On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Politifact” series granted Milwaukee-area radio talk show host (and WI Magazine editor) Charlie Sykes a “Pants on Fire” rating for his claim that Joanne Kloppenburg had outspent incumbent Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser by a scale of 3-to-1.
In determining whether Sykes’ claim was true, Politifact relied on numbers from the Brennan Center for Justice, which estimated Prosser supporters outspent Kloppenburg supporters on television ads, $2.2 million to $1.36 million. In making this claim, they list the Greater Wisconsin Committee as the sole third party entity spending on behalf of Kloppenburg.
Merely addressing television ads, however, is a different issue than what it appears Sykes was talking about. According to Politifact, Sykes said pro-Kloppenburg forces “put in as much money as they will ever be able to… They will never again, in Wisconsin, be able to mobilize a 3-to-1 money advantage.”
Granted, television ads tend to be a third party’s greatest expense. But Sykes was talking about total spending – does the Journal Sentinel know, for instance, how much AFSCME spent on direct mail? Does it know how much money SEIU spent on paid volunteers to get out the vote on election day? Does the paper know how much was spent on radio ads? I don’t. And neither does the newspaper. “Spending” means more than simply buying TV ads (and non-TV spending is often more effective.)
Furthermore, the Brennan Center is a liberal organization (boasting Alec Baldwin and Arianna Huffington on its Board of Advisors), funded by billionaire liberal activist George Soros, which has a vested interest in making it look as if Prosser supporters outspent Kloppenburg’s backers. (If an arm of the Koch brothers put out a study on campaign financing, would the paper just take it at face value?)
In offering their “estimate,” they provide no citations and no methodology. The only way Politifact tests to see if their number is accurate is to mention that the Brennan Center figure showed up in other newspapers – including (surprise!) the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. So they’re basically saying, “we have no way of knowing whether this number is right, but one of our reporters used it, so it must be.”
In fact, any time an organization estimates independent expenditures, they are doing just that – estimating. In Wisconsin, the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign often puts out their hysterical, screeching press releases about how much campaign spending has gone up, yet they rely almost entirely on other press estimates. (Even with all their hyperventilating, we pick a governor for about the same amount that Prince Fielder is going to be making per year next season – not a bad deal for the state’s highest office.)
For television ads purchased by candidates or political action committees, those expenditures are reported publicly. Anyone can walk into a TV station and look at its public file. But for “issue ads,” the numbers are strictly between the group running the ad and the TV station. Just like Home Depot has no obligation to tell the public when and where it is buying ads, neither do independents. So it’s often in their best interest, when they talk to the media, to lowball the amount they are spending on TV – to downplay their influence. (Some like to make it seem like they’re spending more than they are, to give themselves credibility.)
So, in the end, is Sykes’ ratio right? Who knows? Yet one thing’s for sure – the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel doesn’t.