After campaign finance reform died recently in the U.S. Senate and health care reform was buried beneath the biggest avalanche of political donations in the history of Congress, we came across an astounding Washington Post column by Norman Ornstein, aka "Dr. Soundbite."
One of the most quoted experts in media history, Ornstein argued that campaign money "has a very limited impact" on Congress -- and criticized the press for its "obsession" with the subject.
Ornstein's through-the-looking-glass view sparked a vivid fantasy, which we'd like to share with our readers. What if news media actually were "obsessed" with exposing the stranglehold that big money has on American politics?
In our fantasy, it's no half-hearted effort driven by an occasional news report or editorial. No, this media crusade roars from the web-fed presses to network TV.
It's the kind of crusade that media consumers have seen many times before -- in the war on drugs or crime, or in the months before the Gulf War when many news outlets demonstrated a commitment to proving that Saddam Hussein was Adolf Hitler Jr.
Our fantasy is a media campaign that gets laws passed -- like the "drug crisis" coverage that dominated the news a few years ago. The New York Times averaged close to three drug stories per day in 1988 and 1989, reaching a frenzy in September 1989 when the paper ran about seven articles each day on drugs.
Since journalists sustained that kind of coverage when illegal drug use was actually declining, imagine how much energy they could muster for tackling big money in politics -- a problem that is getting dramatically worse.
All the ingredients exist for a story that causes news consumers to be riveted -- and angered. It names names, exposes politicians and their financial patrons "caught in the act," and reveals how the average voter has become a spectator in a "democracy" dominated by big campaign donors.
- Night after night, NBC's Tom Brokaw presents features on Washington "Greedlock," explaining -- for example -- how campaign donations from agribusiness firms derailed nutritional labeling on food products. We're shown which companies give the money, which members of Congress take it, and how the public is ripped off.
- ABC's Peter Jennings renames his "Person of the Week" segment "Person on the Take." He starts by featuring Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), a once-obscure congressman who parlayed his pro- business "health care reform" proposal into a massive campaign war chest filled with money from insurance and drug company executives. And Jennings spotlights Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who criticized a bill restricting lobbyist gifts to politicians by wailing: "You are going to close 90 percent of the restaurants in Washington."
- CBS's Dan Rather offers "They Bought the Ballot" segments. One assails the Philip Morris tobacco company for bankrolling the misnamed "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions" whose initiative on next month's ballot would replace and weaken local smoking ordinances.
- ABC's "20/20" launches a regular "Greenwashing" feature, exposing such nice-sounding groups as "Oregon Citizens for Recycling" (formed by Union Carbide, Dow, Chevron, Exxon and Occidental Chemical) which spent $2 million to defeat a ballot measure offering genuine recycling.
- On Sunday politics shows, pundits begin scrutinizing the excessive money behind politics. Often cited as a symbol of the problem is lawyer-lobbyist Thomas H. Boggs, whose D.C. law firm uses a computer to match corporate donors with Congress members who have power over pending bills that are of financial interest to those donors.
- "Meet the Press" devotes a whole program to the dealings of Dwayne Andreas, chair of the Archer Daniels Midland grain and ethanol company, which won favorable EPA rulings from President Bush after Andreas donated $400,000 in "soft money" to the Republican Party -- and from the Clinton administration after he donated $100,000 to the Democrats. Even John McLaughlin gets into the spirit, bellowing angrily about the General Electric lobbyists who helped draft the corporate tax law that reduced the company's tax to below zero.
- The media crusade regularly presents experts like Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics and Ralph Nader -- detailing legislation that would solve the problem. Within months an aroused public is pressuring an exposed and intimidated Congress to pass serious reforms.
Wake up, folks! Time to return from Fantasyland.
It's not going to happen that way -- despite the recent debacles in Washington over health care and political reform. Such a crusade would offend the powerful. And the biggest campaign donors are major media advertisers and owners who like the status quo.
Archer Daniels Midland sponsors "Meet the Press" and many weekend pundit shows, along with the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour"; GE owns NBC and CNBC, and sponsors politics shows across the dial, including McLaughlin; CBS is owned by a tobacco tycoon; Cokie Roberts is the sister of power-lobbyist Tom Boggs; the executive producer of ABC's "20/20" is married to a major PR agent for the chemical and nuclear industries.
Which brings us to quotemaster Norman Ornstein, who has said he logged 1,294 calls from 183 news outlets in one year, a scholar who seems too busy appearing on TV to have much time for scholarship.
Ornstein works at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank funded by the same monied interests that donate big bucks to politicians. He's the perfect "expert" for today's media: glib, credentialed, and propounding the view that mainstream media are overly "obsessed" with campaign funding. Unfortunately, he's no fantasy.
This column was the basis for a FAIR op-ed page advertisement in the New York Times on Wednesday, 1/18/95.