Something that really irritates me are when media outlets run a story that successfully plants the idea of a story in people’s heads while withholding all of the information necessary to determine whether the idea is valid or not.
I found the perfect example today. I got the story from Consumerist, who got it from Bloomberg. The Bloomberg headline is “AT&T Gave $963K to Lawmakers for T-Mobile.” The headline clearly suggests that AT&T bribed members of congress in order to approve its merger with T-Mobile. The evidence for this claim; however, is severely lacking. The article states that 116 of the 117 signers of a letter defending AT&T received $963,275 from “AT&T employees” in campaign contributions. Sounds like a company buying Congressional influence, doesn’t it? I guess so, because upwards of 3/4th of the comments on Consumerist were something to the effect of “SEE! I KNEW IT! CONGRESS HAS BEEN PURCHASED BY GIANT EVIL FACELESS CORPORATIONS.”
That may very well be true, but the incredibly limited amount of facts in this article are wholly insufficient to support such a conclusion. A little bit of critical thinking should immediately yield the following questions:
1. What exactly do they mean by “AT&T employees?” Does this vague definition include a minimum-wage employee donating $10 to a local campaign because they like the candidate’s stance on capital punishment? Can that really be considered a bribe “for T-Mobile”?
2. The total contribution seems like a lot of money. Almost a million dollars! But with some basic math, it averages out to about $8,300 per person. I’m no expert on campaign finance, but I’m guessing that’s basically a drop in the bucket to most campaigns. I’d venture that if eight thousand dollars is enough to “own” a Congressman, then every single Congressman is “owned” by about 100 different people, corporations, and/or pressure groups.
3. The main objections to the AT&T merger come from its main competitors, Verizon and Sprint. Who knew, they’re sticking up for us little guys! What big hearts they have! I wonder, of the Congressman who oppose the merger, how many of them received contributions from those companies, and for how much money? That information would be useful to know, and is not included.
4. Of the remaining members of Congress, the ones who are either neutral or opposed to the merger, how many of them also received contributions from AT&T, and for how much? It seems relatively common practice these days for large corporations to make donations to all of the contenders. That information would be useful to know, and is not included.
5. Of the 116 who received contributions from AT&T, how many have a strong and consistent record of supporting the right of private corporations to manage acquisitions however they see fit in accordance with free market principles? Surely a Congressman with a record of consistently supporting corporations right to merge cannot seriously be assumed to only be supporting this merger because of an 8k campaign contribution. He most likely would have supported it anyway.
None of this information is included, because it would most likely render the implied point of the article (AT&T is bribing Congress to do its nefarious bidding) obviously false. Any one of those five issues is enough to prove that this is a non-story. Instead, the media pushes an obviously biased point of view, and successfully convinces people of something despite an astounding lack of context, clarity, and useful information. Shame on Bloomberg for shoddy reporting, and shame on Consumerist for spreading it around.
EDIT: I want to make it clear, nothing in this story meets the technical definition of a lie. I have no reason to doubt the numbers they cite or the claims they make. As a result, Bloomberg will never have to issue a contraction or correction or anything of the sort. Technically speaking, they are telling the truth. It becomes analogous to a lie by intentionally withholding the proper context and relevant information which may lead people to make a conclusion that is not the conclusion they want people to make.