The Campaign Finance Skeleton in the News Media's Closet - (1/00)
By Ted Marks

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That rattling sound we hear from inside the 2000 election campaign can be traced to the skeletons in the American media's closet. Now that the quadrennial election season is about to enter full swing, those closeted skeletons are busy counting the tidal wave of campaign funds used to acquire political ads on TV and Radio stations across the country. Skeletal fingers are nimbly adding up the profits -- and they are substantial.

So, as this election year in the U.S. begins in earnest, here is a question which needs to be asked: should the media in the world's largest and most robust democracy -- a media which enjoys the free use of public airwaves and the Internet, and a constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of the press -- be chalking up substantial profits from the process of public elections?

Senator John McCain is championing campaign finance reform, and as he does, the public's attention is being drawn to the gargantuan sums of money the politicians are using, through direct (hard) and indirect (soft) fund raising efforts, to bankroll the existing election process. We've all heard the complaints of politicians that they must constantly raise campaign funds in order to be re-elected. And then there are the White House coffee klatches, the Lincoln Bedroom overnights, the donations from the Chinese, Thai and Indonesian business interests -- not to mention the Buddhist temple fundraising shams that the politicians have resorted to in order to raise hard and soft campaign funds. Those are all sins of the current Democatic Administration, but the Republicans are also capable of priming the money pump with equal relish.

It's not a pretty picture. In fact, it's downright ugly. The current campaign finance practices have significantly changed the nature of American politics. It's no longer one man, one vote. If you want any impact on politics, you'd better be prepared to open up your checkbook. Let's face it: the American democratic process has become corrupt, plain and simple, and McCain should be given credit for forcing the issue into the public discourse.

But what hasn't drawn much public attention is the fact that up to two-thirds of all the money raised by the candidates eventually end up as profits on the books of the broadcast industry. Nearly half of the so-called soft-money is spent on PR campaigns in national and local media.

Consider the numbers: in the 2000 elections, candidates are projected to spend $1.5 billion, with $600 million of that being spent on television advertising alone.

The record of public campaigns over the past 25 years only highlights a very ugly trend: in the 1972 elections, television advertising totaled $97.7 million (all figures are from the Television Advertising Bureau). By 1980 television advertising had nearly doubled to $ 182 million. TV spending doubled again by 1992 when it reached $355 million. Four years later, in 1996 it nearly doubled again, climbing to $515 million.

The estimate of $600 million in TV spending in this year's campaign comes from Common Cause, but no one would be surprised if the actual spending in this year's campaign goes even higher. So for the past three decades, the TV spending by the candidates has been growing exponentially and unless something is done, it will only continue to escalate.

The broadcast industry, of course, welcomes the cash, and who can blame them?

"We're Salivating"

"Yeah, we're salivating," said one Buffalo, New York TV salesman, as reported by the trade publication, Electronic Media. "It's a great time to own a broadcast station," said Media buyer Barry Bennett of Strategic Media services, as reported by the Political Standard, a newsletter published by the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say wait a minute; this isn't right. The media shouldn't be profiting from this process; they should be donating free airtime to the campaigns of any bona fide candidate. Indeed, there are a number of well organized public interest groups, including the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which are trying to do just that in order to help achieve campaign finance reform.

The fundamental premise underlying these organizations is that if we take away the need for expensive television and radio ads, we will eliminate the need for huge sums of money to finance the campaigns.

The argument makes a lot of sense. This journalist -- as a private citizen -- agrees with those advocating that bona fide candidates get free advertising. The details have to be worked out, but in principal, the media should not be profiting from election campaigns, especially at the margins they are now achieving.

Having said that as a private citizen, however, this writer is going to put on his professional newsman's hat and suggest that if I were advising senior management in the media, I would recommend that they resist any outside effort to rein in the media's role in our political campaigns.

Why? Well, in the American democratic experience, the press must be absolutely independent. Any effort to place controls on the media will ultimately diminish the independence of the press. Moreover, the primary defender of the free press should be the news media itself -- that responsibility comes with the territory.

Some years ago, there was an effort to organize a National News Council, which would have had the authority to review complaints against the press. The idea was conceptually sound, but the heavyweights in the American news media resisted the idea. Led by the New York Times, the news media simply refused to have anything to do with the formation of such a council, and without their support, the idea was deader than a doornail. And in our view they were right oppose the News Council.

In 1996, former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor quit his job to found the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, an organization whose objective was to get free airtime for political candidates. Taylor (now executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns) got some publicity and even an endorsement from President Clinton and former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, but his plan to require the networks to issue vouchers to candidates for airtime never got off the ground because it was vigorously opposed by the broadcast industry. Since then, Taylor has been lobbying the FCC to require that licensees for the new digital TV Technology be required to air more public interest programming. He is encountering opposition from both members of Congress and the broadcast industry.

First, Fifth Amendments Restrictions

Opponents of campaign finance reform claim that any attempt to change the current system through legislation or any other federal edict would violate the First Amendment guaranteeing not only the independence of the press, but freedom of speech in general. They also claim that any attempt to give away air time would violate the Fifth Amendment which protects private property being taken for public use without some sort of compensation.

In fact, the Fifth Amendment argument is not a very strong one. The air waves used in the broadcast industry are not, and never have been, private property; they are solidly within the public domain, and the idea that a network or any other commercial entity has private ownership rights to broadcast technology is simply ludicrous.

Likewise, the Internet is also very much within the public domain. No one claims to "own" the Internet (except perhaps Al Gore), and should anyone make such a claim they would simply not be taken seriously (Gore, again).

The only valid position against mandating free airtime for political candidates is the Free Press argument, and we believe that defense alone should be sufficient to win the debate. If we tinker with the First Amendment we are tinkering with the core values of the American democratic experience.

Still, the greed and corruption surrounding current campaign finances is equally unacceptable. If we don't do something, the special interests will take over the system, and if that happens, then the American experience will start to die off, at the relatively tender age of little more than 200 years.

So how do we resolve the inherent conflict between common sense strategy of giving bona fide candidates free access to the media and protecting the interests of a free and independent press?

Unilateral Action

The easiest solution is for the news media to simply unilaterally decide to give the candidates free access to television, radio, and even newspapers and magazines (most candidates are already making abundant good use of the Internet).

Unilateral action is an easy idea to suggest, but much harder achieve as a practical reality. The only way to achieve this goal, we believe, is for the senior management of the American news media to get together and decide that it's in the public interest to unilaterally and arbitrarily institute this reform.

We don't need a study group, or a round of polls. As the News Council experience showed, the news media will not stand for a "well-rounded" commission to take on the problem. The only way to get this thing done is for the senior management of the most influential American media organizations to get together, find a common ground and decide to do it.

How?

Well, we suggest that the captains of the media industry (CMI) have lunch one day, talk about the problem and then agree that the public interest would be served if they agreed to voluntarily lift the burden of expensive advertising off the candidates. Participants in the meeting should include Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Donald Graham, John Curley, Tony Ridder, Mark Willes, Jack Welch, Gerald Levine, Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, and Mel Karmazin (if the others would have him, Rupert Murdoch should also probably be invited).

Make the decision first, and then figure out how to do it. Once a commitment is made by this group of influential media managers, it will be done -- or they aren't the managers we think they are.

Some will raise the specter of anti-trust implications in such a concerted action. That charge can be de-fused by the simple fact that this unilateral action will cost the industry money as it acts in the public good. If anything, the more serious reaction is likely to be from shareholders in the public corporations which own the media. But if the action is presented as a reasonable, altruistic, patriotic effort, then even those critics will conceivably be won over. It will take some effort to make a convincing case to win over public opinion, but it is a very winnable case from the start.

Some tell us that we should let Congress take care of this through the FCC or FEC. We don't think so. In the last few decades we as a society have left too much to the government, and in this instance, we definitely do not want the government legislating or regulating the press. In any event, the CMI would be foolish to let the government get its foot in the door as the regulator of the press. Unilateral action would render any government action a moot issue.

There are occasions when a country, an institution or a person is presented with the opportunity to make a real difference -- to take action that will have a fundamental impact in our culture. The founding fathers did this in 1776; Abraham Lincoln did it when he took office; FDR and Winston Churchill did this in the build-up to World War II. While campaign finance reform may not rank with the birth of the nation, the Civil War or World War II, it represents a very serious flaw in our system, and the group of gentlemen listed above have an important opportunity to help the system correct itself.

 

Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates, LLC. Want to comment on this article?  Submit your comments to our Campaign Finance Skeleton discussion forum.

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