Commentary: Media must be transparent on campaign spending

Edward Wasserman is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Edward Wasserman is a columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

The most squalid and anti-democratic element of the U.S. electoral system is its insatiable appetite for money, vast rivers of money. It transforms our leaders into supplicants, required to contort themselves and their policies to please rich patrons.

Current spending forecasts for all candidates in the 2012 races run as high as $8 billion. That’s nearly double the $4.2 billion of two years ago, which itself was double the 2008 spending. The public has only scant understanding of how insane these outlays are by historical standards. The 1996 general election — presidential, congressional, the works — cost $651 million. The major presidential candidates spent $343 million on their races in 2000; eight years later, in September 2008, the Obama campaign alone raised $150 million in a single month.

The harm that this dependency has done to our politics is a rich subject for investigative journalism, and the litany of corruption related to fund-raising, lobbyists, earmarks and the like offers perennial reasons for the rancid cynicism with which even people who aren’t especially well informed regard political life. The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution’s guarantees of expressive freedom outweigh the damage done by letting office-seekers bargain away whatever they must to coax unlimited funds from the wealthy so they can drown out their opponents at election time.

Still, most of the rest of us concede the electoral system’s gluttony for money is corrupting. So who benefits? Here, the undisputed beneficiary is the media, especially local, ad-supported broadcasters. In 2008, for instance, of the record $760 million raised by Obama, $427 million went to media of all kinds — from direct mail and billboards to newspaper ads. Of that, $244 million was spent on local radio and TV, Newsmax.com reports.

Just so my argument is clear: The biggest single reason for the worst thing about our electoral system is that to reach the voters, candidates need to pay the media a fortune. Hence, it’s no surprise that the news media rarely denounce runaway campaign spending. And if there ever were a movement, heaven forbid, to actually require broadcasters — in exchange for their licenses to the public airwaves — to donate air time to electoral candidates, as other advanced democracies do, you’d hardly expect support from the National Association of Broadcasters.

But there is some minimal way these media barons can serve the system that feeds them so lavishly: They can maintain careful logs of campaign ad buys and make them readily available so that the public can learn who’s spending what and for whom. If the media are to be conduits for influence, the public can at least know whose influence it is.

A proposal percolating before the Federal Communications Commission since 2000, and heading for final action, would require broadcasters to keep political advertising data in electronic form on a central database maintained by the FCC and accessible to anybody, anywhere. Included would be the names of entities that paid for the advertising, including their officers and frontmen, the rates charged, and other information to enable the public to learn who’s bankrolling the ads and whether they’re getting similar deals.

This is no technicality. It’s central to the public’s ability to track the ways in which power is exercised, which is not easy to find out nowadays. Reporting requirements are haphazard. In an FCC filing, Michigan Campaign Finance Network director Richard Robinson wrote that from 2000-2010 some $70 million in electoral spending hadn’t been reported to that state, and could be ascertained only by compiling TV station records. (That total included nearly half the money spent on the state’s Supreme Court races and more than half the spending on the 2010 governor’s race.) To get accurate numbers, Robinson has had to drive “thousands of miles” each election cycle to review files kept in broadcasters’ offices.

A leading advocate for the current proposal, Steven Waldman, a former senior advisor to the FCC chairman, wrote a pair of eloquent articles for the Columbia Journalism Review’s website. Waldman noted that the Supreme Court, in permitting unrestrained campaign spending by corporations, was relying on “prompt disclosure of expenditures,” as Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, to enable stockholders and the public “to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

Even though broadcasters already compile most of the data the proposal would require posting online, they are fighting the plan heatedly, claiming that it would be burdensome and expensive and chiefly of interest to outside gadflies, not to the local populations they purport to serve. Such is the habitual response of our so-called watchdog media: Like real watchdogs, they can be relied on to bark fiercely whenever anybody steps on their territory.

Nonetheless, the proposal would be a small but valuable step toward preserving what remains of the robust public service mandate broadcasters were once required to fulfill.

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