John Ossoff campaigning in Macon
Caption
Even before it was clear that control of the Senate would come down to the two Georgia races, outside groups had spent significant sums in this contest. Senate Leadership Fund has spent nearly $48 million opposing Ossoff, while a Democratic counterpart — Senate Majority PAC — has spent $31.3 million against Perdue or in support of Ossoff.
Credit: Grant Blankenship/GPB file photo

Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff’s production company received payments from a Hong Kong media company and Al Jazeera for the rights to air investigative pieces, but a Republican TV ad misleadingly claims Ossoff got cash from “Chinese communists and terrorist sympathizers.”

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Credit: FactCheck.org

 The group behind the ad, Senate Leadership Fund, further claims that such “dirty money” for Ossoff includes a “bankrolling” by “corporate PAC donations funneled through national liberals,” adding the Democratic candidate had “lied.” Ossoff pledged to not accept corporate PAC money; the ad instead refers to leadership PACs, set up by other politicians.

Ossoff’s contributions from all PACs total just $322,000, while his opponent, Republican Sen. David Perdue, has received $3.3 million from PACs, about 80% of that from business PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A Jan. 5 runoff election will determine the winner of this Georgia Senate race, as neither Ossoff nor Perdue garnered 50% of the vote on Nov. 3.

Even before it was clear that control of the Senate would come down to the two Georgia races, outside groups had spent significant sums in this contest. Senate Leadership Fund has spent nearly $48 million opposing Ossoff, while a Democratic counterpart — Senate Majority PAC — has spent $31.3 million against Perdue or in support of Ossoff.

All told, outside groups have flooded the race with $113.5 million, as of Nov. 19, with most of that — 66% — backing Perdue.

Ossoff's Media Company

The Senate Leadership Fund ad focuses on payments received by Ossoff through Insight TWI, a London-based documentary and TV production company of which Ossoff is managing director and CEO.

The ad begins: “Jon Ossoff. A trail of dirty money. Ossoff ignored the rules, hiding cash from Chinese communists and terrorist sympathizers.”

But the support for those charges is weak.

Citations in the ad on-screen refer to Ossoff’s financial disclosure filings for his Senate candidacy. In Ossoff’s May 15 filing, he listed 21 TV or broadcasting groups around the world from which Insight TWI received more than $5,000 in compensation in the past two years. But he amended that list in July 10 filings to include 32 such groups.

Two that he left out in May: PCCW Media Limited in Hong Kong and Al Jazeera Media Network in Doha, Qatar. Those are the supposed “Chinese communists and terrorist sympathizers.”

The conservative National Review described PCCW as “a Hong Kong media conglomerate whose owner [Richard Li] has spoken out against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.” The Financial Times reported in 2009 and 2010 that the Chinese state-owned China Unicom partly owns PCCW as its second-largest shareholder behind Li.

Regarding Al Jazeera, the ad cites a 2011 story by American Journalism Review. The magazine didn’t equate the network with “terrorist sympathizers” but rather attributed the viewpoint to “critics.”

The magazine said: “For years, critics have assailed what they see as anti-Semitic, anti-American bias in the channel’s news content. In the wake of 9/11, Al Jazeera broadcast statements by Osama bin Laden and reported from within the ranks of the Taliban, earning a reputation as a mouthpiece for terrorists.”

The story also described praise for the network. David Marash, a former “Nightline” correspondent, quit a job with Al Jazeera’s English-language channel in the late 2000s over a perceived anti-American bias, but by 2011, “Marash unabashedly praises Al Jazeera as ‘the best news channel on earth,'” AJR reported.

Ossoff’s campaign objected to the ad’s descriptions of the two media companies, which paid the money to air investigative documentaries. “PCCW does not = Chinese communists and Al Jazeera does not = terrorist sympathizers,” Miryam Lipper, a spokesperson for the campaign, told us in an email.

Lipper said that the structure of Insight TWI “doesn’t leave any room for this notion that he is somehow controlled by these groups in the nefarious way they try to imply.” Insight TWI “conducts international investigations that have exposed corrupt officials, organized crime, and war criminals around the globe,” she said. The company then licenses its documentaries to TV stations and distributors throughout the world.

“In some instances, as is the case with PCCW, TWI even licenses the documentaries to distributors like Sky Vision who re-license them to TV stations,” she said. “TWI would never have sold anything to PCCW directly, just received a royalty check from Sky Vision when PCCW ran TWI’s two investigations of ISIS war crimes.”

As for Al Jazeera, the network has aired several TWI documentaries on its English-language channel, mostly about Africa. “What’s clear is that some people have different opinions about Al Jazeera but that doesn’t make them something just because people say it,” Lipper said, highlighting a quote from the late Sen. John McCain, a Republican.

“I’m very proud of the role that Al Jazeera has played,” McCain said in 2011 of the network’s broadcasts during the Arab Spring. “I congratulate you and I mourn for those who have sacrificed in the service of providing the information, which is knowledge, which is power.”

The ad also charges Ossoff was “hiding” these payments from PCCW and Al Jazeera, based on the fact that he left those two companies off his initial May financial disclosure filing. Why not include them initially? Lipper told us that was “a paperwork oversight” that was “rectified” in the July amended filing after “a normal review of the campaign’s paperwork.”

Ossoff’s work for Al Jazeera was also part of attack ads when he ran for Congress in 2017, so that much was known. “This was widely reported in 2017, and he literally reported them transparently on a government website for all to see,” Lipper said. “There was no hiding.”

PAC Money

The Senate Leadership Fund ad goes on to say: “Ossoff lied, bankrolling his campaign with corporate PAC donations funneled through national liberals.”

Ossoff has said he won’t accept corporate PAC donations, and his campaign maintains it “has not taken a single contribution from a corporate PAC,” Lipper said.

Corporate PACs are set up by corporations and take contributions from employees.

The ad, however, cites a Townhall story pointing out that Ossoff had received money from leadership PACs, which are used by politicians to donate to other members of their parties. Leadership PACs, the story said, “allow candidates to receive corporate donations indirectly.”

But even if so, the amounts received by Ossoff from leadership PACs don’t show they are “bankrolling his campaign.” Ossoff has raised $32.3 million, and all PAC donations total only $322,000, or 1% of that.

Among the largest donations from PACs, $10,000 each came from End Citizens United, which advocates overturning the Supreme Court decision on corporate money, and Washington Women for Choice, which supports pro-abortion rights candidates.

Lipper told us: “The reason for a pledge like that is to avoid a position where you take money from a corporate PAC and then feel some kind of debt to pay to them by voting in their favor.” But on leadership PACs, she said, “we do not know their donors,” and she pointed us to a PolitiFact article from 2018 that quoted experts saying the two types of PACs are not the same.

“Leadership PACs do (usually) take corporate PAC contributions,” Andrew Mayersohn, a committees researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics, told PolitiFact. But Mayersohn went on to say he doubted a politician would feel indebted to a corporation because its PAC contributed to a leadership PAC. It was more likely the politician would feel an obligation to the lawmaker behind that leadership PAC.

As we said, Perdue, who has not sworn off corporate PAC donations, has received $3.3 million from PACs, nearly $2.7 million of that from business PACs.

The ad goes on to say that these “national liberals” are “spending millions more for [Ossoff] because he could help them jam through their radical agenda.” The words “$36 million for Ossoff” appear on-screen. That appears to be a reference to outside groups spending money in this election. We asked Senate Leadership Fund about its claims, but we didn’t get a response.

If it is a reference to outside spending, so far, even more money from outside groups has been spent to back Perdue, as of Nov. 19, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Outside spending in support of Ossoff or in opposition to Perdue totaled $38.3 million, while spending in support of Perdue or in opposition to Ossoff added up to $75.2 million.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with FactCheck.org a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.