the tech industry, but so was innovation and competition that could be fierce yet fair.

Whitman, at least, knew how to run a company. She was a strong leader at eBay, a company that innovated in many areas as it became by far the largest service of its kind.

Like some other big tech companies of the era, however, eBay also resorted to over-the-top tactics to stifle competition. In 2000, itpersuaded a federal judge in California that Bidder’s Edge, a company that offered price comparisons across multiple auction sites, was “trespassing” on its servers — a ruling that threatened “the very foundations of the Web,” according to some of America’s top cyber-law experts. (An appeal was dropped in a settlement, and a California Supreme Court decision in a different case appeared to contradict the district judge’s ruling.)

But my chief recollection of Whitman was her participation in the culture of greed that overcame Silicon Valley. While she was CEO of eBay, her company sent lots of business to Goldman Sachs. Goldman put her on its board of directors, “paying her an estimated $475,000 for little more than a year of part-time service” and — in a practice known as “spinning” — it gave her “insider access to the initial public offerings of hot stocks worth millions,” according to California Watch’s recent round-up of the Whitman-Goldman ties. (Whitman has denied any connection between her eBay role and Goldman’s offering her IPO stocks at insider prices.)

Now, I agree with Whitman and her defenders who say it’s absurd to blame her for Wall Street’s hugely cynical, and in some cases probably illegal, manipulations during the housing bubble of the last decade; she was on Goldman’s board for only 15 months, after all, and that stint ended in 2002. It’s all the other stuff of that earlier era– especially the spinning — that speaks to her personal values.

One of her defenses has been that, well, the spinning didn’t bring her much money (about $1.8 million, which later went back to shareholders in a lawsuit settlement) in the context of the enormous personal wealth her eBay holdings had provided, as if it’s OK to do something unethical as long as the relative numbers are small. And in April, she told the AP that she wouldn’t do it again, but called the practice part of the “normal course of business” of the era.

That’s the point: Spinning was normal for all too many of Silicon Valley’s hotshots back then. It was also cynical and outrageous, part of the dismal value system of the time that went, roughly, “What’s acceptable is what you can get away with.”

Fiorina, for her part, was part of an ascendant valley culture of a different kind. She wasn’t as terrible a CEO of Hewlett-Packard as her critics maintained, but her pay certainly dwarfed her performance. The board had ample reason to force her out in 2005, and her platinum parachute of more than $20 million made more than a few admirers of the old HP gag even though it had become (and remains) a too-standard practice in corporate America.

For those who remembered the old HP, Fiorina’s tenure was marked most dismally by her  dismantling of something core to the valley. This was a vision and practice called the “HP Way” — a corporate culture created by the founders, William Hewlett and David Packard, who believed and acted as though employees and communities were as important as shareholders and executives. More than a few of the companies that rose in the valley in the wake of HP’s pathbreaking success held some or all of these notions as foundations, too.

Fiorina didn’t start the process of ending the HP Way, but she pretty much finished it. Even if she’d been a good CEO in other ways, that part of her tenure will remain her most lasting contribution — and not a positive one.