Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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"Super-PACs May Be Bad for America, But They're Very Good for CBS"

| Mon Jul. 8, 2013 10:27 AM EDT
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action ad "Donnie."

Ask the average American about super-PACs and I'd venture to guess he or she thinks of: those incessant negative political ads during the evening news, something about the Obama-Romney race, or the sheer amount of spending ($7 billion!) during the last election season. (That is, if they even know what a super-PAC is.) For the broadcasting business, though, super-PACs have come to stand for something altogether different: a big, fat payday.

The title of this post refers to something Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS Corporation, said at an entertainment law conference last year. Moonves was understandably over the moon about the rise of super-PACs: In 2012, he explained, the network's profits were expected to soar by $180 million thanks to political ads.

And it's not just CBS that's riding high thanks to political ad spending. TV stations in battleground states are magnets for ad spending, and they're driving a new wave of consolidation in the broadcast industry, leaving a handful of big media companies well-positioned to reap hundreds of millions during the 2014 midterm elections and, especially, the 2016 presidential race. Just in the past month, the Gannett company bought 20 TV stations for $1.5 billion, and the Tribune Company inked a $2.7 billion deal for 19 stations. Those deals included stations in battleground states.

Washington, DC's WJLA, owned by the Allbritton media company, the New York Times notes, which serves both the DC and the northern Virginia markets, banked $33 million in ad spending on campaigns and issues last year. Columbus' WBNS, owned by the Dispatch Broadcast Group, booked $20 million in campaign ad spending out of $50 million in total ad buys. Ad spending was also up at TV stations in Wisconsin and Colorado. Wherever there was a political fight, campaigns and consultants were gobbling up ads. According to the Times, WJLA could by bring in $300 million if the Allbritton media company decided to sell it (which, earlier this year, Allbritton said it planned to do).

So all this political ad spending is making the owners of these stations mighty happy. But someone's getting the shaft, right? Yep: local viewers and businesses. From the Times:

Analysts say the surge in station consolidation this year has also been driven by low interest rates and by an enormous rise in retransmission fees for stations, which are the equivalent of per-subscriber fees for cable channels like ESPN and MTV. Some stations now earn 40 to 50 cents a month from each cable and satellite subscriber.

But those fees currently account for about 10 percent of station revenue, and even if they double in the next five years, as the research firm SNL Kagan predicts, advertising revenue will remain the most important part of the station business. Thus, political advertising is a lifeline, even if the sheer volume of ads sometimes makes viewers want to hurl the remotes at their sets.

"We get complaints from viewers," Michael J. Fiorile, the chief executive of WBNS's owner, the Dispatch Broadcast Group, acknowledged. "The bigger complaints are from regular advertisers who really get pushed off the air."

"Don't get me wrong," he added with a chuckle. "It's a good problem for us to have."

There are a number of worries with the escalation of the TV political ad wars and the broadcast industry's consolidation. For starters, it's far less likely that TV stations will fact-check super-PAC ads, let alone yank misleading ads off the air, which political analyst Kathleen Hall Jamieson is trying to do with her project. (By law, TV stations can't censor candidates' ads, but they can vet and reject those of outside groups.) After all, super-PACs and dark-money nonprofits are a cash cow for broadcasters. Why bite the hand that feeds? When the public interest group Free Press analyzed political ads and newscast stories in six TV markets in battleground states, it found "a near-complete station blackout on local reporting about the political ads they aired."

The consolidation of the TV industry, meanwhile, can result in less local reporting and more shared content between various stations. And the decline in original, local reporting could worsen with more consolidation expected this year. "With the consolidation of ownership there's generally a decline in the quality in local news," Free Press' Tim Karr told the Columbia Journalism Review in May. "It is directly related to the staffing of local newsrooms."

Even Republicans Admit It: Politics Did Not Drive the IRS Tea Party "Scandal"

| Fri Jul. 5, 2013 12:20 PM EDT
Tea party members protest in front of the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati, Ohio, during a nationwide protest at IRS offices on May 21, 2013.

With each passing week, the Internal Revenue Service's supposed targeting of tea party groups looks less like a scandal and more like a case of IRS staffers doing their jobs, albeit in an overzealous, at times clumsy, and narrow-minded way.

From the New York Times we now learn that IRS employees who vetted applications for tax-exempt status heavily scrutinized a Palestinian rights group, open-source software developers, and an organization trying to help musicians make money online. This comes on top of the news, as Mother Jones previously reported, that the agency also singled out for extra vetting groups with "progressive, "occupy," and "Israel" in their name.

That sound you hear is the last gasp of the tea party targeting "scandal," which some Republicans have tried mightily to hype into a Watergate-esque controversy. Make no mistake: As the agency subjected tea partiers and other conservative groups to an intense amount of scrutiny, it made those same groups wait for months, if not years, to learn whether they'd earned tax-exempt status. This is a big deal. Waiting around that long crimps the flow of donations that a nonprofit needs to survive. Tea partiers are right to be mad about that. But what the drip-drip of revelations in the IRS mess has shown is that it's not fair to say just tea partiers were singled out. Other nonprofits, partisan and nonpartisan, left- and right-leaning, politically inclined and not, got a grilling by the IRS, too. They also endured long wait times.

Republican Super-PAC Revs Up for House Immigration Battle

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

As the immigration reform battle moves to the House of Representatives, a Republican super-PAC backing comprehensive reform is gearing up for a bruiser of a fight.

In an interview, Charlie Spies, who co-founded the Republicans for Immigration Reform super-PAC with former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, said his group is focused on two sets of House Republicans: those who are on the fence about reform, and those who support a comprehensive immigration reform bill like the one passed by 68 senators—including 14 Republicans—last week. Republicans for Immigration Reform, Spies says, plans to target constituents who support reform in select Congressional districts and channel that support into the offices of their member of Congress. The point is to amplify grassroots support for comprehensive reform, giving cover to lawmakers who support reform and nudging those on the fence to get onboard with a comprehensive bill.

At the same time Gutierrez will continue a media blitz that's seen him on most major TV networks and quoted in national newspapers chiding his fellow Republicans for not embracing reform. "We'll be very actively engaged both from sort of a top-down and bottom-up approach of showing support for reform to Republican members," Spies says.

It's a strategy, he adds, taken from the playbook of the activists on the other side of the debate. Throughout the immigration reform fight, hardline anti-immigration groups have consistently picked out reform opponents and urged them to call and email their lawmakers to reject a comprehensive immigration bill.

On the fundraising side of things, Spies says Republicans for Immigration Reform has so far generated plenty of excitement—but little so far in the way of big checks. Many donors are still burned out from the 2012 election cycle. Or they're waiting for the 2014 cycle to begin in earnest before they starting cutting checks again. "People are holding off," Spies says. "They're saying 'we'll send in money later this year.' And so in terms of getting checks in the door, it's been slow. In terms of level of enthusiasm, it's been strong."

As the New York Times reports, a number of big-money players are plunging into the immigration fray to help get a bill passed. Those groups include the American Action Network, a dark-money nonprofit based in Washington; Americans for a Conservative Direction, another nonprofit run by GOP fundraiser extraordinaire Haley Barbour with ties to Mark Zuckerberg and Joe Green's group; and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Here's more from the Times:

But many of the most powerful and well-financed forces in the party are moving to provide cover for the Florida senator and Republicans like him who are pushing to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

Their message: if we ever want to take back the White House, we have to stop devouring our own.

As the party assesses its chances for the 2016 presidential campaign, many Republican strategists believe that they need as robust a primary field as possible, with more than just one or two viable potential contenders.

A messy fight over a subject as touchy as illegal immigration is a prospect many Republican leaders are eager to avoid, especially since three of their best hopes for 2016 are closely tied to the debate: Mr. Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who is expected to play a vital role once the House starts debating the issue next week.

All these efforts lead up to a critical meeting on July 10. That's when, in the basement of the Capitol, House Republicans will meet to begin deciding what to do with the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate. The super-PACs and nonprofits wading into the fray are betting that their ads and lobbying will embolden pro-reform Republicans for what's sure to be a bitter fight ahead.

Ohio Joins the War on Women, Redefines Pregnancy

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 10:21 AM EDT

In the race to cut off women's access to reproductive health services, Ohio appears to be pulling even with Texas. In the Lone Star State, Gov. Rick Perry is calling a special session to pass the antiabortion bill that was dramatically filibustered by state Sen. Wendy Davis. Not to be outdone, Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich on Sunday night signed a new, $62 billion* state budget that includes some of the most severe abortion restrictions in the country.

Kasich's budget, as the Toledo Blade reports, prohibits publicly funded hospitals from entering into so-called emergency care transfer agreements with nearby abortion clinics. Clinics need such agreements to care for patients with complications, and of the 12 clinics that provide abortions in Ohio, many may be forced to shut down as a result.

Another provision in Kasich's budget requires that doctors who provide abortions perform a fetal ultrasound and require the mother to listen to or see the heartbeat. Doctors who fail to do so could be prosecuted. The budget redefines a fetus as "developing from the moment of conception" rather than when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. (Most fertilized eggs leave the body before implanting, meaning many women who were not actually pregnant would now be considered to be have been carrying a "fetus" in Ohio.) 

Kasich's budget also sends Planned Parenthood to the end of the line to receive state funding for family planning services, effectively removing $1.4 million in funding. So-called crisis pregnancy centers, which do not provide abortions and have been criticized for providing inaccurate information, will now get state funding.

This isn't a complete surprise, as Kasich has always been a pro-life Republican. Yet a more complex political calculus is at play too: For months the governor has been advocated accepting Obamacare money to expand Medicaid in Ohio, and conservatives have savaged him for it. In the new budget, he line-item vetoed a provision that sought to block him from adding people to the Medicaid rolls. By allowing the antiabortion provisions, Kasich avoided yet another brawl with tea partiers.

Kasich is up for reelection in 2014, when he'll face Democrat Ed FitzGerald. By signing the new abortion restrictions into law, Kasich can expect to be, along with Perry, a top target of the "war on women" fury that was so effective in helping Democrats in 2012.

* Correction: The budget signed on Sunday by Gov. John Kasich totaled $62 billion, not $62 million.

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