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Friday, March 17, 2006

The Privatization of Public Discourse: Major Media Company Refuses Billboard Ad on Money in Politics

As Nancy Petersen reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Clear Channel recently rejected a political ad from congressional candidate Lois Murphy demanding that her opponent, current Rep. Jim Gerlach, return $30,000 he received from Tom DeLay's PAC.

In the last three years, Clear Channel's has contributed a total of $20,000 to DeLay and $1,500 to Gerlach, including:
$5,000 to Tom DeLay's ARMPAC in 2005;
$1,500 to Jim Gerlach in 2005 ($1,000 and $500);
$5,000 to Tom DeLay's ARMPAC in 2003;
$10,000 to Tom DeLay in 2003-4.

The refusal of one of the country's largest media conglomerates to run a political ad due to its support of the politicians taken to task by that ad highlights one aspect of the fallacy underlying the argument that spending money on politics is the same thing as free speech .... it isn't. Speech is speech, money simply allows speech to be distributed (usually).

As long as this ill-conceived constitutional doctrine exists, however, the media companies should provide equal access to their billboards, airwaves, and print space to candidates regardless of political view. Those billboards and airwaves and that print space are the modern equivalent of the town square, after all. They are the arena where ideas and opinion go to do combat.

Allowing media companies to lock voices out of that space because they do not like the message grants those companies the kind of stranglehold on American discourse that once led free-minded souls to dump tea off a ship in Boston Harbor. Like many of King George's futile and stupid acts in the run-up to the American Revolution, Clear Channel's refusal to run the ad smacks of the communications crackdown of a desperate despot, who, seeing the people rising up against an oppressive regime, resorts to tactics even more oppressive.

Media companies have long had a civic responsibility and, in some cases, the legal duty to operate in the "public interest". Under severe and persistent pressure from the financially and politically powerful media companies, this concept has been watered down to the point of having virtually no significance in politics today.

We need to put teeth back into these laws. Media ads are the biggest driving factor behind the ever-spiraling influence of money in politics today. Media companies have not been innocent bystanders as this has occurred, but have fought alongside the other financially powerful interests to protect one of their cash cows.

Exemplifying the media companies' forsaking of the public interest in their pursuit of outlandish profits is the media coverage of presidential conventions. As we reported in 2004, the hours of coverage of the presidential conventions has an inversely proportional relationship to the amount of money spent on political ads by the presidential candidates. As coverage has dropped to a tenth of what was in 1972, revenue from political ads has skyrocketed from $24.5 million to over $1 billion in 2004.

It is tough sometimes to see past our partisanship and recognize a flaw in the system, especially when we perceive its benefit to our cause. But, if our shared cause is democracy in America, it doesn't matter whether you are Tom DeLay's most fervent admirer or his biggest detractor: Clear Channel's actions are a threat to us all.

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