Almost all of us are completely oblivious to these campaigns. The special interests behind them go to great lengths to hide their involvement. During the health care reform debate, for example, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a large Washington-based trade group I used to work with—I was a member of its strategic communications committee—funneled more than $100 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to fund the Chamber’s anti-reform advertising campaign. Insurers knew that the TV ads would be more credible if people believed the Chamber of Commerce had paid for them.
Neither AHIP nor the Chamber was required to report this transfer of money or how it was spent—even though the intent was to influence the outcome of the reform debate and even though the $100 million was more than insurers spent in campaign contributions and to pay lobbyists. We probably would never have known about it at all had investigative reporters not been able to connect the dots after reviewing the groups’ tax filings.
Just as health insurers spend far more money on covert activities than on expenditures they have to disclose, so too do a variety of other companies and special interests.
While we know how much insurers and oil and gas companies dole out to political campaigns and lobbyists, we don’t have a clue how much of their cash is used to establish front groups or how much of it winds up in the pockets of either pundits-for-hire, like those depicted in Merchants of Doubt, or tax-exempt organizations that do their bidding.
One such tax-exempt group: the Lincoln Institute, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that “promotes the ideals of free market economics, individual liberty, and limited government.” WMCH has become one of the vehicles it uses to promote those ideals.
Ron Gordon, one of WMCH’s owners, told me his station plays less music than it did when I was a kid because he now has to pay much more in royalties for the songs he plays. Enter the Lincoln Institute, which has two broadcasting arms, American Radio Journal and Lincoln Radio Journal.
The Lincoln Institute helps hundreds of stations across the country fill airtime and save money by replacing music with talk. Gordon said Lincoln doesn’t charge him a dime. It doesn’t have to, thanks to its donors, which the organization doesn’t name. Being a so-called 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the institute isn’t required to tell us who its donors are.
While we don’t know for sure that oil and gas companies provide funding for Lincoln, we do know they benefit whenever a radio listener starts believing that more regulation not only is unnecessary but also might lead to job losses and higher prices at the pump.
Special interests of all kinds with big pots of money are able to influence elections and shape public policy not only by funding disinformation campaigns but also by hiding their role in the deception. And the cash they spend to do it now far exceeds what they spend in ways that have to be disclosed. Does this make any sense? Not to me.
Wendell Potter is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans and Obamacare: What’s in It for Me? What Everyone Needs to Know About the Affordable Care Act.