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« Web Exclusive: Rick Karr on Government Secrecy | Main | SEATTLE TIMES Reporter David Heath Answers Your Questions »

Producer's Note from Marc Shaffer

Marc Shaffer talks about the two shows he has produced on earmarks for the EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS.

The most recent show aired on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on February 22, 2008. (Watch the show.) Also, check out SEATTLE TIMES reporter David Heath's answers to viewer questions.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Mr. Shaffer are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

Producer’s note: When it comes to answering specific questions about earmarks and the earmarking process, I leave that to David Heath, whose knowledge on the subject far exceeds my own.

But I’ll will make just a couple of prefatory remarks.

According to Congresspedia.com, what we call “pork barrel politics” - the practice of members of Congress directing federal funds to projects that specifically benefit their local constituents – is almost as old as the nation itself. The first case cited is the Bonus Bill of 1817, legislation proposed by South Carolina Democrat John Calhoun to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier.

Flash forward a couple of centuries. In a massively expanded federal government, many see the job of their elected representatives to “bring home the bacon.” That’s why they brag about it in press releases. Senator Murray’s comment to David Heath that earmarks were in her view a good way to “help our state economically” explain their popularity. When re-election time comes around, it’s good to be able to cite the federal dollars you managed to get spent in the home district. In fact, in its endorsement of Congressman Norm Dicks for re-election in 2004, Heath’s paper the SEATTLE TIMES praised him as an “expert in the ways of Washington, D.C”., a “go-to guy” when it comes to getting federal funding for projects that serve the state of Washington.

It’s no wonder then, that between 1994 and 2005, the number and value of earmarks exploded. You can see the figures at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2007/10/13/2003948684.pdf. After retaking Congress in 2006, the Democrats cut earmarks (how much is debated). If earmarks are good politics, why did the Democrats carve them back? They did so under pressure from the public to clean up government in the wake of earmark-related scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham.

I have produced five EXPOSÉ: films, including “Quid Pro Quo,” which detailed the work of the reporters who uncovered Duke Cunningham’s corruption. It was a marvelous story, and a testament to the reporters’ instincts, skills and determination. They received a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. The reason Duke Cunningham is sitting in federal prison, serving an eight year term for corruption, and not writing press releases bragging about bringing home the bacon to his San Diego district, is that he was caught taking a bribe. Working on pure instinct, reporter Marc Stern discovered a suspicious house deal in which an obscure defense contractor (working through a shell company) purchased Congressman Cunningham’s home at what turned out to be a vastly inflated price. That discovery led to a federal investigation in which, among other things, a “bribe menu” was uncovered – a list of bribes Congressman Cunningham had demanded from the home-buyer in return for military contracts he would deliver to his company using earmarks. It is this explicit exchange of favors that is illegal. Simply providing an earmark to a company whose employees provide you with campaign contributions without hard evidence of a relationship between the two is not. As Norm Dicks told David Heath: “If you went to a system where you couldn’t take a campaign contribution, then the only people . . . could get money from are people that you’ve never helped.”

The media has a bias towards covering stories like the Cunningham case. Epic tales of individual wrong-doing that are big and brassy, good yarns in which deception and immorality are at their core. They capture the imagination and sell papers. In journalism we call those “gotcha” stories – as in “we gotcha.” Not only do these tales play to the public fascination with betrayal at the highest levels, they have the added benefit of casting reporters in the role of hero – the folks who uncover the wrong-doing so that it can be corrected, justice served. But gotcha stories have a shortcoming. They cast corruption in narrow terms, often ignoring the broader social forces that individual wrongdoing reflects. They’re about breaking the rules of the game, rather than about problems with the game itself. (To their credit, in follow up investigations Stern and his colleagues went beyond the narrow particulars of the Cunningham case to look more broadly at earmarks.)

Coming off the “Quid Pro Quo” film, what immediately impressed me about the work of David Heath and Hal Bernton is that their story, while possessing a few gotchas, was about the game itself. Everyone was playing by the rules. Their story, and their online database, placed the failed earmarks they write about in the context of the earmark system itself and allowed all of us to understand that this is not only about a few renegade Northwest legislators.

One of the writers expressed surprise that more reporters haven’t done what Heath did. As we describe in our film, Heath spent more than a year on this report. Few newspapers I suspect would spend that kind of time (and money) on an investigation like this. And Heath may not say so, but he is well-known within investigative journalism circles as a master in what is called “computer assisted reporting” - using computers to make sense out of data. This isn’t just surfing Google (although that’s part of it), but its knowing what records exist, how to get them, and how to manipulate them using various computer programs in order to see patterns. Few reporters possess those skills, and without them David couldn’t have done the story.

Defenders of earmarks, such as Senator Murray, often claim that without earmarks only the well-connected big contractors – the SAICs, Halliburtons and Boeings – would get federal contracts. Earmarks, they say, direct federal money towards valuable projects run by little folks far from the Washington beltway.

Without the degree of scrutiny that Heath and Bernton brought, that claim cannot be tested. The debate over earmarks is reduced to the kind of ideological he-said, she-said that has turned so many Americans away from engaging in their political process. By painstakingly constructing their data base to follow the money, and then carefully scrutinizing three profoundly flawed earmarks, picked nearly at random, Heath and Bernton pierce the rhetoric to raise real doubts as to the worthiness of all earmarks.

This is what great reporting does – it holds elected officials and others in power accountable, not with a barbed tongue, but with masterfully uncovered facts.


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Comments

Following the 85K was instrumental in the Bush justice department getting Elliot Spitzer off their case, so you see you can have your accounting and your scandal too. I think the casual hiring of call girls is endemic to a certain stratum of the privileged class, Democrat and Republican, secularist and Fundamentalist. To them it is little different than a sumptuous expense account meal, a matter of course.

We all can't scour arcane documents to discover how we've been deceived and cheated, but we can see the deductions from our paychecks being flushed down the cropper. If each taxpayer were able to designate the specific use of at least a portion of his tax payments it would go a long way toward restoring participation and confidence in our representative democracy. United Way and Community Funds do it. It should be simple with computers. Thus the need for all this FOA and paperchasing could be eliminated. Simplicity and transparency should be the general practice, not secrecy and procedural tail-chasing.

How come Expose hasn't gotten on the story of the stale ammunition sent to Afganistan by a sweetheart Bushite contractor? (Nose to the grindstone make a dullard reporter.)And consider this: It happened while our soldiers were destroying carloads of the same type, but fresher, ordinance in Iraq. How well this illustrates how profit potential, and not security or human rights, is the main driver of war. Consider also how infusion of earmarks to unscrupulous entrepreneurs in a locality destroys their more responsible and honest competition, and the exploited labor employed in useless tasks. Pure socialism and government enterprise could not top this ape-circus of corporate capitalist collusion.

Thank you for a thoughtful commentary on both "journalism" and the whole earmark situation. Yes, as Patty Murray says, the process can give smaller local businesses a better chance to succeed, but when we get into building bridges to nowhere, it becomes a serious problem. I would like to think that elected individuals would carry a sense of conscientious responsibility into office with them. Is that too much to ask for? Your program is an indicator of why my husband and I try to never miss Bill Moyer's Journal.

Responding from my Silent Majority roots to journalist is clearly over my head, but, I sense, since the Watergate & Nixon era, journalist have become fewer in number & have been replaced by "attack-dog" anchors & teams looking for ratings 1st & responsible journalism as taking to long to develop.
Journalism that looks at more than one facet of a story & "checks out sources" is crucial to our freedom.
Evening news that mentions election redos but fails to mention that a candidate was naive & did not even have their name on a ballot or refused to campaign is not journalism. Reporters that cover ways around States' Rights to determine when & how elections are held within the state miss the real story of a non elected organization denying a State, of the United States of America, a Right.
It seems to me that a Fed. or State law should supersede an organization's "rule".
Constitutional Journalist help me see the light.
Respectfully,
Billy Bob, Florida

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