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Big Oil Is a Major Booster for Clinton’s Campaign

FAIR.org readers took action in response to “Did Sanders Lie About Clinton’s Oil Money? NPR Factchecker Can’t Be Bothered to Check” (4/1/16). They got a response from NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen (4/5/16) and a do-over from NPR factchecker Peter Overby (4/6/16)—but NPR’s coverage still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of forthrightly addressing the issue of fossil-fuel funding in the Democratic presidential race.


In a column that addressed complaints about NPR’s Trump coverage, Jensen wrote:

My office has also received complaints from dozens of NPR.org readers, many spurred on by a report from FAIR.org, about a “Fact Check” by NPR’s Peter Overby. That piece stemmed from a spat between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over donations from the fossil fuel industry.
The readers were unhappy that Overby checked out direct donations to each campaign from oil and gas company employees, but did not include those from “lobbyists with fossil-fuel clients,” or money donated to Clinton’s super PAC. (Sanders does not have a super PAC.) Candidates are prohibited by law from coordinating with super PACs that support them, so one could make an argument for that decision.
But given that the dispute between the candidates was directly about donations bundled by lobbyists, it seems an odd decision not to at least acknowledge those sums, as other news organizations did in conducting their own factchecking. (That said, the Washington Post, in the most thorough of the other fact checks I found on this story, ruled that the amount of Clinton donations that the Sanders campaign attributed to fossil fuel lobbyists was “misleading.”)
In any case, Overby is right; the sums involved, even when the murky lobbyist-coordinated amounts are included, are a very small part of Clinton’s overall fundraising. But I’d be much more interested if NPR also delved deeply into the industries supporting all the candidates, rather than letting sniping from the campaign trail set the agenda.

FAIR appreciates the ombud taking the time to address FAIR activists’ concerns. And we’re pleased that she agreed with the main point of our post, which is that it was strange not to tabulate the money given by lobbyists in a dispute about money given by lobbyists.

It’s worth noting that when the Washington Post (4/2/16) called it “misleading” to total the contributions bundled by fossil-fuel lobbyists, that’s because most (though not all) of the lobbyists also represented other clients. Holding that you can’t consider such contributions as coming from the fossil-fuel industry effectively launders this money.

There’s only one reason, though, that lobbyists are collecting money and giving it to candidates, and that’s to purchase influence; if Heather Podesta someday comes to Hillary Clinton’s White House to seek a favor for her client Marathon Oil, she will be doing so as someone who put together nearly $400,000 to help Clinton get elected. If that’s not useful to her, why is she doing it?

Likewise, ignoring money from super PACs because candidates are barred from formally coordinating with them is very helpful to industries that hope to influence policy by contributing to super PACs. It’s essentially the position taken by the Supreme Court in Citizens United—that money cannot have a corrupting influence unless it goes directly to candidates. In fact, NPR’s ombud goes beyond Chief Justice John Roberts, because while Roberts upheld disclosure requirements on so-called independent expenditures so that “citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests,” Jensen suggests that there’s no particular reason listeners need to know about such expenditures.

As for Jensen’s assertion that money associated with fossil fuels represents “a very small part of Clinton’s overall fundraising,” the money given directly to the campaign amounts to about 1 percent of all the money she’s raised. My hunch is that NPR officials would pay special attention to a small group of donors who collectively provided 1 percent of NPR’s budget. The importance of money in a closely fought electoral contest is even greater, where 1 percent more or less money to spend can determine whether or not you can counter your opponent’s ad buy in a contested state.

Money associated with fossil fuels makes up an even bigger proportion of Clinton’s super PAC money—about 5 percent. You may believe that this money is unlikely to influence Clinton because she’s forbidden to “coordinate” with it, but it’s a good bet that super PACs would have a lot less money if large donors believed they were not an effective vehicle for obtaining influence.

In any case, it seems likely that we have Jensen’s influence to thank for Overby returning to the fossil-fuel funding controversy on April 6. Like Jensen, he dismisses the bundled contributions from lobbyists because some of the lobbyists represent more than one industry. He does, however, aver that it’s “pretty much true” that “Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that received $3.25 million from fossil-fuel donors, supports Clinton in the primaries.”

He adds that “there’s a catch or two”: This represents “less than 6 percent” of the money Priorities USA has raised, and the super PAC has spent “not a penny on ads attacking Sanders.” What bearing this has on the question of whether Clinton is influenced by fossil-fuel money is not obviously clear.

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