Mystery money and Mark Twain

    In my final pre-election Sunday column, I talked about the unprecedented flood of mystery money – secret donations from anonymous special interests and fat cats – that infested the campaign discourse in 2010. Unless the average TV viewer was blessed with unusual fact-checking powers, or was poised to Google whatever appeared on screen, there was no way to determine, in real time, even the cursory identities of groups with names like American Crossroads GPS or American Action Network.

    And even if one quickly discovered that Crossroads was a Karl Rove creation, and that Network was helmed by Norm Coleman, the recently defeated Republican senator from Minnesota (secret donor-backed GOP front groups have outspend their Democratic counterparts by more than 2-1); and even if one learned online that Crossroads and Network work out of the same Washington, D.C. office building (far away from the supposedly grassroots tea-party movement)…well, that would’ve been the end of the discovery process. Because there’s no way to find out the names of the well-heeled people who provided the tens of millions of dollars for the groups’ ubiquitous TV ads. As I mentioned briefly in the Sunday column, these groups are exploiting provisions of the tax code that allow non-profits to hide the identities of their donors.

    That alone is an insult to democracy and to the principle of transparency. Even worse, much of the mystery money in the ’10 election season was put to use for demonstrably deceptive purposes. Or, to put it more plainly, for the crafting of 30-second lies.

    Three quick examples, none of which I had room to detail in print:

    1. In one Crossroads GPS ad, which runs in Washington state, a senior on a park bench says that the health care reform law “threatens our lives.” The ad doesn’t explain how the reforms might wind up killing the guy, but a Crossroads spokesman said recently, by way of explanation, that the law requires $500 billion in Medicare “cuts.” Which rings a bell, because Crossroads targeted Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Joe Sestak in a separate ad, for voting in favor of health reform and therefore “gutting Medicare.” But, in truth, the law actually mandates $500-billion cuts in the future projected growth of spending over a span of 10 years – as a way to put Medicare on sound financial footing for the long haul. (And by the way, irony of ironies, the GOP-friendly Crossroads was lying in the same fashion that the Democrats lied in the mid-’90s, when they assailed the Newt Gingrich conservatives for “cuts” that were, in fact, cuts in the rate of growth.)

    2. American Action Network has aired an ad warning that, under the health reform law, anyone who refused to buy health insurance would then face “jail time.” This particular ad aired roughly 100 times, despite the fact that law refers only to the imposition of fines — and then spells out, in plain English: “In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed this section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.” (Italics are mine.)

    3. The Network group has aired in ad (against Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Mark Critz, among others) declaring that the health reform law “spends our tax dollars on health insurance” for illegal immigrants. Oh, really? The law itself specifically bars illegal immigrants. One need only possess basic reading skills to understand this: “ACCESS LIMITED TO LAWFUL RESIDENTS. If an individual is not, or is not reasonably expected to be for the entire period for which enrollment is sought, a citizen or national of the United States, or an alien lawfully present in the United States, the individual shall not be treated as a qualified individual and may not be covered under a qualified health plan in the individual market that is offered through an Exchange.”

    So, to review: Secret money from mystery donors floods into the campaign season, in unprecedented fashion…and then is used for the purposes of lying to those who are willfully credulous. And this process has been merely a test run for 2012.

    Is this a great country, or what? Mark Twain reputedly said that “a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” and one can only imagine what he would have said about secretly-funded lies in an era of instantaneity.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.