MediaWatch: November 1997

Vol. Eleven No. 11

Janet Cooke Award: Washington Week in Revisionism

PBS cut its teeth on the Nixon administration by running live coverage during the day and repeats at night of the Watergate hearings. It ran Iran-Contra hearings live from start to finish. But the network with the motto "If PBS won’t do it, who will?" went AWOL on the fundraising hearings.

Instead, the Friday night PBS show Washington Week in Review recently took the unusual step of devoting parts of four shows to an analysis of campaign funding. But instead of focusing on illegal fundraising, host Ken Bode promoted campaign finance "reform" — private-money restrictions followed by government- funded elections. For diverting attention from Democratic wrongdoing to promoting liberal "reform" proposals, Washington Week in Review earned the Janet Cooke Award.

In his first taped segment on October 17, Bode began with a state-level reform model: "Kentucky — where America’s favorite vices are big business, fine tobacco, bourbon whiskey, and politics lubricated with lots of hard, cold cash. There was so much loose money in the legislature that the FBI couldn’t help but notice."

An FBI sting caught 18 legislators and lobbyists, including the Speaker of the state House. Bode turned to Joe Wright, until recently the Majority Leader of the state Senate, who said: "The politicians gonna have to get ahead of the curve on this issue. They know what the problem is. They’re a part of the problem. It’s gonna be because of the result of some great scandal, and the kind of which we seem to be on the edges of now — in both parties, for that matter."

Bode asked: "You seem to be saying overall that it’s — the problem is not what’s illegal. The problem is what’s legal." Replied Wright: "Sure it is. Legal contributions to campaigns are the greater problem than anything that anyone has found that was illegal, as far as I’m concerned."

Wright pushed through a "reform" bill that qualified candidates for Governor for $1.2 million in taxpayer matching funds once they raised $600,000. Bode asked: "How about the fact that many voters have doubts about using public money for political campaigns?"

Wright replied: "What the public has to understand: Their tax dollars are already being spent on the politicians. People are spending large sums of their personal money to have access. They get the special tax breaks through the legislation that’s passed. Their tax dollars are already being spent. It’s just not itemized as it would be if we had campaign finance reform." Bode added: "And it’s probably costing them more this way than it would the other way."

In the first test of the new system, the 1995 gubernatorial race, both major candidates accepted restrictions and government funding. Declared Bode: "At least by the numbers, it was a success. The cost of the gubernatorial campaign dropped from $24 million to $10 million. So there was a lot less money for television ads."

Bode did not explore why the reduction of TV ads is self- evidently good, although it’s obvious TV ads can dilute the power of media outlets to define elections on their own terms.

In between interviews with three crusading reporters and Wright, Bode brought on U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, "the leading opponent of campaign finance reform," to declare Kentucky’s law "an abysmal failure...As a result of not raising enough money, the Republican candidate was simply unable to do the kind of advertising that he needed to do to win the race. I’m sure the Democrats love the system."

Bode came out of the segment declaring: "In Kentucky, it wasn’t the people who cared, it was the political class that got tired of the way politics was done in the state. They got ahead of the people and did it."

On October 24, Bode listed some of the Senate hearings’ revelations, and then returned to criticizing Republicans for hypocrisy: "For all the headline-grabbing excesses of the Clinton-Gore campaign, the Republican Party won the soft-money race hands down. In fact, Republicans have raised and spent more soft money than the Democrats in every single presidential campaign, and they remain the most vocal opponents of campaign finance reform."

On October 31, Bode turned to another state model, Vermont: "Like native son Calvin Coolidge, Vermonters are unpretentious and thrifty. It just seemed wasteful to spend all that money to run for public office. So the new law requires that candidates for Governor accept strict limits on what they can raise and spend. To qualify for public funding, candidates can only accept contributions of $50 or less."

Again, after filling the segment with "reform" activists, Bode allowed one soundbite from one opponent from the Vermont Right to Life Committee. On the Washington Week Web site, Bode declared in "Bode’s Notebook" that Vermont presented "a good start for a small state and an important starting point for dozens of other states."

On November 7, Bode returned to those hated TV ads, critiquing an ad conservatives ran against Montana Democratic House candidate Bill Yellowtail. Bode brought in liberal academic Kathleen Hall Jamieson to denounce it: "This is guerrilla warfare in a political context in which a group with no accountability, including no require to disclose [sic], can walk into a television station, put money down on the table, and if the television station is not vigilant, can air something which is unfair, untrue, get it on and off the air before the press even has time to find it or to scrutinize it."

He also screened a positive DNC ad that clearly promoted Clinton which noted "Republicans in Congress cut Medicare by $270 billion dollars," which was criticized for playing "fast and loose with the rules" — but not for its inaccuracy.

While Bode was busy promoting states he thought were models for liberal reforms, he did not report states with fewer "reforms." Virginia has virtually no contribution limits yet just held a scandal-free statewide vote. The Canadian province of British Columbia provides a preview of where Bode’s rules might lead. As David Frum considered in the November 17 Weekly Standard, opponents of the socialist government were fined without trial for buying small ads denouncing the government’s tactics. Can campaign "reform" lead to government policing of nonprofit groups in their attempts to persuade the public? PBS didn’t ask.

The Washington Week Web site noted the special "reform" focus of the four shows was funded by the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Schumann Foundation, all liberal philanthropies heavily involved in the fight to drain private contributions from elections. If campaign funding unfairly influences politicians, how does liberal foundation funding affect public TV programs? That’s another money question never asked on PBS.