Money, Power, Glory
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The showdown for the Democratic nomination continues and the gloves are off. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The Bloomberg campaign is spending millions on influencers and meme creators, but don't turn to cable news for the smart take.
TAYLOR LORENZ Here we are months away from the election and they are so ignorant of these massive sea changes that are happening online. I've never getting invited back on cable news again.
BOB GARFIELD Plus, the National Archives has been chronically underfunded and undervalued for years, but in today's toxic political mess that spells disaster.
MATTHEW CONNELLY By the end of this year, they're going to be able to start destroying records from the first year of the Trump administration when it first began to crack down on undocumented immigration.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week. I'm Bob Garfield.Happened to catch the Democratic debate Wednesday? If you did, you saw a good old Las Vegas demolition derby.
Elizabeth Warren slamming Amy Klobuchar about negotiating with the enemy.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN We can't be so eager to be liked by Mitch McConnell that we forget how to fight the Republicans. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Pete Buttigieg slamming Klobuchar for blanking on the Mexican president’s name.
PETE BUTTIGIEG You're literally in that part of the committee that's overseeing these things. And we're not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country.
AMY KLOBUCHAR Are you trying to say that I'm dumb or are you... [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Bernie Sanders, slamming Buttigieg for taking money from rich donors.
PETE BUTTIGIEG Look, my campaign is fueled by hundreds of thousands of contributors.
BERNIE SANDERS Including 46 billionaires [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And Buttigieg, like the feistiest Eagle Scout ever accusing Bernie of selling out organized labor.
PETE BUTTIGIEG You're the one who is at war with the Culinary Union right here in Las Vegas.
BERNIE SANDERS I have more union support that you have ever dreamed of. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD I'd say it was a free for all, but Bloomberg has coughed up more than 400 million dollars in the past 10 weeks to buy the name recognition to get him on the stage. And it was he who everyone else on the stage most accelerated to demolish.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN I'd like to talk about who were running against a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse faced lesbians. And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about male Bloomberg. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Before it was over, the word billionaire had been uttered 16 times. Sanders had called Bloomberg's wealth immoral, and Warren cornered him to let the women paid by Bloomberg's company in Me Too litigation be freed from the gag orders that went with the settlements. He said no.
In the coming months, if Bloomberg stays in the race, we are sure to hear more about these NDA’s but one media organization we won't be learning it from is Bloomberg News, an international organization employing twenty seven hundred journalists, as New York Times media correspondent Michael Grynbaum explains. When the former New York mayor officially announced his candidacy in November, Bloomberg News editor in chief John Micklethwait sent a memo freeing his staff to cover any and all aspects of the campaign, with one notable exception.
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM They would be prohibited from investigating Michael Bloomberg, and out of fairness, his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
BOB GARFIELD Is the ruling that if you open a closet and see a skeleton and you're a beat reporter, you have to close it? Is it that you can't just on your own enterprise start digging into, oh, I don't know, the subject of nondisclosure agreements? Does anyone know where the line really is?
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM You're asking the same questions that the reporters there ask their editor a couple weeks later. John Micklethwait, the editor, said that by ‘investigate’, he was really referring to a specific team of journalists at Bloomberg News known as the Projects and Investigations Team. They often do tax fraud and white collar crime and other sorts of material that is common to a financial news organization. However, the memo, as reported, did not make that distinction, and that's led to a lot of confusion for reporters and their sources.
BOB GARFIELD Well, let's talk about the nondisclosure agreement as an example of what might not be the purview of an investigative team, but which is very much in play as of Wednesday evening because Elizabeth Warren and others were all over Bloomberg, what scandals he had bought his way out of.
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM I would not expect to read that material from Bloomberg News because on top of this prohibition on investigating candidate Bloomberg, Bloomberg News has had a longstanding editorial policy that Michael Bloomberg's wealth and his personal life is out of bounds. And the company itself is not a legitimate topic for their journalism, which at this moment in the campaign takes them out of what is really one of the most pressing questions that reporters have at the moment.
BOB GARFIELD If it's clarity the reporters are seeking, Bloomberg provided quite a bit himself when he said:
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG Quite honestly, I don't want the reporters I'm paying to write a story about me. I don't want them to be independent. [END CLIP]
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM Let's actually go back and look at the origins of Bloomberg News and why it exists as a news organization in the first place. Mike Bloomberg started a financial data company selling financial information to Wall Street firms and to convince clients to pay extremely high fees for his Bloomberg terminal, he started up this essentially a wire news service, you know, competing with Dow Jones Newswires or Reuters. And so hiring reporters and journalists to do financial news and having a news division was from the start in service to selling lucrative contracts to the core product of Bloomberg LP. Now, over the years, that news organization grew both in size and prestige. In recent years, it's won awards for investigative reporting. They've hired some of the most experienced journalists in the news business. But at its core, it has always been an add on service for the financial clients of Bloomberg LP.
BOB GARFIELD And because it's the media business, it almost by definition sucks compared to his financial data business, which continues to be the profit engine for the company.
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM In fact, some people internally will describe it as a loss leader. If you're Mike Bloomberg, you're always looking at it in service too, from your perspective, the greater good. And when he was the CEO of the company, the greater good was the profit. And now that he's a presidential candidate, I think that Mike Bloomberg sees the greater good as Mike Bloomberg being elected president.
BOB GARFIELD Clearly, some journalists in the organization have chafed at the bread lines that they're facing and there's confusion over what constitutes investigation versus beat reporting, but it's not all just theoretical because there is a reporter assigned to the Bloomberg campaign. His name is Mark Niquette. Tell me about him.
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM Mark Niquette is the Bloomberg beat reporter for Bloomberg News. He's based in Columbus, Ohio. A veteran reporter at the news service, I’ve spoken to colleagues of his who have spoken very highly of his skills. And his job is to travel around the country and right about his boss as a political candidate. But he's actually delved into, for instance, tax proposals that Bloomberg has put out there or financial proposals for how to pay for health care. And he's really put them to the test. In the lead up to the debate, there was quite a bit of coverage about the attacks that Bloomberg was facing from his Democratic rivals and the fact that his prior public comments on topics like stop and frisk and homelessness in New York City would be likely to prompt a pretty vicious assault from his rivals in the campaign. And by the way, Senator Warren started off saying that Mike Bloomberg had referred to women as fat broads and other derisive terms. That was also reported by Bloomberg News. So I would not call it a sanitized chronicling, but it's all done in very dispassionate tone.
BOB GARFIELD Another consequence of the in-house restriction on coverage is that it invites political opponents and others to extrapolate from that a general abuse of his media power in service of his candidacy. But at least so far, there's no evidence that he is pulling a William Randolph Hearst and in any way trying to marshal the media power of his company in support of his campaign and its policies. Isn't it?
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM I've seen no evidence of that. However, they've published stories that are critical of candidates in the race, and those candidates have shot back and tried to undermine those stories. You know, essentially accusing the organization of bias. So these are individual journalists who I believe are earnestly doing their jobs, trying to present the campaign in the fairest possible way. And there are interested players who are using this institutional issue against them. And I think that is a real source of concern in that newsroom. Those reporters know that as a journalist, your credibility is all you have. And to have that called into question because of decisions by management is painful.
BOB GARFIELD There is no evidence that apart from the red lines that Bloomberg is trying to use Bloomberg News as a bludgeon against his opponents is it?
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM No, the reporters I've spoken with have said very clearly that they've not felt undue pressure from management or been forced to make different editorial choices to serve Bloomberg's candidacy. And frankly, if you look at his ad strategy, he's clearly just using other media outlets to try to get more support. He's pouring millions and millions of dollars into local television commercials, which are airing on cable news stations and local affiliates that are not part of the Bloomberg empire. He's a one man economic stimulus for the local television news industry. In fact, I've heard complaints from rival campaigns that the ad rates on local news stations in contested states have shot up because Bloomberg has been pumping so much money into the markets. So he's actually siphoning down resources from other campaigns who have to pay more money to get up on the air. So I would argue that Mike Bloomberg's candidacy is very much powered by the media, but not actually by the one that has his name on the front door.
BOB GARFIELD Michael, thank you very, very much.
MICHAEL GRYNBAUM Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Michael Grynbaum covers media for The New York Times. We sought comment from Bloomberg News editor in chief John Micklethwait. He declined to speak with us. But we did get in touch with Kathy Kiley, former news director at Bloomberg Politics, who now teaches journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
KATHY KILEY I started working for Bloomberg News in 2015, and there were a few times early on that I ran into this weird prohibition, they were minor, there was one time we were mentioning Mayor Bloomberg because he had donated money, think it was with Clinton Foundation, actually, and Hillary Clinton was the nominee to be at that point. And so I had asked, what's our boilerplate for mentioning Bloomberg? Because a lot of news organizations sometimes have to write about the people who own them. So there's a standard operating procedure at most places. And to my surprise, there wasn't one at Bloomberg. And so I talked to my bosses and I thought that we had an understanding. And the first time it really became obvious that we didn't was when the story broke in The New York Times that Mayor Bloomberg in early 2016 was thinking about running for president. And that is when it really became clear that this was different. We weren't going to be able to cover him in the same way we covered Joe Biden just a few months before when he was kind of weighing whether or not to get into the race, and it just seemed to me that we should cover Bloomberg in the same way and with the same level of aggressiveness. And when it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, I quit.
BOB GARFIELD So in November, the editor in chief finally released an actual memo putting in writing the Bloomberg.com approach to covering Mike Bloomberg and the company itself. Problem solved?
KATHY KILEY No, certainly not for the reporters and editors who work at Bloomberg and aren't allowed to do their jobs. The memo pretty much describes the policy that we were supposed to operate under when I quit. It basically says, well, we'll cover Bloomberg and his Democratic rivals one way, but we'll cover President Trump a different way. And this is a president who keeps saying that the media is not fair to him. And you've just corroborated his worst suspicions. You know, the other problem with this is it implies that there's a special set of rules for people who are successful and have money and are the boss. Here's somebody who invested a lot of money in creating a new service, created a lot of jobs for journalists. That's great. But turned around and undermined it all.
BOB GARFIELD Mike Bloomberg told an Iowa radio station that he doesn't “want the reporters. I'm paying to write a bad story about me.” If he were here in this conversation, how would you explain to him that that is the worst rationalization ever for suppressing his own news organization?
KATHY KILEY Well, I actually volunteered to go talk to him when I worked for Bloomberg. And this is what I would say. It doesn't make any sense, Mayor Bloomberg, to have spent all of this money creating this Bloomberg Politics site if you're not going to let it be credible and if you don't let it cover you and what you do in politics, it's not going to be credible. The other thing I would say is that owning a news organization is different from owning a company. It's a public trust. You can own a football team, but that doesn't mean you're the coach, right? You let the professionals do that job. Most owners of news outlets get it and they step away, let the professionals handle it. And it would have been so easy for Mike Bloomberg to do the same thing. And it's just a shame he didn't.
BOB GARFIELD Kathy, thank you.
KATHY KILEY You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD Kathy Kiley is a former news director at Bloomberg Politics. She now teaches journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Coming up, a sudden revenue surge for the meme industrial complex. Thanks, Mr. Mayor. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Mike Bloomberg reached the Nevada debate stage by flooding the zone with advertising and by the day after he was using tape from the debate to keep the ad surge going. This was one on Twitter, seizing on one of Bloomberg's vanishingly few positive moments on stage.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG I’m the only one here I think that’s ever started a business. Is that fair? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What we see next is debate video showing each of his opponents at a loss for a response. Nobody was deceived because the manipulation was part of the joke. But by Friday morning, it had been viewed 3.7 million times. Of such speed and ingenuity, memes are made and Bloomberg is sparing no expense to own the meme-a-verse. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bloomberg 2020 is hiring hundreds of Californians to post daily about Mayor Mike. And if those are the infantry, the campaign has as its special forces, many of Instagram's top ranking memers organized as Meme 2020 and paid yet unknown sums to turn idle strollers into voters.
TAYLOR LORENZ I mean, that's the point, is that there is no sort of organic support for him. So he's got to buy it.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor Lorenz is a reporter for The New York Times.
TAYLOR LORENZ He's doing things like paying memers to post sponsored content on his behalf. He's recruited aggressively from the tech industry from companies like Facebook and Snapchat. He's just hired a lot of people in the entertainment world too that sort of work in social media adjacent roles. So he's really aggressively built out this digital marketing operation.
BOB GARFIELD I've looked at some of this stuff and it's kind of shockingly unempathetic. Old Mayor Bloomberg's vendors have managed to channel the irony, the absurdity, the the endless referencing that defines meme culture, plus even self-deprecation.
TAYLOR LORENZ The last campaign that they did, which dropped last week, was all about making Bloomberg into this very self-aware, kind of funny character that is unapologetic about his billions of dollars. So you see these pretend Instagram DMs from him that were posted to these meme accounts that are like, hey, can you make me look cool? I'll pay you a billion dollars or like, hey, I heard about your meme account from my granddaughter. I want to buy an ad. It's funny because it's so self-referential. I mean, I do agree that he's definitely trying to speak the language of the Internet, and that makes sense. He's working with these people who live and breathe the Internet. That's who he's hired. But, you know, in the influencer world and in this world of sponsored content, it's all about authenticity. And, you know, knowing that these memes are sponsored and seeing that disclosure on there, I think has caused some people to kind of be more skeptical.
BOB GARFIELD As you alluded to, a lot of response to memeing Mike has been a kind of false kind of like-meme cultural appropriation. Why such visceral dislike?
TAYLOR LORENZ Young people very much support Bernie Sanders. And there are tons of meme accounts just dedicated to him. So I think to have these kind of interlopers posting content about this candidate, that's not even on the ballot yet. I think people just view it as inauthentic. And people have very close relationships with these memers and with these influencers. You know, that's the whole thing that makes them such an effective marketing vehicle. It's not like seeing an ad on television or a billboard. It's like essentially hearing something from somebody that you follow very closely. They, you know, is in your life every day, in your feed, every day. So it's a more sort of tighter social relationship.
BOB GARFIELD So for a lot of users, it's like ugh. But Bloomberg's numbers are rising very, very quickly. This stuff seems to be working no?
TAYLOR LORENZ Well, it's working. Yeah. My colleague Charlie Warzel wrote a great piece on this. And it's working in the sense that it doesn't matter if you hate it or if you love it. The point is, is that he is generating conversation on the Internet and that is valuable. I mean, Trump has proven how valuable that is. The point is, is you just want to keep the spotlight on you and then they're not talking about other candidates. I don't think people on his team really care if everyone loves or hates the meme. The point is that they're talking about it.
BOB GARFIELD We've actually talked about two different sorts of social media activity that Bloomberg's engaged in. One is these essentially social ads, the memes written and distributed by vendors. Then there's the more grassroots effort or maybe Astroturf effort and that's this army of posters who are being paid to fill their feeds with pro Bloomberg material. Some existing influencers who are being paid proposed, but largely employees of the Bloomberg campaign and, you know, I don't even know how to react to that. Is this just like the modern version of canvassing going door to door? Is it a different animal? Is it somehow inherently corrupt?
TAYLOR LORENZ Well, it is essentially digital canvassing in many ways. But it's also different. You know, canvassing you're going door to door. You're kind of talking to voters that you don't know. Right. In this case, Bloomberg is paying people to speak to people that they do know. You know, message everyone in your contacts list about Bloomberg, post on your own personal Twitter and Instagram. That's essentially micro influencer marketing, which has become hugely pervasive in the corporate world. You know, when Gap launched their niche men’s brand, Hill City, they didn't do so by taking out billboards, they did so by paying these people with, you know, 5,000 followers and under to post about the brand organically online. So we've seen that type of stuff happen in the corporate world and be a very effective marketing tool. It's just now those types of marketing tactics are making their way into politics and when you think of that stuff, you know, in relation to our democratic system, it can feel a little off for sure.
BOB GARFIELD Now, the FTC has rules about influencers, micro or otherwise, disclosing they must disclose that these paid posts are a form of advertising. And the FEC, the Federal Elections Commission, has rules as well. Do you see anything so far that Bloomberg is doing that is destined to run afoul of disclosure regulations or to force the agencies to promulgate new regs?
TAYLOR LORENZ The FTC is notoriously slow moving on this. I mean, they did put out a statement last week saying that they were going to crack down. They're just understaffed. And these ad deals are so complex and ever evolving that it's very hard for them to kind of get a handle on it, much less enforce any kind of punitive action unless it's against, you know, big companies like Sony, for instance. I will say that it's the platforms that have struggled to deal with this too, Facebook and Instagram, actually, in light of Bloomberg's sponsored meme campaign, actually sort of re-released new guidelines around some of this stuff, saying that, you know, influencers can take sponsored political content, they just need to use the branded content tool and be working with a sort of legitimate campaign that's already uploaded in their system. That said, because these are not traditional ads, they're not going to live in Facebook’s ad library. So it's all these kind of sticky regulatory and tech questions. And unfortunately, with all of this stuff, they're moving so much faster than any kind of regulation or crackdown can catch up. Bloomberg has hired these very sophisticated marketers and we'll see, you know, if by November they'll be able to kind of get a handle on it from a regulatory standpoint, I don't know that they've necessarily ran afoul of anything quite yet.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Here's another question. You went on several cable news shows over the past week. And are you getting the same stupid questions? Are you getting good questions? Are you perpetually rolling your eyes? What is happening?
TAYLOR LORENZ I mean, I will be honest, it's hard for me not to roll my eyes deep in the back of my head. 90 percent of the time I'm on cable news. It's disturbing just how ignorant cable news in general is of the changing landscape of Internet culture, which is essentially mainstream culture. When you think of even NBC, for instance, you have people like Ben Collins, Brandy Zadrozny who are doing incredible digital work on this sort of meme culture, misinformation, Internet stuff. And then you turn on NBC News or MSNBC and they treat meme’s as a punchline. It's hard. And I'm not trying to shame any specific cable news hosts. I think that they're probably just following the guidelines of their producers. But I think cable news in general has been so woefully underprepared for what is coming and what's happening. I mean, it was bad in 2016, they completely, I would say the whole mainstream media completely missed what was happening on the Internet. And here we are. You know, months away from the 2020 election. And again, they are so ignorant of these massive sea changes that are happening online. I mean, yeah. Oh, I've never getting invited back on cable news again.
BOB GARFIELD Look, I have to come clean here. For the very reason you cited actually earlier this week in our editorial meeting, I proposed devoting a small segment of our show in order to create context for the conversation we're having to explain memes and meme culture on the assumption that our, well, let's just say older-skewing audience might be in the dark about all things meme, and what happened was this. I was hooted down by the producers. Hooted. Objects were thrown, I believe the term “Okay, Boomer” may have entered the conversation, but I take a wild guess that you are not going to rush in to defend my instinct.
TAYLOR LORENZ No. I mean, I have to say, your producers are right on this one. I think this is the same kind of thing--
BOB GARFIELD Thank you very much, Taylor Lorenz is--
TAYLOR LORENZ I think unfortunately that's the same kind of broken mindset that a lot of people in cable news have. You know, they really underestimate their audience like no one loves memes more than your uncle on Facebook. You know, I've been in some of these meme groups. You know, parents share minyon memes, parent memes. And a lot of older people, especially on the right, have been very active in meme culture. If you think of some of the largest Instagram meme pages, they're not run by teenagers. They're run by, you know, people that would skew a lot older than you think. Memes have been sort of form of communication for about 20 years now, and they're just becoming more and more pervasive. It is just a communication method, the same way that text is, the same way that video is. It's just a format. It's not even new. So I would say your audience probably knows what memes are, if they don't at this point, you know, they should take a look because it's the way people communicate now.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor, thank you so much.
TAYLOR LORENZ Yeah, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor Lorenz is a reporter for The New York Times.
NEWS REPORT I've learned a new word today, Taylor, its memers, memers. Let me let me ask you what’s in the caption. I'm not sure I can see it there because I'm too old to look at memes.
NEWS REPORT I can't quite see the president endorsing funny memes about him. It doesn't really seem like his style, but is that something they're looking into?
TAYLOR LORENZ I mean, absolutely. I think the president--
NEWS REPORT Well, I've learned a lot. I've learned how to get to the hearts of young people these days. You have to just really make fun of yourself, I guess.
TAYLOR LORENZ Yeah exactly.
NEWS REPORT In a good way, in a clever way. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Ten years ago, just after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, much was said about the dystopian electoral future awaiting us here was Keith Olbermann and MSNBC 2010.
KEITH OLBERMANN In short, the First Amendment free speech for persons, which went into effect in 1791, applies to corporations. There are now no checks on the ability of corporations or unions or other giant aggregations of power to decide our elections. None. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Whether Citizens United really turned out that way is worth a closer look. But it has remained emblematic of perverse corporate influence and corrupted politics and a common enemy in an otherwise contentious Democratic field.
PETE BUTTIGIEG It is hardly a democracy, if Citizens United means that dollars can drown out the will of the people.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN We will fight to reverse Citizens United so big corporations can't buy our elections.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS Together, we are going to overturn Citizens United.
JOE BIDEN I agree The way to do with Citizens United is pass a constitutional amendment. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Despite all the public acrimony over that ominous Supreme Court decision, just about every presidential candidate is currently benefiting from it, most notably by skirting old fundraising restrictions with the help of super political action committees or super PACs.
SARAH BRYNER Super PACs didn't exist until Citizens United. But the spending by these organizations has really exploded in the last 10 years.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah Bryner is director of research and strategy with the Center for Responsive Politics.
SARAH BRYNER It allows for very wealthy people to make millions of dollars in contributions, and then the PAC can spend unlimited amounts of money supporting candidates.
BOB GARFIELD Not to say that all the Democratic hopefuls are financed the same way as we've heard. They each use their fundraising philosophies to signal variously their virtue or electability or broad base of support. And so it's complicated to sort out for media audiences and for journalists themselves, because none of these issues is as pat as the candidate's glib accusations of hypocrisy and moral trespass. Just for instance, at the New Hampshire debate earlier this month, Elizabeth Warren claimed financial purity.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN If you really want to live where you say put your money where your mouth is and say no to the PACs. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But now it turns out a super PAC is supporting her in the Nevada primary. So is she busted?
SARAH BRYNER Super PACs are by design and sort of legally required to be separate from campaign committees and politicians. So she can't say you can't have the super PAC, that's not up to her. In fact, if she were to say that, that would be running afoul of anti coordination rules.
BOB GARFIELD And there's a lot of wink, wink, nudge, nudge going on on coordination and always has been.
SARAH BRYNER Absolutely. And even beyond that, Barack Obama, the super PAC that supported him, Priorities USA hired his high profile staff after they left his campaign. Mitch McConnell is famous for putting out hours of B-roll of him smiling at the camera for public use on YouTube so that super PAC allies could take it and make it look as though it was coming from McConnell himself.
BOB GARFIELD That's probably just a big coincidence.
SARAH BRYNER Yeah, exactly. Sometimes campaigns put out press releases really for the benefit of the super PAC so that they can be sharing messaging. So certainly Warren is going to condemn the super PAC because she spent so vehemently anti super PAC in the past. Nobody cares that Trump has the super PAC supporting him, and nobody really cares that Joe Biden has a super PAC supporting him because he's never made a big deal about that in the past. And so he doesn't look like a hypocrite to the same degree that Warren or even Sanders would.
BOB GARFIELD Bernie Sanders on Wednesday had to explain dark money contributions made out to his own war chest.
SARAH BRYNER Yes. And Sanders has been supported by super PACs in the past. He claims that these are different from your other super PACs because they are funded through grassroots donations. They're not different. A super PAC is a super PAC is a super PAC. It's really up to the public to decide how much they care whether the super PAC is brought to you by Michael Bloomberg or brought to you by thousands of nurses.
BOB GARFIELD Well, you mentioned the super PACs of nurses. Are small donations from just plain folks inherently better than super PAC money from a righteous source?
SARAH BRYNER I think that when it comes to potential nefarious influence on policy outcomes, I think that they probably are because you can't say to a politician, hey, I gave you $5, can you write me an exception to the tariff law. Whereas support by a billionaire could really make or break your campaign and even though you are going to say I'm not beholden to Sheldon Adelson or Bloomberg or what have you, you might be more likely to grant them a meeting or bring them to your house for supper. That kind of thing. And so I think that that's more problematic. Yes.
BOB GARFIELD And that's just what happened to Pete Buttigieg, who has been excoriated for cozying up to rich patrons.
NEWS REPORT Buttigieg took criticism for his high dollar closed door fundraisers, including one held in a wine cave in Northern California. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Which he won't apologize over because he says the only consideration is beating Donald Trump in November. Trump has tens of millions of dollars coming in from big donors. And why should the Democratic nominee, whoever that should be, go into the general election with one arm tied behind his back? Is he wrong?
SARAH BRYNER I think the Buttigieg statements are a preview of coming attractions for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee, because the Democratic National Committee would never let the Democratic nominee skate without that backup.
BOB GARFIELD Now, I'm sorry for burying the lede, but most of the opprobrium about dirty money at Wednesday's debate was directed at the one guy not taking a dime from anyone.
BERNIE SANDERS Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That's wrong. That's immoral.
AMY KLOBUCHAR I don't think you look at Donald Trump and say we need someone richer in the White House.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The accusation is he's a billionaire trying to buy the nomination, which is fair enough. Four hundred million dollars so far. And I think that's just in 10 weeks. But he's also not ticking fossil fuel money. Farmer money. Is Bloomberg the apotheosis of the perversion of money in politics or is he actually the antidote?
SARAH BRYNER I don't think that billionaires running for president is something that we should view as the solution to all our money in politics problems. And Bloomberg, I think certainly he's going to claim like I didn't get any money from fossil fuel, but his wealth allows him to run a different kind of campaign, allows him to set the narrative through his commercials. The reaction to Bloomberg in Wednesday's debate has been very negative in the media I've been reading, but most people don't watch debates and everybody watches commercials and he just has so many more of them than anyone else. So I think that he's banking on being able to really control what people are seeing even if he isn't necessarily in the pocket of anyone else, he's in his own pocket and he has his own interests.
BOB GARFIELD So let's get back to where we began and with Citizens United, which is the big bogey man of the campaign finance question. Has it turned out that Olbermann was right? Is Citizens United the central player in this presidential process?
SARAH BRYNER Most money in the political system still comes from individual donors in limited amounts. That's still the dominant source of funds for most people. But the role of these outside spending organizations like super PACs and then also the nonprofits, which are also an offshoot of Citizens United, have increased and play a really important role in a lot of these really close races. We now have many Senate and House races where outside spending organizations are spending more than the candidate committees, which means that the candidate and certainly the parties are operating in a different game than the super PACs.
BOB GARFIELD One group that doesn't seem to be in the thick of it is actually the very corporations whose Citizens United imbued with humanity.
SARAH BRYNER Yes, people were worried that corporations are people now, and so they are going to be the main donors to political entities. That is very much not true. Very few publicly traded corporations and certainly sort of blue chip and retail focused corporations donate directly to super PACs. And those that do tend to be things like oil and gas companies that don't have a consumer base to the same degree that something like WalMart or Target does. If you have customers, you don't want to alienate half of them by supporting a candidate that they abhor. So I think that that has limited the amount we see from corporations directly. What really has happened instead is that very wealthy individuals who are generally unknown to the public have stepped into the political game in a very dramatic way, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to super PACs. Is that better? I don't think so. I think that that still runs the risk of undue influence by these rich people. It's just not the kind of consequence that people were talking about when the case was decided.
BOB GARFIELD I wonder, as we're watching the process play out in the primaries and as we watch the candidates snipe at one another about each other's perceived compromises, what should we most be paying attention to?
SARAH BRYNER I think that what is my number one concern in the 2020 campaign is the fact that a, well there's two things the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, doesn't have a quorum right now so they can't do any kind of enforcement activity. If there's a donation that comes in, and it's unclear who that donation is from, typically, the FEC could ask the campaign to provide more information and then issue a fine if the campaign was receiving it in a way that it violated the law. They can't do that right now. So that's a problem. But the bigger problem is that even though we have a watchdog organization in the FEC and then watchdog organizations like mine, you get donations to these super PACs from groups that are LLC Miscellaneous registered in Delaware a couple of months ago, no paper trail, no knowledge about who these are. These could be foreign actors very easily. And given the role that foreign money played or people think that it may have played in the 2016 election, I would be deeply concerned that a lot of this is going to skirt by because we don't have proper enforcement.
BOB GARFIELD And I guess I'll ask you one last question. From your perspective of the candidates who appeared on the stage in Nevada on Wednesday, who is the one who has the most splainin’ to do?
SARAH BRYNER I actually don't think any of them. These are all minor transgressions. I think Bloomberg is strange because he is self-funding so lavishly. Think Sanders has already justified his super PAC? I think Biden and Buttigieg and Klobuchar never really ran as populist as Sanders and Warren. And I think that Warren, you know, when she ran for Senate, she did an interesting thing, the first time I've ever seen this happen, where her and her opponent both disavowed super PACs and promised to pay the other candidate money if the super PACs spent on their behalf. In effect, sort of neutering the super PACs ability to spend in that race. So she really in the past has walked the walk. But I think that now she's in a position where she is going to need to be on the defensive just because of her past rhetoric.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah, thank you so much.
SARAH BRYNER No problem.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah Bryner is the research director with the Center for Responsive Politics.
Coming up, they say history is written by the victors. And also, it turns out, just disappeared. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media I'm Bob Garfield. With the impeachment proceedings behind him and the out in the open capture of the Department of Justice going pretty smoothly, President Trump is well on his way to securing the power he has sought all along. Maybe it's trite to quote George Orwell, but I'll do it anyway. “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.” For proof, look to our recent past, which has already been blurred to soften political dissent.
NEWS REPORT The National Archives has acknowledged that it made multiple alterations to this original photo of the enormous crowd at the 2017 Women's March the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, signs referencing women's anatomy were blurred, for example, as well as some signs that were critical of Trump. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That doctored photo first reported last month might just be the tip of the iceberg. Writing in The New York Times, Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University, detailed new evidence that the National Archives is letting millions of documents from the Trump administration just vanish. He discovered his first clue two years ago.
MATTHEW CONNELLY Normally, the stuff that they decide they don't need to keep tends to be stuff like ordering printer copies, routine kinds of administrative matters. But what shocked people was how they wanted to delete records related to things like sexual assault of undocumented immigrants, how it is that many of them had died in custody because of bad medical treatment.
BOB GARFIELD Now, some citizens and members of Congress actually paid attention and made a big noise. What effect did the pushback have on the retention of those particular documents?
MATTHEW CONNELLY So the National Archives took another look and they decided that some of those records, specifically related to sexual assault and death in custody, those records, they would hold on to them. But they decided to go ahead with the destruction of many, many, many other records related to poor medical treatment, to human rights offenses and accusations. The argument was that these are things that they didn't think any future historian would have any interest in. They decided that those records were ones that they could delete after three years. So what that means is by the end of this year, they're going to be able to start destroying records from the first year of the Trump administration when it first began to crack down on undocumented immigration.
BOB GARFIELD What else is on the chopping block?
MATTHEW CONNELLY So in the State Department, the undersecretary for economic affairs is responsible for a whole range of issues, like everything from aviation safety to the takeover of American firms by foreign nationals. All of those records are slated for destruction in the Department of Interior, records related to protection of drinking water, enforcement of laws on endangered species, the management of the mismanagement of native lands, native assets, all that stuff's gonna get deleted, too.
BOB GARFIELD When I read your piece in The New York Times, part of me was enraged. But I was also mystified because I thought there was federal law like the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act that specifically prohibited destruction of these records. Don't those laws apply here? What happened?
MATTHEW CONNELLY They do apply, but there are no real enforcement mechanisms. You know, when we had the Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy, she had probably acted in violation of the Federal Records Act.
BOB GARFIELD When she had destroyed some tens of thousands of emails that she described as personal.
MATTHEW CONNELLY Right. And one reason why they never brought a case was because nobody has ever been prosecuted even for the intentional destruction of federal records. To me, that was the real scandal. It wasn't so much, you know, this particular case, because there is so many cases like this and nobody ever does anything about it. The Trump administration has just pushed things even further. Our president makes it a habit whenever he's done working on something and there are some papers on his desk, he likes to tear those papers up into tiny little pieces and throw them in the garbage. This could not be a more obvious violation of the Presidential Records Act. And it turns out the National Archives did actually send staff to the White House to scotch tape those papers back together. And what happened to these people? They were fired.
BOB GARFIELD Why am I laughing?
MATTHEW CONNELLY Because otherwise you'd be crying. I asked the general counsel of the National Archives as a hypothetical. You know what if a president took their papers out onto the White House lawn, covered them with gasoline, lit a match and set them all on fire. What would the National Archives do then? And what this gentleman told me is that under the Presidential Records Act, the only obligation the president has is to consult with the archivists of the United States on what he's planning to do with his own papers. Those papers don't become the property of the National Archives until the end of that administration. But I think I'd be a fair question to ask. Did this president consult with the archivist, United States before he started tearing up his papers into tiny little pieces?
BOB GARFIELD One of his motives for this kind of conduct would be to obscure activities of the administration, to hide them from journalists, from citizens, from historians, but there's actually a you believe an overriding motive that has nothing to do with reputation protection.
MATTHEW CONNELLY That's right. It basically comes down to money. The fact is, the National Archives has a smaller budget now than it did in 2008. When we had our last spending bill, the Democratic controlled House of Representatives actually wanted to cut the National Archives even more than the Republican controlled Senate.
BOB GARFIELD Some of this is just a problem of scale, is it not? I read that the records of the George W. Bush administration alone are so large that it would take the current staff of the National Archives 250 years to essentially make their way through the whole bundle.
MATTHEW CONNELLY That's right. If they use the same methods they've been using for the last hundred years, then it will be centuries before we see the historical record of our time, or at least a large part of that record. But there are ways in which the National Archives could begin to automate the task of reviewing records for public release. The whole field of e-discoveries. It's a multi-billion dollar field now where lawyers are using algorithms to sort through millions of legal documents to identify those that are required to produce for subpoenas or those that they're able to retain as privilege. So we're just waiting, all of us, for the government to catch up with what the private sector is already doing in terms of managing this kind of information.
BOB GARFIELD This isn't just Professor Connelly posing that question. In your piece, you quote a guy named Franklin D. Eleanor Roosevelt who in explaining his decision to establish the first presidential library 80 years ago, wrote, “A nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people.” So to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future. Has that ceased to be the organizing principle of the National Archives?
MATTHEW CONNELLY Well, that's the question I asked myself every day. You know, why is it as a society we stop valuing the preservation of the past? Is it that we no longer believe in ourselves? Do we no longer believe in our children and their ability to learn from our mistakes? When will somebody in Congress, for instance, finally say enough is enough?
BOB GARFIELD Matt, thank you.
MATTHEW CONNELLY Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Matthew Connelly is a professor of history at Columbia University. That's it for this week's show. On the media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING The media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.