Media's bruised egos behind campaign finance 'reform'By Jim Trageser
This article was originally published in the November 18, 2000 edition of the American Reporter.
The most expensive election season in history has just concluded, and if we're several recounts and a lawsuit or two from knowing who the next president will be, what we've hopefully learned is that the value of money in elections is vastly overrated.
Unfortunately, that's a message that will be hard to hear in the media.
Campaign finance reform has been given the imprimatur of Good Thing by the national media. No longer do news stories even pretend to be impartial; instead, nearly all are written from the perspective that campaign finance reform is an unquestioned benefit to mankind, opposed only by the dark forces of Big Business.
Even the phrase "campaign finance reform," used without attribution in news stories, betrays the bias of most reporters: The term "reform" carries a clear implication of something amiss, something needing to be fixed.
Making it even harder to have a reasonable discussion on the issue is that campaign funding is one of the few issues on which the alternative press agrees with the mainstream media.
Outside a few libertarian outlets and the in-house newsletters of citizen advocacy groups, there is practical unanimity that we have to do something to clean up politics meaning pass laws to limit how much money the rest of us may donate to the candidates and organizations of our choice.
Unasked is the question of whether the act of raising money is not at the very least an indirect form of democracy. Giving a candidate some of your hard-earned cash is certainly a vote of one sort. One could make the argument that a donation is a more concrete statement of backing than a ballot, which costs nothing.
Further, by consistently electing candidates who are able to raise large amounts of cash, are not voters implicitly saying that this ability does matter?
Perhaps the voters aren't so dumb. Perhaps what they're saying is that if you can't convince enough of your fellow citizens to contribute to your campaign, if you can't organize and manage the kind of large-scale organization needed to compete in a national electoral effort, then maybe you're not really ready to run a nation of close on 300 million with a budget in the trillions and control over the globe's largest military (and nuclear) forces.
Last spring, there was grumbling here in California among those Republicans who never got a chance to vote for Elizabeth Dole since she dropped out before California's primary. But how many of those grumbling had taken advantage of the opportunity to send her a check or volunteer for her campaign while she was still running? Not too many, to judge from her short-lived campaign.
More recently, a post-election analysis by the Associated Press bemoaned the fact that Jane Fonda was able to give nearly $12 million to two pro-abortion groups for their political activities during the just-concluded election season. The tone of the story was one of indignation that the rich can use their wealth to try and inject their own agendas into dozens of congressional and Senate races.
But what of the other perspective to this story? It wasn't found in A.P.'s analysis, so let's ask it ourselves: Is not the fact that a citizen is willing to give up a huge chunk of her fortune for a cause in which she believes reason for celebration in our democracy? That someone would trust in our system so much that she would make that kind of sacrifice so that a group of her fellow citizens who agree with her can attempt to persuade even more of us well, it's exemplary. And when fast-food entrepreneur Carl Karcher gave substantial amounts to anti-abortion groups he agreed with a decade ago, was it not equally admirable, equally healthy for our democracy?
Interestingly, while the alternative press is in bed with the corporate media on the subject of campaign financing, what's perhaps more telling is that support for full political freedom unites grass-roots organizations across the entire spectrum. It's certainly one of the very few issues on which the California Pro-Life Committee and the California Abortion Rights Action League see eye to eye. The same goes for the nation's labor unions and chambers of commerce. Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Church. Environmentalists and developers.
All of these groups, composed of average citizens who care passionately about their community and give of both their time and paycheck in order to bring about what they see as positive change, also see campaign finance "reform" as nothing more than an attempt to limit Americans' political expression.
So why is the media including the supposedly progressive alternative media so gung-ho in favor of what is really nothing more than political censorship? Why is the media trying to convince us to muzzle ourselves?
Influence, power and ego.
If candidates are able to purchase large amounts of advertising in order to reach voters, if they can send direct-mail pieces to get their message out, it reduces the role of the media in the electoral process. Voters feel less dependent on news stories or television coverage of the race, less in need of a TV anchor's analysis of just what Candidate A really meant, less likely to look to their local paper for insight into the various races.
Which may or may not be healthy for our democracy, but the lock-step assumption of the media that this is unquestionably bad certainly undermines any chance of an open debate on the proper role of the media in the political process.
When newspapers and TV stations advocate in favor of campaign finance reform, it's no more than a power play. There is no altruism at work here editors and reporters resent well-funded candidates for the same reason they so openly resent the Internet: it erodes their role in the political process and makes them less important.
Given the increasing economic clout of the corporate media on all aspects of the economy, viewers and readers might want to ask themselves if they really want to go back to the days when we were all more reliant on the media for information on our candidates. Might that not concentrate power just a little too much in the hands of the national media?
Besides, the voters aren't really that cheaply for sale, anyway. Ask Jesse Ventura, who was grossly outspent by both his Democratic and Republican opponents and yet was elected governor of Minnesota. Ask multi-millionaire Michael Huffington how much a Senate seat costs last I checked, Dianne Feinstein was still sitting in it. Or Darrell Issa, who outspent Matt Fong by millions but still lost the Republican Senate primary in California two years back and has now settled for a seat in the House of Representatives this go-round.
Money can help a candidate get her/his message to the voters, but it surely can't make the voters like that message.
What hurt Dan Quayle, Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and the countless others driven early from the Republican presidential race wasn't all the money that George W. Bush raised it was the fact that so few of their fellow citizens found their messages compelling enough to write a check to help them spread them.
Quite simply, unlike Bush and Gore, they were unable to convince enough of the voters that they were worth electing. It's hard to imagine that the results would really have been any different even with campaign funding limits.
Does anyone really believe that fund-raising limits and public financing are going to be some kind of panacea? Is giving fringe candidates tens of millions of dollars in tax money really going to help Pat Buchanan or Harry Browne gain more votes? If Ralph Nader had the same money as Bush, he might have gotten more than the 3 percent he polled, but it wasn't going to put him in the White House the fact is that as he reached more people with his rather draconian message, as many people would have been repulsed as attracted. The publicity that money can buy is a double-edged sword.
The truth remains that unappealing candidates cannot buy their way into office, no matter how much the naysaying media grouses otherwise.
To argue the obverse is to sell the American people short. It is, in the end, to say that democracy is ultimately doomed, unable to sustain itself through an educated electorate.
Such a dour view may sustain the fleeting egos of America's newspaper columnists and TV anchors, but it's one that not only insults their own audiences, it's one that flies in the face of two centuries of the healthiest democracy in history.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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