New election economy; voter fraud billboards, N.Y. skyscrapers 2.0

By Steven Brill
October 23, 2012

Scoping out the new election economy:

No matter what you think about the court decisions, including Citizens United, that have unraveled campaign-finance restrictions, it’s clear that the resulting gusher of contributions has created an industry of breathtaking scale.

Estimates now put overall federal campaign spending for 2012 at about $6 billion – more than half of Hollywood’s entire box-office gross last year. And that’s only for presidential and congressional campaigns.

So it’s time for a comprehensive report, perhaps from the Wall Street Journal or Reuters or BloombergBusinessweek, on Elections Inc.

Who are the biggest players among the consultants, ad agencies and ad buyers, mail-order houses, pollsters and media companies? (I noticed that Gannett attributed much of its improved earnings this quarter to political ads on its local television outlets.)

And can we see sidebar profiles of the three or four biggest Election Inc. moguls – the ones who are making a fortune taking salaries and fees to deploy all of this money?

Who’s behind those Ohio and Wisconsin billboards?

Perhaps the most cynical political advertising of the year – and that’s a high bar  - are the billboards that suddenly appeared in minority communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, declaring: “Voter Fraud is a Felony!” Featuring a looming judge’s gavel, the ad warns that the penalty is a $10,000 fine and three and a half years in prison.

Based on the neighborhoods where they were placed and the fact that they simply announce a law that has been on the books for years but that has rarely come into play – because there has been no voter fraud – it seems clear they’re meant to intimidate voters likely to support Democrats. The billboards suggest there are some new laws that could get them into trouble if they show up at the polls.

What’s worse, the billboards say only that the sponsor of the ads is “a private family foundation.”

Clear Channel Communications, which owns the billboards, told NPR last week that the contract allowing the ads to be anonymous “was a mistake” that violates the company’s policy. But, ClearChannel said, it cannot break the contract by disclosing the buyer. (As of this writing, however, the billboards are reportedly going to be taken down.)

The continuing anonymity of the “family foundation” that threw its money around for something like this illustrates a sad irony of the new media age: At a time when there are countless political pundits, many of whom claim to be reporters, filling million of Web pages and blogs and hundreds of hours of cable and online television, why hasn’t some reporter done the basic, if difficult, work of finding someone at Clear Channel, at the contractor that posted the billboards or at the agency that created the ad who might know something.

There have to be dozens of potential sources.

It might take almost that many closed doors or slammed-down phones, but I bet someone would provide a lead on who this buyer is. (A major investor in Clear Channel happens to be Bain Capital – something that might excite conspiracy buffs on the left.  But I doubt it would have anything to do with getting someone down in the weeds at Clear Channel Outdoor to talk.)

Another potential avenue could be Internal Revenue Service records of foundations based in Ohio or Wisconsin. It’s a good guess that’s where the foundation is located, and reporting like this is all about testing good guesses. Something in their publicly available Form 990’s could provide a hint of political activity or the kind of political leanings that could lead to the buyer.

Still another path could be to pinpoint the billboards on publicly owned land. The municipality involved probably has to keep records of the revenues it gets from Clear Channel’s sales and might have to make those records available to a reporter (or might want to if the local agency is controlled by Democrats).

A building goes up on 57th Street, and it’s a story about everything

Last month, the New York Times published a fascinating story about a condominium tower rising 90 floors high above West 57th Street in Manhattan. It’s such a ridiculously lavish monument to the .1 percent – two of the full-floor apartments near the top (where his and her bathrooms will have views of everything from Central Park to Yankee Stadium to the Statue of Liberty) have sold for $90 million each – that it’s likely to drive much of the other 99.9 percent crazy.

Headlined “Rising Tower Emerges as Billionaires Haven,” the Times story reported that sales are brisk at the tower at 157 West 57th Street, which is called “One57” and is due to open in the fall of 2013. Purchasers are from all over the world – China, Russia, Canada, South America, Nigeria and, of course, the United States.

The Times, in fact, has done seven pieces about the tower over the last year, mostly focusing on One57 as a real estate industry story. But there’s a lot more to report.

Watching the rise of this largest residential tower ever built in the United States, I’ve wanted to read about the construction, traffic and safety challenges associated with building something like this in literally the middle of Manhattan. Have any workers been injured or died? Have neighboring businesses suffered from the traffic jams and the noise? If so, what’s been done to minimize that? What are the environmental, safety and other regulatory hurdles the builders have had to jump over, and what did they do to clear them?

I’ve also wanted to know what kinds of jobs have been created and who’s doing them. And I’ve been curious about what kind of high-tech communications equipment is being built into the apartments and what special security protections are in the works.

Then there are all the potential stories related to money – from a blow-by-blow of how the developer managed to get the project done after he had assembled the property just before the financial meltdown, to the tax maneuvering around the shell corporations being used by the future residents to purchase these castles, to the effect the building will have on retail outlets and restaurants in the neighborhood.

The story of One57 has elements of everything that’s fascinating and glorious, troubling and challenging about the age we live in: The widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The globalization of wealth, for which the building’s sales website is a modern billboard.  Regulation versus economic development. Old industry (construction work) melding with high technology.

So here’s my idea: The Times, or maybe the FT or the Wall Street Journal, should do a monthly column in their magazines (because this also demands great color photography) until the building opens, chronicling all aspects of the One57 story.

I even have the perfect writer to do it: Gay Talese, the former New York Timesman. Talese is well known for his classic magazine articles in Esquire (including profiles of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio). He’s also known for best- selling books, including “The Kingdom and the Power”  (about the Times), “Honor Thy Father” and “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.”  But one of my favorite Talese works is his lesser-known 1964 book, “The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.”

Nearly 50 years later, this could be a perfect follow-on.

A Yankee ticket sales slump?

A sequel to my note last week  about seats seeming to go unsold during the playoffs at Yankee Stadium: The day after I wrote it, I got a sales promotion from the Yankees that listed their retail price for playoff seats. I noticed that I paid less on Stub Hub (the online secondary sales channel) for my seats at the League Championship Series than the Yankees’ retail price for the same seats.

That’s right, not only were tickets not being scalped the way they were in the glory years, they were being unloaded at an apparent loss. There’s a story here, sport fans.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Fred Prouser

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