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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Big Money's Partner in Crime - Broadcast Media

As Sakura Sanders and Ben Clarke report in this article, the huge increase in money spent on political campaigns in the last thirty years has been accompanied by a striking decrease in the amount of convention coverage by the networks. As network convention coverage fell from 180 hours in 1972 to 18 hours in 2004, the networks' revenue from political ads went from $24.5 million in 1972 to an estimated more than $1 billion in 2004.

So, here's how the vicious circle shapes up:

Election Cycle 1-

1) Candidates get donations from across the spectrum, including big money donations from wealthy interests.
2) Candidates in turn spend the bulk of that money on political ads, a huge source of revenue for the media.
3) The candidate who spends the most (remember, which generally means the candidate with the most ads) wins over 90% of congressional races.

Election Cycle 2-
1) Aware that the candidate who spends the most wins more than 90% of the time, wealthy interests start giving big money to their desired candidates way before the election.
2) What media coverage there is favors those candidates who have proven their "legitimacy" by raising big bucks, meaning candidates who do not rake in the big bucks early are at an extraordinary disadvantage. This favors those candidates who are able to raise money in big chunks from a small number of donors over those who raise money in little chunks from small donors.
3) The big money candidates spend their money on political ads with the media, who favor them with frontrunner status in their coverage. The political consultants who advise the candidates on their media strategy generally get 10% of the ad buys they recommend, increasing both the amount of money required and the likelihood that it will be spent on ads.
4) The candidate pool is now reduced almost entirely to big money candidates.
5) The big money candidate who spends the most wins more than 90% of the elections.
6) The the media and the wealthy interests who backed the candidates make out like bandits, while the rest of us wonder why our representative democracy doesn't seem to represent us very much.
7) Go back to Election Cycle 2, Step 1.

One billion dollars this year in political ad revenue for the networks. One billion.

In the debate on campaign finance reform, it is easy to focus on the wealthy powerful interests who use big donations to dominate our system of selecting and electing candidates. However, they have a willing accomplice in broadcast media, which instead of operating in the public interest, as is required by law, chooses to substitute ad revenue for coverage. This is worth keeping in mind when big media's talking heads describe attempts to limit money's influence in politics in negative terms, such as analogous to stopping the flow of water downhill. (Which any engineer will tell you is doable, by the way.)

So who gets the short end of this stick? The rest of us, regular Americans, who instead of getting candidates debating the best solutions for the problems that face our country, are stuck with one-sided glammed-up 30-second toothpaste ads as our political discourse.

Our democracy deserves better.

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