The Money & Media Election Compex

December 24, 2010 | By | Reply More

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney have put together about the best description that I’ve ever seen of the what ails us. Look, if we can’t elect unbiased representatives and if our media can’t fairly report the events of the day, what chance do we have of peacefully reforming the corrupt system we have? It turns out that these two problems are intimately connected. Here are a couple excerpts about ourMoney & Media Election Complex, which appeared in the November 29, 2010 edition ofThe Nation:

[I]t’s not just corporations and consultants who are setting the new agenda. The most important yet least-recognized piece of the money-and-media election complex is the commercial broadcasting industry, which just had its best money-making election season ever. Political advertising has become an enormous cash cow for it—roughly two-thirds of the campaign spending this year flowed into the coffers of TV stations; the final figure is likely to be well above $2 billion. Whereas in the 1990s the average commercial TV station received about 3 percent of its revenues from campaign ads, this year campaign money could account for as much as 20 percent. And station owners are not missing a beat; thirty-second spots that went for $2,000 in 2008 were jacked up to $5,000 this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. Much of this money will go to stations owned by a handful of Fortune 500 firms. No wonder station owners oppose campaign finance reform; their lobby role in Washington is similar to the NRA’s in battling bans on assault weapons.

Yet commercial broadcasters receive monopoly licenses for their scarce channels at no charge from the government under the condition that they serve the public interest. By any account, the most important role of our media is to make the electoral system serve the voters, who, as surveys continue to demonstrate, rely on local TV as their main source for news. However, local TV covers far less than it did two or three decades ago; according to the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, a thirty-minute newscast at election time has more political advertising than campaign news. Even when politics does get covered, the focus, increasingly, is on “analyzing” ads. And the cumulative effect of endless advertising overwhelms what little remains of independent on-air coverage. What incentive do commercial stations have to cover politics when they can force candidates and players to pay for it? Nice work if you can get it.

Are we lacking in options? Hardly:

Gathering the data and grilling the guilty players will make the case for fundamental reform, which must come at multiple levels. The FCC could require stations to grant equal advertising time to any candidate who is attacked in an ad paid for by corporations, with the free response ad to immediately follow the hit job. The FCC should consider requiring free TV ads for every candidate on the ballot if any candidate buys his or her own spots. This would allow wealthy candidates access but would prevent them from shouting everyone else down. Let the stations jack up rates to cover all the time, if they want. We suspect the appeal of TV ads will decline if the result is simply to open an equal debate rather than allow one side to dominate. And of course there is the long-overdue matter of providing free airtime to candidates and requiring debates to be broadcast.

Radical ideas? Hardly. Much of what we’re talking about was outlined in the original version of the McCain-Feingold bill of the 1990s and in other proposals advanced over the years. It’s time to renew them.

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Category: Campaign Finance Reform, Corruption

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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