Friday, January 20, 2006

Deborah Howell is still at it.

In her column last Sunday, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell touched off an internet feeding frenzy by stating that Jack "Abramoff . . . had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties," and that "a number of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), have gotten Abramoff campaign money."

As many people have pointed out, this is not true. Abramoff, who is about as Republican as they come, never donated any money to Democrats, including Reid and Dorgan.

Having heard from many angry readers, Howell now says: "A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff 'directed' contributions to both parties." You might expect that an ombudsman would admit a mistake, but you would be wrong. It's not a question of "better" and "worse," but of correct and incorrect.

Actually, it's not clear to me that Howell's response is much better. She continues:
Lobbyists, seeking influence in Congress, often advise clients on campaign contributions. While Abramoff, a Republican, gave personal contributions only to Republicans, he directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

Records from the Federal Elections Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff’s Indian clients contributed between 1999 and 2004 to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats. The Post has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with specific directions on what members of Congress were to receive specific amounts.

One of those lists can be viewed in this online graphic, while a graphical summary of giving by Abramoff, his tribal clients and associated lobbyists can be viewed here. The latest developments in the Abramoff investigation are available in this Special Report.
But take a look at her evidence. That "online graphic" is a short excerpt (apparently only the Bu - Da portion of an alphabetically organized list) of entities to whom Abramoff told the Louisiana Coushatta tribe to give money in 2002. I count 3 Democrats on the list, and 9 GOP/conservatives. Abramoff apparently recommended contributions of $2000 each to 2 of the Democrats (if you can read the figure for Sen. Daschle, you have a better computer than mine). For the GOP/conservatives, I see $155,000 in suggested contributions.

That Howell could look at the gigantic disparity in the recommended contributions on this graphic and think that it supports some sort of claim of equivalence is astounding. On one side is a mountain, and on the other a molehill. Equating the two is possible only out of some sort of a priori commitment to evenhandedness regardless of what the actual facts are. But the prevalence of thinking of this sort at places like The Washington Post may have been why Abramoff advised the Coushatta tribe to make token contributions to a few Democrats.

Nor does this graphic establish Howell's claim that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties, unless you assume that the Coushatta tribe was simply an unwitting pawn, incapable of acting on its own in ways like, oh, donating money to politicians. (Would journalists be so quick to ignore the client's agency here if it were not an Indian tribe? I wonder.)

No, to show Abramoff's hand here, you need to establish two more things: first, that the tribe acted on his advice -- something not shown here but that I assume the Post's reporters have tracked down -- and, second, that in doing so it wasn't doing what it would have done anyway. Indian tribes donated money to Washington politicians before Jack Abramoff was on the scene, and they will keep doing so after he is a guest of the federal correctional system. To claim that Abramoff "directed" these contributions, you need to show that the Coushatta tribe would not have otherwise donated, e.g., a few thousand dollars to a few Democratic politicans. It's not at all clear to me that the Washington Post has thought about this problem, or wants to think of it, but it's not that hard. The information is out there for those who care to look for it.

No, if you take a look at the second graphic which Howell cites in her own defense, you see the Post again obfuscate the difference between Abramoff's activies and those of his clients -- ironic, really, when the failure to distinguish between them is what got people so ticked at Howell in the first place. Read the fine print, and you'll see that the graphic simply aggregates "1999-2004 contributions by Abramoff, his tribal clients, and the lobbyists that make up Team Abramoff." There's not even a pretense to try to figure out which tribal contributions might have been "directed" by Abramoff. And yet Howell seems to think that this backs her up.

All of it just goes to show that it takes an awful lot of work to sustain the illusion that Abramoff was corrupt in a bipartisan sort of way, but that Deborah Howell and The Washington Post are up to the challenge.

To see what better reporting might look like, consider this Bloomberg article posted by Brad DeLong (comments at the top are DeLong's; Bloomberg's article follows):

A Good Story on Abramoff from Bloomberg

There are three money flows here. First, there is Abramoff's $130,000 of direct campaign contributions.

Second, there is the money given as campaign contributions by Abramoff's clients--some of which were expenditures directed by Abramoff, and some of which were expenditures that the clients would have made in any case. For example, the Saginaw Chippewa gave $279,000 to Democrats over 1997-2000, and $277,000 over 2001-2004, after they had gotten into bed with Abramoff. It is a safe bet that *none* of those contributions to Democrats were "directed" by Abramoff. The Saginaw Chippewa gave $158,000 to Republicans in 1997-2000, and $500,000 to Republicans in 2001-2004, after they had gotten into bed with Abramoff. It is a safe bet that $340,000 of those contributions to Republicans were "directed" by Abramoff.

The third money flow is the $80 million or so that was paid to Abramoff and company for access to Republicans leaders--$25,000 for setting up a meeting with George W. Bush, et cetera. Some portion of that money flow (the guesses I am hearing is about a quarter) flowed through to politicians (and overwhelmingly Republican politicians) as "lifestyle enhancements"--luxury vacation trips paid for by Abramoff's credit card, and so forth.

All this is by way leading up to this story from Bloomberg News. This is how a story on Abramoff-connected money should be written. Organizations like the Washington Post now have negative credibility as objective news reporters. But--as there ability to report stories honestly indicates--for organizations like Bloomberg, there is still a presumption that their word is good: Abramoff's `Equal Money' Went Mostly to Republicans (Update1) Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President George W. Bush calls indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff ``an equal money dispenser'' who helped politicians of both parties. Campaign donation records show Republicans were a lot more equal than Democrats.

Between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff gave more than $127,000 to Republican candidates and committees and nothing to Democrats.... [H]is Indian clients were the only ones among the top 10 tribal donors in the U.S. to donate more money to Republicans than Democrats.... Larry Noble... who directs the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics [says]. ``It is somewhat unusual in that most lobbyists try to work with both Republicans and Democrats, but we're already seeing that Jack Abramoff doesn't seem to be a usual lobbyist,'' Noble said. Abramoff, 46, is under investigation....
Between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff joined with his former partner, Michael Scanlon, and tribal clients to give money to a third of the members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, according to records of the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service. At least 171 lawmakers got $1.4 million in campaign donations from the group. Republicans took in most of the money, with 110 lawmakers getting $942,275, or 66 percent of the total. Of the top 10 political donors among Indian tribes... three are former clients of Abramoff and Scanlon.... All three gave most of their donations to Republicans -- by margins of 30 percentage points or more -- while the rest favored Democrats....

While you can't say for certain exactly how much Daschle got based on the graphic, you can clearly see that it's a four-figure sum, so it's less than $10K. Enlarging the graphic, my best guess is that it says "5000".
Another great post T.S., I can tell you either put a lot of work into these or have a knack for writing them naturally. I don't usually find time to sit down and read/ watch the news, but I have been following the Abramoff story... I suppose because it confirms all my dirty suspicions about Republicans, which is a terrible reason, but what can you do.

Are you a lawyer, by chance? Or just an enthusiast? Your sidebar has many interesting links.
Leszek --

My best guess is that the figure for Daschle was $5,000. But even if it was double that -- $10,000 -- then you have a list showing more than ten times as much in donations to Republicans as Democrats. And yet somehow Howell thinks the lesson to be drawn is that money flowed to both sides? That's just an abdication of common sense.


The question we should be asking Ms. Howell and reporters, is:

By what factor do the respective numbers need to differ in order for a responsible reporter to
a) report its magnitude?
b) consider it to be a major part of the story?
It just boggles the mind that anyone "reporting" this story would suggest that Abramoff was supporting Democratic politicians. The fact that Deborah Howell and other Post reporters keep saying this surely has more to do with what they're hearing from their sources. It's not something that any reasonable person would draw from the facts they're reporting.
Howell's airy wave towards the supposedly clinching graphics proved the weakness of her position. As much as a newspaper's art department tries to illustrate stories, it is not in the business of verifying them. In this case, as Paul Lukasiak has pointed out, the graphic obfuscates the story, by apparently whiting out the name of a certain Tom DeLay.

What next? Linking to a graphic from the Wall Street Journal to prove that someone looks like an old-school engraving?
Any comments on the info at the links that Waldmann has in

I don't feel like devoting the energy to making sense of this and seeing how this info fits with your analysis. Figure you are in deeper already, so can connect the dots better and more quickly than I.
Thanks for the tip. I have been traveling without internet access, but will check that out.
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