Media Line Up Against First Amendment

Jonathan Chait recently underlined the media stance on campaign finance "reform" in the September 8 & 15 issue of The New Republic: They're for it, and objectivity is out of the question.

Chait wrote: "Recently, I attended a briefing with campaign finance reform activists and journalists who cover the topic. The journalists seemed just as outspokenly for reform as the advocates. The invisible line separating reporters from partisans melted away easily; aside from recognizable faces, I could not tell who was who."

He added: "Media coverage of campaign finance shamelessly touts reform. Almost every campaign finance story features quotes from campaign finance reform advocates - Public Campaign's Ellen Miller, Common Cause's Ann McBride, and the Center for Public Integrity's Charles Lewis - without any counterbalancing quotes from reform foes. All these experts share a distinct ideological agenda. What allows journalists to act as advocates, and advocates to act as experts, is the pretense that campaign finance reform lacks any partisan or ideological overtones."

To test Chait's theory, we used the Nexis news data retrieval system to study coverage of the Center for Responsive Politics in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. A request for how many stories found the Center within ten words of the word "liberal" found only one story. A request for how many stories placed the Center within ten words of the word "nonpartisan" identified 113 stories dating back to 1988.

The nonpartisan crusade didn't just occur in print. On the September 23 Inside Politics, CNN political analyst William Schneider argued the Republicans must back some version of the McCain-Feingold bill presently before the Senate: "The fundraising scandal will have a political payoff for Republicans only if they can make campaign finance reform their issue, even if it offends some Republicans. After all, President Clinton offended plenty of Democrats when he stole the welfare-reform issue. But if Republicans stonewall on campaign finance reform, they lose credibility and forfeit the sleaze issue."

The next day on the same show, CNN's Bernard Shaw applauded the Senate decision to abandon investigation of fundraising abuses to focus on "reform" legislation: "The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has turned its focus from partisan attacks to ways to clean up the campaign finance quagmire."

Last Friday, the network evening shows also crusaded for "reform." On ABC, Peter Jennings noted "finally" they moved toward a bill: "In Washington today, after a summer full of committee hearings on fundraising scandals the full Senate has finally begun to debate a campaign finance reform bill. The bill's most important feature is a ban on so-called soft money, contributions that are supposed to only help political parties but often go to the candidates. Opponents of the bill say this violates free speech, but those in favor say action is needed now."

As for free speech, none of the networks mentioned a point made by Alan Murray in Monday's Wall Street Journal: the broadcasters' lobby forced "reform" backers to drop mandatory free TV time for candidates. If the Supreme Court is wrong and money is not equivalent to speech, then what's to prevent reformers from regulating network news, which surely has an effect on elections? Answer: network access to politicians.

On NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw offered this plug leading into the first commercial break: "Up next, action of a sort in Washington on reforming money and politics. But one Senator continues to just say no."

Brokaw began by telling viewers: "In Washington tonight there's word that the former Chairman of the Republican Party, Haley Barbour, is now being investigated by a federal grand jury about a $1.5 million dollar loan to the GOP from a foreign source." He then turned to a profile of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), the Senate's primary defender of the First Amendment, as defined by the Supreme Court: "And over at the Senate today debate started on campaign finance reform but Trent Lott, the Senate Republican Leader, made it clear from the beginning he doubts anything will come of it. And tonight NBC's Gwen Ifill tells us about a Republican Senator who is a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to campaign finance reform and he's proud of it."

Ifill's profile of the "unabashed fundraiser" was followed by a plug for a pro-"reform" newspaper ad. Brokaw announced: "There was a challenge today to the members of the Senate committee who have been looking into the Democrat's campaign fundraising habits. In an ad in The Washington Post, Sol Price, the founder of the Price Clubs, says he'll offer $100,000 to a charity chosen by the first committee member who vows he or she has never given access to a campaign contributor."

CBS Evening News was the only one of the three to mention some of the news of that morning, a Los Angeles Times report that Harold Ickes had witnessed the President making phone calls from the White House in 1994. Substitute anchor John Roberts delivered this 21-second item, complete with White House spin: "Former top White House aide Harold Ickes reportedly told Senate investigators that President Clinton made several phone calls from the White House in 1994 to solicit campaign contributions. Mr. Clinton has said he doesn't remember making any calls and the President's White House counsel said today even if Mr. Clinton did make those calls they were, quote, 'entirely legal.'"

On Friday, The Washington Post carried a story by Bob Woodward headlined "Gore's Staff Routinely Discarded Call Sheets: Justice Dept. Probe May Be Extended if Record of Fundraising From White House Is Incomplete." The networks all ignored that story.

Teamster Guilty Pleas Ignored. Another major story in the fundraising scandal grew with the guilty pleas on September 18 of three central figures in the corrupt December Teamsters election. Leftist telemarketer Michael Ansara, direct-mail consultant Martin Davis, and Ron Carey campaign manager/Clinton-Gore campaign staffer Jere Nash pleaded guilty to fraud charges. Nash told the federal district judge in New York that Democratic officials agreed to find donors for Carey's re-election as Teamster President in exchange for large Teamster donations to the DNC. While CNN's The World Today provided one full report that night, the other networks have aired nothing, except two brief updates on ABC's Good Morning America September 19.

The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all put the guilty pleas on their front pages that morning. The Post story reported that prosecutors said "the list of people involved could be lengthy." Nash told prosecutors "large sums of money, including cash, were raised by officials of various labor unions for the Carey campaign," which is illegal.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka have already appeared before the grand jury investigating the Teamster election, but the networks didn't note that, even as the President spoke to the AFL-CIO last week. Half of the labor movement may be dragged before a grand jury, yet where are the networks on this story?

The Post also noted several liberal groups were identified by prosecutors as participants in questionable schemes. The National Council of Senior Citizens, whose rallies for the Clinton health plan and protests against Medicare "cuts" have been featured on all the networks, was identified as part of a plot to take Teamster money and funnel it to Martin Davis's direct-mail firm.

In another scheme, the group Citizen Action received $150,000 from the AFL-CIO, of which $100,000 was passed on to Davis's firm. That's separate from the $475,000 donation the Teamsters gave Citizen Action in return for helping obtain $185,000 from donors to the Carey campaign. These stories are still untold on TV.

The latest interesting TV-spurned story came on Saturday, when The New York Times reported that Carey knew about schemes to illegally fund his presidential campaign, which would disqualify him from running in a new election. They say knowledge is power, but whether the subject is Carey or Clinton, the media suggest that public ignorance is now the key to power. - Tim Graham