May
04
1997

Hidden Culprit in Campaign Finance Scandal:

The TV Industry

The news you are about to read is news you may never see on television.

It's about an industry that has long had unrivaled clout on Capitol Hill, an industry that receives billions in corporate welfare, an industry whose gifts to -- and influence over -- Washington politicians dwarf the lavishly scrutinized Chinese or Indonesian efforts.

Indeed, while many industries benefit from the current corrupt system of campaign finance, no other industry benefits more directly. And it's hard to think of an industry that is a bigger impediment to campaign reform.

This story is about the television industry -- its power and greed.

It wasn't until last October that national TV news finally began serious -- and long overdue -- coverage of campaign finance abuses and the limitless "soft money" to political party organizations. But one piece of the story has been almost totally avoided: the huge soft money contributions served up by the owners of America's top TV news networks.

In the 1995-96 election cycle, over $ 3.2 million was donated to national political organizations by the five TV news networks, their corporate parents, subsidiaries or top officers. The five heavyweights are Disney (ABC), Time Warner (CNN), News Corp/Rupert Murdoch (Fox), General Electric (NBC) and Westinghouse (CBS).

The national soft money was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, although Rupert Murdoch tipped the balance rightward with an additional $1 million pre-election gift to the California GOP. (The five firms gave another $1.2 million in PAC donations or "hard money" directly to federal candidates.)

Given the size of the donations, it's hard to believe that network TV journalists failed to notice them. Or that TV journalists swallow the insinuation -- found in much of their coverage -- that while donations from foreign interests veil ulterior motives, big gifts from U.S. corporate interests are simply contributions to good government.

The truth is, TV producers and correspondents know that probing the political donations of one's boss is not the surest path to job security or advancement. A surer path is self-censorship.

So certain questions don't get asked, like: What were TV owners hoping to gain from their hefty donations? Were they paying for the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that gave them unprecedented power over America's airwaves and cable TV? The act gave TV moguls assorted prizes: the right to acquire more stations, relaxed license renewal, deregulation of cable rates, etc.

Or were TV owners paying for the federal giveaway of the digital spectrum? The majority of Americans who get their news from television may have never heard of the spectrum giveaway. Bob Dole labeled it "big corporate welfare." The head of the Federal Communications Commission called it "the biggest single gift of public property to any industry in this century."

For those of you who get your news from television, here's what you missed. Last month, the FCC carried out the will of Congress by awarding valuable new digital frequencies to the current TV license holders -- and doing so free of charge. If auctioned, this digital spectrum would have reaped an estimated $20 to $70 billion.

With the new spectrum, instead of just channel 7, a broadcaster may soon be controlling channels 7a, 7b, 7c, 7d, 7e and 7f. TV broadcasters -- long accustomed to high rates of return -- stand to gain even bigger profits.

"The rip-off is on a scale vaster than dreamed of by yesteryear's robber barons," wrote conservative columnist William Safire, not known as a corporate critic. "It's as if each American family is to be taxed $1,000 to enrich the stockholders of Disney, GE and Westinghouse."

Not surprisingly, it's a rip-off that never got mentioned on any of the nightly network news segments that focus on government waste -- like NBC's "Fleecing of America" or ABC's "It's Your Money."

Americans across the political spectrum are amazingly united in their complaints that today's TV broadcasters pollute the airwaves with mind-numbing violence, sensationalism and sleaze -- yet Congress has quietly bestowed still more broadcasting power on these profit-hungry companies.

If ordinary Americans had been consulted, they might have offered alternative proposals for allocating the new spectrum -- perhaps frequencies should have gone to educational, civic and non-profit organizations. After all, by law the airwaves belong to the public, not to private business owners.

So how to explain what Congress did?

In a word, Congress got "nabbed" by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). One of Washington's most powerful and feared lobbies, NAB has an annual budget of $35 million and members in every Congressional district with unique power to shape the image of politicians for better or worse.

"No one has more sway with members of Congress than the local broadcaster," NAB President Edward Fritts commented in 1995. It doesn't hurt that Fritts is a longtime friend and college roommate of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

In March 1996, when several members of Congress suggested that broadcasters pay something for the new spectrum they were to receive, NAB launched a $2 million ad campaign with deceptive TV commercials urging viewers to call Congress to protest a "TV tax" that would end free TV.

In March 1997, when President Clinton asked that broadcasters set aside free TV time for candidates, NAB reacted with the indignation one might expect from the NRA if the President had proposed banning not only assault weapons, but hunting rifles, handguns and toy guns. Fritts huffed that mandatory free air time was "blatantly unconstitutional" and unworkable. In fact, free time is provided to candidates in most of the world's industrial democracies -- as Common Cause notes in an eye-opening new report on the U.S. broadcast lobby.

NAB has good reason to lobby forcefully to preserve our money-drenched campaign system. In 1996, TV received $400 million in political ad revenues from candidates and political parties. TV owners end up pocketing a major share of the funds raised by politicians, especially in statewide races.

Today's Senate campaigns function as collection agencies for broadcasters," remarked Sen. Bill Bradley a few years ago. "You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations."

Year after year, the pay-to-play political system further marginalizes and misinforms average citizens while empowering moneyed interests and enriching the TV industry. Last month, there was an election in Los Angeles for mayor, city council and other posts; on the three network-owned stations, the 11 p.m. news offered viewers three times as much campaign advertising as campaign news.

With vast influence over Congress -- and confidence that its clout will be skirted by network reporters -- the TV lobby is one of the key obstacles to political reform in our country. It's a mark of television's power that this obstacle remains so shrouded.

A version of this appeared in the Baltimore Sun.