While the McCain-Feingold campaign finance debate will often dominate political news over the next two weeks, one aspect of the story is rarely explained to TV viewers: Where does all the money go?
Many media accounts correctly draw the links between the access that big money can buy and the political favors that donors come to expect. News reports at the beginning of the Senate debate (3/19/01) over McCain-Feingold were often strongly worded: CBS's Bob Schieffer explained that "This money is like a narcotic to politicians and they're having a hard time breaking the habit," while NBC's Lisa Myers reported the issue as a case of "bigger and bigger money buying more and more influence."
But a significant portion of that money goes straight to the media themselves. Estimates of campaign spending in 2000 find that television stations took in about $1 billion in advertising revenue. One study of political ads found that 839,243 political ads were aired in the top 75 media markets during the 200 election season-- that's over 10,000 per market (USA Today, 3/21/01).
The media's front-and-center role in campaign finance goes virtually unacknowledged on the network news broadcasts. As debate on the Senate floor began on March 19, viewers would be hard-pressed to find any straight forward account of how the system actually works. On NBC Nightly News, correspondent Lisa Myers came close, reporting that opponents of McCain-Feingold argue that "this money is needed to buy expensive TV time."
Newspaper accounts are often more direct-- Washington Post columnist David Broder (3/20/01) wrote that the truth about who benefits from the current system "is suppressed in Senate debate for the same reason it was ignored on the TV talk shows: fear of antagonizing the station owners, who control what gets on the air."
It's not hard to see why broadcasters would not be interested in disclosing the extraordinary benefits they get from the current political financing scheme. Earlier in the month, a report by the Alliance for Better Campaigns accused television stations of gouging advertisers by charging more than the basic rate for political ads. The report generated some newspaper coverage (New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, all 3/6/01), but no national television coverage, according to a search of the Nexis online news database.
Broadcasters participate as campaign contributors as well. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, big media were big soft-money contributors in the 2000 election cycle:
Time Warner/CNN: $2,004,438
Walt Disney/ABC: $1,805,464
News Corp./Fox: $787,980
General Electric/NBC: $309,700
This system is known well to journalists and politicians alike. Broadcast lobbies like the National Association of Broadcasters are considered among the most powerful in Washington, and the mechanics of political campaigns are all too familiar to those close to the system. "Today's Senate campaigns function as collection agencies for broadcasters," former Senator Bill Bradley explained in 1991 (Communications & the Law, 3/95). "You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations."
As the issue of campaign finance reform takes center stage, the broadcast industry's participation in the scandal demands greater scrutiny.
ACTION: Encourage the broadcast news outlets to investigate the role of the media industry itself in the campaign finance debate. Media companies have an obligation to explain their role as beneficiaries of the current system.
NBC Nightly News
Phone: 212-664-4971 or 202-885-4259
ABC's World News Tonight
47 W. 66 St., New York, NY 10023
Phone: 212-456-7777Fax: 212-456-4297
CBS Evening News
Phone: 212-975-3691, 202-457-4385