If the Paint Sticks, Sling It

MoveOn uses new “Caught red-handed” ad campaign to highlight Republican congressional candidates who put special interests before the public good.

Joel Bleifuss

Perhaps you have thought, If the voters knew how venal a GOP member of Congress was, they could never get re-elected.”

Eli Pariser says MoveOn is trying to find out: "How do you take the issue of corruption and tie it to the politicians that we need to beat in November?"

MoveOn is testing that proposition with a public service ad campaign that targets four Republican candidates whose votes in Congress have put special interest profits before the public good. Caught red-handed” is the moniker for a series of MoveOn TV ads that expose the lawmakers’ fealty to the corporations that fund their campaigns. 

MoveOn PAC Director Eli Pariser puts it this way: The most visible and insidious form of corruption is the form that is also legal, and that is the money politicians take from big companies and the votes that they give in return to help those companies out.”

Take, for example, Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth ranking GOP leader in the House. She represents suburban Columbus, Ohio, and was on the receiving end of this ad:

(On Screen: a dossier file and a photograph of Rep. Pryce.)

Announcer: Congresswoman Deborah Pryce – she accepted more than $100,000 from energy companies and she voted against bills that would have penalized those companies for price gouging.

(On Screen: a series of black-and-white photographs of Rep. Pryce.)

Announcer: Instead of protecting us, Congresswoman Pryce has been caught red-handed, protecting oil company profits while we pay more at the pump.

(On Screen: a close-up of Rep. Pryce’s hand in one of the photos as an invisible brush paints her hand red.)

Announcer: Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Jack Abramoff. And now Deborah Pryce. Another Republican caught red-handed.

(On Screen: Pictures of DeLay, Cheney and Abramoff flash across the screen, all with red-stained hands.)

To help the Democrats pick up 15 seats and gain control of the House, MoveOn PAC decided to concentrate not on the hotly contested races but on second-tier races where Republican incumbents had a good, but not insurmountable, lead in the polls.

Besides Rep. Pryce, MoveOn has set its sights on Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), and Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.). Each has been confronted with three waves of ads. The first, which aired in early April, focused on the votes that protected energy corporations from price gouging, as mentioned above.

The second ad concentrates on votes by the four that prohibited the federal government from negotiating lower prices with the drug companies. The ad aimed at Rep. Johnson shows a grandmotherly figure empty a pill bottle into her hand as the voiceover says, Seniors relied on her. Yet Congresswoman Johnson accepted $400,000 from big drug companies and got caught red-handed voting for a law that actually prevents Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices for our seniors.”

The third takes the representatives to task for votes against a bill that would have instituted criminal penalties against war profiteers like Halliburton. As a fist-full of money changes hands, a voice over reads: Congresswoman Thelma Drake accepted $25,000 from defense contractor PACs. Then she opposed penalties for defense contractors like Halliburton who overcharged the military in Iraq at a time when soldiers didn’t have enough body armor.” Indeed, in March, Drake voted against a Democratic bill that would have blocked firms that had been found to overcharge the government by $100 million or more from receiving any further contracts.

The targeted Congress members are crying foul.

In Indiana, Rep. Chocola expressed his anger that the ads have implicated him in voting in the interests of big oil, which contributed $80,000 to his campaigns, and the pharmaceutical industry, which has contributed $48,500. He denounced MoveOn as a radical group that does not share the views or values of the people of the 2nd district.”

In Connecticut, Rep. Johnson hit back with an ad attacking MoveOn: A radical group whose ads have been called shameful’ and misleading’ is at it again. … this group compared America’s leaders to Nazis.” That Nazi comment refers to one of 15,000 ads submitted in 2004 to the MoveOn​.org Web site as part of a contest. The ad was subsequently taken down by MoveOn. 

Rushing to the defense of the GOP incumbents, the Republican National Committee went on the offensive on June 9, apparently supplying the Pryce, Drake and Chocola campaigns with text for a letter that the campaigns could send to stations that ran MoveOn’s ads.

The letter Drake for Congress sent stations read in part:

The newest ad attacks Congresswoman Drake personally for allegedly protecting war profiteers and goes on to implicitly accuse the congresswoman of taking bribes. These ads are reckless, malicious and false, casting Ms. Drake in a false light by accusing him [sic!] of unsubstantiated criminal conduct. We also believe the republication of these allegations by your organization … subjects your organization to the same potential liability for defamation as MoveOn​.org.

In Virginia, Cox Communications, citing business risks,” agreed to stop running the ad attacking Rep. Drake. Thom Prevette, a Cox Communications spokesman and vice president, told Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot, In this case, it’s prudent for us to discontinue running those ads for business reasons.” Uh huh? Turns out that in 2004, Prevette contributed $500 to Drake’s campaign, as did another Cox Vice-President, Franklin R. Bowers.

And in Indiana, South Bend’s WSBT-TV, a CBS affiliate, pulled the ad attacking Rep. Chocola, while in Connecticut, Hartford’s NBC affiliate WVIT refused to take the ad. No conflicts of interest to report there – yet. 

But the GOP had its greatest success cowing the media in Columbus, Ohio.

Two Sinclair-owned stations, the ABC-affiliate WSYX-TV and the Fox affiliate WTTE-TV, pulled the ads. In response, MoveOn’s Pariser issued this statement: Isn’t it ironic the Swift Boat Veterans can lie on Sinclair-owned affiliates, but the public is shut out from learning information in the public record about Rep. Pryce?”

And the GE/NBC-affiliate in Columbus WCMH-TV declined MoveOn’s ad dollars as well. According to a spokesman, the station in consultation with legal counsel, made the decision not to accept the ad.” During the 2004 election, WCMH-TV did accept ads from the Swift Boat Veterans.

The Time-Warner cable station WSYX-TV in Columbus also refused to run the anti-Pryce ads. Turns out, Time Warner Cable’s Columbus Division president Rhonda Fraas has contributed a total of $2,000 to GOP candidates in Ohio since 2003. So much for the liberal media.

Yet the most glaring conflict of interest involves WBNS-TV in Columbus, where General Manager Tom Griesdorn pulled the ad that attacked Rep. Pryce for protecting the oil industry from price gouging legislation and that linked her to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. 

Rep. Pryce heralded the move, saying that her constituents no longer will …be inundated by these slanderous, negative attacks ads run on behalf of my opponent.” Greisdorn explained to the Columbus Dispatch, In the end I deemed it was defamatory because the allegations could no longer be defended to the satisfaction of our attorneys.”

But was it the satisfaction of the attorneys he was concerned about? According to federal campaign finance records, John Wolfe, the CEO of the Dispatch Media Group, the corporation that owns WBNS-TV, has donated $3,000 to the GOP since 1998. That is nothing compared to his wife Ann, who since 1998 has contributed $48,100 to the Republican cause, including $2,100 to Rep. Pryce, who along with the Wolfes resides in the tony Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington.

Wolfe’s Dispatch Media Group also owns the Columbus Dispatch, the region’s main newspaper, which has been less than zealous in covering the controversy over the MoveOn ads.

For example, in addition to not reporting WBNS-TV’s conflict of interest, the Columbus Dispatch has let stand Pryce for Congress’ claim that the congresswoman has no connection whatsoever” to Abramoff. But, as the paper reported last year, Rep. Pryce has received $8,000 in donations from a Michigan Indian tribe represented by Abramoff (she returned the money following the lobbyist’s legal troubles) and she has held fundraising parties at Signatures, a Washington, D.C. restaurant that Abramoff owned and where the fundraising operations Pryce controls spent more than $13,000 dollars.

Despite resistance from GOP affiliated media, the caught red-handed” campaign seems to be working. In Connecticut, a survey taken in Rep. Johnson’s district found that, following the ads, her share of the vote dropped from 47 to 41 percent, while her Democratic opponent Chris Murphy’s share of the vote rose from 46 to 51 percent – an 11 percentage point shift. Similiarly, in Virginia, Thelma Drakes’ 51 to 42 percent lead in the polls shrank to a 46-46 tie with challenger Phil Kellam – a 9 percentage point shift.

MoveOn set out on this campaign, in the words of Pariser, to find out: How do you take the issue of corruption and tie it to the politicians that we need to beat in November?”

The answer: Paint their hands red, for all to see.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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