Raising Questions About Politics and the Mass Media
Raising Questions About Politics and the Mass MediaBy Walter Brasch
It’s the first week of January and the election returns are starting to trickle in. It’s not for the rich Democratic white Hillary Clinton who captured the popular vote, nor for the rich Republican white Donald Trump who captured the electoral college and became the next president. This vote came from the campaigns of Clinton and Trump, and the beneficiaries were the TV media in select markets.
The Clinton campaign and the groups supporting her spent about $1.4 billion, most of it for TV ads. The Trump campaign raised about $932 million. The only reason Trump didn’t match Clinton’s total was because he didn’t need to—the TV and social media were so intrigued by his tweets that they gave him more coverage than any other candidate.
Overall, spending for all major races was about $6.9 billion, including $228 million on the Bernie Sanders campaign. About $226.6 million of that total was from individuals, most of that from $27 donations from about seven million individuals. Sanders had rejected contributions of lobbying groups. The highest total for Sanders was a paltry $15,000 from the American Postal Workers Union.
The Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, sometimes known as the McCain-Feingold act, placed limits on candidates. In March 2009, the Supreme Court opened up political spending in its ruling in Citizens United v. the General Elections Committee. The Court, in a contentious 5–4 decision, primarily along party lines, declared caps on political restrictions violated the First Amendment. The result of the ruling allowed a significant increase in spending by lobbyists. Democrats saw this as an erosion of fair campaigns; Republicans generally praised the ruling.
If even half the $6.9 billion raised in this year’s campaigns would have been applied elsewhere, it could have supported medical research, aid to wounded military personnel, housing for the homeless, better roads and bridges, and numerous other domestic programs. But the money was spent on a presidential race that pays the victor $400,000, and members of Congress $174,000.
The candidates often blame the media for all kinds of sins, with the conservative candidates calling the media “the liberal, lying media.” But, they use the media to get their word out, saving advertising dollars.
The TV media have been beneficiaries—and this raises an ethical issue. Although there is an invisible wall between the news and business division, just how flimsy is that wall? News Media corporations make contributions; candidates accept the media; the corporations then receive significant income from advertising funds.
More important, how resilient are news directors from not giving significant coverage to following the money because their stations are benefitting?
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist. His latest book is Fracking America: Sacrificing health and the Environment for Short-Term Economic Benefit. Rosemary Brasch assisted on this column.]