The Money & Media Election Complex

Like the wizard telling the people of Oz to "Pay no attention to that
man behind the curtain," Karl Rove used media appearances at the close
of the 2010 midterm campaign to dismiss President Obama's complaints
that Republican consultants, led by the former White House political
czar, were distorting Senate and House races across the country with a
flood of money-hundreds of millions of dollars-from multinational
corporations and billionaire conservatives into Senate and House races.
"Obama looks weirdly disconnected-and slightly obsessive-when he talks
so much about the Chamber of Commerce, Ed Gillespie and me," Rove mused.
"The president has already wasted one-quarter of the campaign's final
four weeks on this sideshow."

The "sideshow" from which Rove sought to distract attention was, in
fact, the most important story of the most expensive midterm election in
American history: the radical transformation of our politics by a
money-and-media election complex that is now more definitional than any
candidate or party-and that poses every bit as much of a threat to
democracy as the military-industrial complex about which Dwight
Eisenhower warned us a half-century ago. This is not the next chapter in
the old money-and-politics debate. This is the redefinition of politics
by a pair of new and equally important factors-the freeing of
corporations to spend any amount on electioneering and the collapse of
substantive print and broadcast reporting on campaigns. In combination
they have created a "new normal," in which consultants dealing in dollar
amounts unprecedented in American history use "independent"
expenditures to tip the balance of elections in favor of their clients.
Unchecked by even rudimentary campaign finance regulation, unchallenged
by a journalism sufficient to identify and expose abuses of the
electoral process and abetted by commercial broadcasters that this year
pocketed $3 billion in political ad revenues, the money-and-media
election complex was a nearly unbeatable force in 2010.

Of fifty-three competitive House districts where Rove and his
compatriots backed Republicans with "independent" expenditures that
exceeded those made on behalf of Democrats-often by more than $1 million
per district, according to Public Citizen-the Republicans won
fifty-one. Roughly three-quarters of all GOP House gains came in
districts where independent expenditures by groups like the Chamber of
Commerce and Rove's American Crossroads gave Republican candidates, some
of them virtual unknowns until the outside money flowed in, the
advantage. The money is powerful, of course, but that power is
supercharged because of the decay, and in many cases disappearance, of
independent and skeptical journalism at the state and regional levels,
where elections are decided. Campaign narratives used to be created by
reporters who, imperfectly but seriously, pulled together the multiple
threads of an election season to give voters perspective. Now that
narrative is driven by commercials-millions of them, most negative. The
narrative for the most part still comes from broadcast and cable TV
stations, as it has for some time, but it is now produced and paid for
by economic elites that seek to define not just the results of an
election but the scope and character of government itself. To neglect
the money-and-media election complex or, worse yet, to imagine that
progressive forces can compete within it will make the 2012 election
season look like 2010 on steroids. Determined and dramatic responses are
the only options if we hope to maintain anything more than the remnants
of a functioning democracy.

The immediate cause of the crisis was the Supreme Court's January 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
ruling, which wiped away a century of campaign finance regulations
designed to prevent corporations and business alliances from using their
immense resources to buy the results that best serve their interests.
There was bipartisan shock at the ruling, with protest across the
spectrum. National Voting Rights Institute founder John Bonifaz declared
that the freeing of corporations to tap general treasury funds would
allow them to spend so freely that they could "effectively own our

The critique was right, but even serious analysts tended to
underestimate the speed with which corporate interests and wealthy
conservatives would take advantage of the severe damage done to campaign
finance laws. The corporate intervention was unapologetic. "The big
three stepping into the batter's box are the financial services
industry, the energy industry and the health insurance industry,"
chirped veteran GOP operative Scott Reed, whose Commission on Hope,
Growth and Opportunity spent millions, perhaps tens of millions, this
fall on thousands of commercials attacking Democratic lawmakers in
battleground states all over the country. Reed's operation was
identified by the Media Matters Action Network as a "small fry" player
among the more than sixty nonparty groups that by late October had paid
for nearly 150,000 commercials and an untold number of direct-mail
attacks in a frenzy of spending that would make the 2010 cycle (price
tag: $4 billion and counting) more expensive than either the 2006
midterms or the 2004 presidential race.

To be sure, Democrats tried to play the game and raise corporate
money too, but the balance was off from the start; by one measure, that
of the Center for Media and Democracy, "spending by outside interest
groups [was] up at least 500 percent since the last midterm election,
with pro-Republican groups outspending those favoring Democrats by

* * *

To some extent, this is a story as old as the nation itself. Founding
father John Jay thought "those who own the country ought to govern it."
The battle to establish a credible system of "one person, one vote"
instead of "one dollar, one vote" has been a running theme in American
history. The stakes have always been the same: the less democratic our
elections, the more corrupt our governance. But the current moment sees
the country accelerating toward the edge of a cliff. "We can have
democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in
the hands of a few, but we can't have both," observed Supreme Court
Justice Louis Brandeis. America is being put to the Brandeis test:
democracy or plutocracy. The money-and-media election complex is
creating a radically different electoral landscape than anything
Americans have known since the Gilded Age. That landscape is
characterized, pundits tell us, by an "enthusiasm gap." No kidding.
Americans are not stupid. They knew their relatively paltry
contributions, and even their votes, were unlikely to stop a $4 billion
onslaught. To those bankrolling the system, voter cynicism and apathy
are welcome. The more that the 2008 surge of youth participation in
electoral politics dissipates, the better for them. Their interests are
best served by narrowing the range of debate and participation, since
that makes it easier to buy the government. As much as commentators like
Jon Meacham might want to believe that "we are now living with a
political class which has a financial and cultural interest in conflict
rather than in governing," the hard truth is that we have a corporate
class that funds electoral conflict for the purpose of forging a
political class that will govern in its interest.

The emerging money-and-media election complex is perfectly designed
to make participants conform or suffer the consequences. It should come
as no surprise that some of the most troubling results of 2010 involved
the defeats of independent players of both parties who had battled
hardest for clean politics and ethical government-Wisconsin Senator Russ
Feingold, the leading progressive Democratic reformer, was defeated, as
was Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Republican beaten in
Delaware's GOP Senate primary by Tea Party heroine Christine O'Donnell.
Nor should it get better in 2012. "It's a bigger prize in 2012, and
that's changing the White House," says Robert Duncan, chair of American
Crossroads. "We've planted the flag for permanence, and we believe we
will play a major role for 2012."

* * *

But it's not just corporations and consultants who are setting the
new agenda. The most important yet least-recognized piece of the
money-and-media election complex is the commercial broadcasting
industry, which just had its best money-making election season ever.
Political advertising has become an enormous cash cow for it-roughly
two-thirds of the campaign spending this year flowed into the coffers of
TV stations; the final figure is likely to be well above $2 billion.
Whereas in the 1990s the average commercial TV station received about 3
percent of its revenues from campaign ads, this year campaign money
could account for as much as 20 percent. And station owners are not
missing a beat; thirty-second spots that went for $2,000 in 2008 were
jacked up to $5,000 this year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Much of this money will go to stations owned by a handful of Fortune
500 firms. No wonder station owners oppose campaign finance reform;
their lobby role in Washington is similar to the NRA's in battling bans
on assault weapons.

Yet commercial broadcasters receive monopoly licenses for their
scarce channels at no charge from the government under the condition
that they serve the public interest. By any account, the most important
role of our media is to make the electoral system serve the voters, who,
as surveys continue to demonstrate, rely on local TV as their main
source for news. However, local TV covers far less than it did two or
three decades ago; according to the Norman Lear Center at the University
of Southern California, a thirty-minute newscast at election time has
more political advertising than campaign news. Even when politics does
get covered, the focus, increasingly, is on "analyzing" ads. And the
cumulative effect of endless advertising overwhelms what little remains
of independent on-air coverage. What incentive do commercial stations
have to cover politics when they can force candidates and players to pay
for it? Nice work if you can get it.

This contradiction is magnified by the aforementioned decline of
political journalism across all media. If the United States had a
vibrant and credible news media, the problem of the money-and-media
election complex would be less pressing, as citizens could use news
coverage and dismiss much of the brazen deception of ads. Instead, our
news media, in decline for decades, is in free fall [see Nichols and
McChesney, "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,"
April 6, 2009]. The shuttering of dozens of papers and the wholesale
layoff of tens of thousands of journalists and support staffers, the
shuttering of Washington and statehouse bureaus and the shift of radio
and cable TV from traditional campaign coverage to one-sided talk
formats that often reinforce rather than sort through the spin have
allowed money to speak more loudly than ever before. New-media
initiatives are encouraging, but they have not begun to fill the void,
in large part because few have developed business models that can pay
for serious independent journalism.

The changes taking place in how campaigns are paid for and covered
provides the most meaningful explanation for otherwise incomprehensible
shifts in our politics. We know and respect the multitude of theories
being advanced for why 2010 went so horribly awry for Democrats and
particularly for progressives, but we would argue that the key factor is
the emergence of the money-and-media election complex. Recognizing how
this system works is necessary if we are to recognize the absurdity of
the suggestion-advanced by former Clinton administration aide and
veteran Democratic fundraiser Harold Ickes, among others in the
consultocracy-that Democrats can somehow buy their way back into the
game by getting progressive donors to give as generously as Rove's
billionaires and the wealthiest multinationals. Only an insider with no
sense of history could willingly embrace this system. And if Democrats
somehow "succeed" in the money-and-media election complex, it will be at
the price of the party's soul and of any prospect that progressive
ideas will get a hearing.

Democrats in anything more than name only cannot win the money race.
As Michael Vachon, an adviser to George Soros, correctly notes with
regard to the consultants who organize "independent" expenditures on
behalf of Republicans (and perhaps of corporate-friendly Democrats),
"Their resources will always be too great because the funds come from
those who are acting in their economic self-interest." Fundamental
reform is going to be necessary. And it will not be easy, as we are
talking about changing our entire political process in a way that
frightens economic elites. Opposition from entrenched, procorporate
Republicans will be intense, as evidence suggests that their corrupt and
unpopular policies can prevail at the polls only with the sort of
depressed and selective turnout and lack of critical scrutiny that the
money-and-media system encourages. How ironic that, just as demographic
trends are moving in a decidedly progressive direction-as minorities
begin to form majorities in our states, and as young people move
increasingly to the left on social and economic issues-the electoral
system is becoming a bastion of reaction.

Rove, Reed and their allies-including Senate Republican leader Mitch
McConnell and soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner-would have us
believe that more spending is good and that ads can be educational. This
is an extension of the "money is speech" argument that has underpinned a
series of Supreme Court rulings, beginning with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 and culminating in Citizens United,
that initially undermined but have by now made a mockery of campaign
finance reform. It's an absurd construct. But it is being reinforced by
consultants-veteran Democrats as well as Republicans-and TV executives
who are cogs in a permanent campaign apparatus.

The counsel of the self-interested "players" is always the same:
raise money, more money and more money still-and don't do or say
anything that makes it harder to raise money. This thinking has bled
into what is left of our journalism, such that political reporters today
spend more time covering the money that candidates, parties and
interest groups raise and spend than examining their records and
intentions. Whereas journalists once wrote stories about issues, and
candidates cut commercials in response to them, now some journalists go
through entire campaigns doing little more than fact-checking
commercials. On many days, reviews of ads are all that appear in print
and broadcast reports. And what do new-media outlets bring to the table?
An opportunity to watch ads on YouTube!

As ads become the primary source of political information, we create a
politics based on lies or, at best, decontextualized quarter-truths.
Campaign ads are unregulated for truthfulness, unlike commercial
advertising. Three decades ago Ogilvy and Mather executive Robert Spero
determined that if political ads had to meet the same Federal Trade
Commission criteria as commercial ads, all of them would be rejected as
fraudulent. The regulation of commercial ads may be more lax today, but
we doubt that any study of political ads in 2010 would regard them more
favorably than Spero did.

The journalists who want to cut through the lies are having a harder
time doing so. One of the truly unsettling developments of this election
season was the decision by prominent candidates either to avoid the
press, as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle did, or to refuse
opportunities to debate. Once upon a time challengers hungered to debate
incumbents; in 2010 incumbents like Florida Representative Alan Grayson
found themselves chasing after well-funded challengers. Feingold
offered to debate his millionaire opponent in forums across the state,
but Republican Ron Johnson, who had no record in public life and who
even avoided interviews with newspaper editorial boards, refused.
Instead, Johnson let his advertisements and those paid for by the
Chamber of Commerce, American Action Network and sundry organizations
that flooded the state with anti-Feingold ads do his talking. Even when
Johnson did debate in a handful of forums available for broadcast by the
state's TV stations, many stations avoided airing them in prime time.
Wisconsin lawyer Ed Garvey, a former Democratic nominee for governor,
tried to tune in to a much-anticipated Feingold-Johnson debate, only to
find it was not being aired. He called the station and was told he could
track it down on a website. "As a citizen, I was left with no option
but the ads. I got nothing of substance from television stations,"
griped Garvey. "I thought they were supposed to operate in the public

That should be the starting point of any response to the
money-and-media election complex. We have to stop thinking about the
crisis of our politics merely in terms of reforming the campaign finance
system (though of course it's important to fight for reforms). It's a
media ownership and responsibility issue as well. It goes to the heart
of why freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution. And
regulatory agencies that are empowered to protect the public interest
should be the first to intervene. The Federal Communications Commission
and the Federal Election Commission have a duty to figure out exactly
how much was spent, by whom and to what end. That examination should
start with dollar amounts, but it shouldn't stop there. It should
explore the issue of whether TV stations that made a fortune running
campaign ads met even the most basic public-interest requirements of
companies that obtain broadcast licenses. How much campaign journalism
have these stations been doing, compared with a generation ago? How many
debates are they airing in prime time? FCC member Michael Copps
understands the crisis and intends to press ahead this fall with demands
for stronger public-interest requirements for broadcasters. Copps is no
fool; he knows this is the hardest of all fights. That's why he will
need support from Congress as well as citizens.

House and Senate committees should hold hearings about the
money-and-media election complex. How about calling Representative Pete
DeFazio to testify? The Oregon maverick was one of many Democratic
incumbents facing marginal challengers who suddenly found himself
battered by attack ads paid for by a shadowy group no one had heard of.
DeFazio pushed back, taking a camera crew to the Capitol Hill condo from
which the group operated and exposing the source as a single New
York-based hedge fund gazillionaire who was apparently angered by the
Congressman's ardent advocacy for holding Wall Street speculators to
account. That's the stuff of a good hearing. But don't stop with
DeFazio; call the hedge fund manager who went after him. Then call Karl
Rove. The 111th Congress has been lame when it comes to oversight; it
should finish with a bang. And state legislative committees around the
country should do the same.

Gathering the data and grilling the guilty players will make the case
for fundamental reform, which must come at multiple levels. The FCC
could require stations to grant equal advertising time to any candidate
who is attacked in an ad paid for by corporations, with the free
response ad to immediately follow the hit job. The FCC should consider
requiring free TV ads for every candidate on the ballot if any candidate
buys his or her own spots. This would allow wealthy candidates access
but would prevent them from shouting everyone else down. Let the
stations jack up rates to cover all the time, if they want. We suspect
the appeal of TV ads will decline if the result is simply to open an
equal debate rather than allow one side to dominate. And of course there
is the long-overdue matter of providing free airtime to candidates and
requiring debates to be broadcast.

Radical ideas? Hardly. Much of what we're talking about was outlined
in the original version of the McCain-Feingold bill of the 1990s and in
other proposals advanced over the years. It's time to renew them. At the
same time, we need a public policy commitment to the rejuvenation of
news media. A supercharged public and community broadcast system would
be a good start. It's no accident that the corporate right is taking
dead aim at public broadcasting, as it remains the one institutional
force not under its direct control.

* * *

Ultimately, however, Americans have to get serious about addressing the Citizens United
ruling. We have no problem with legislative remedies, especially if
they embody proposals like those advanced by the Sunlight Foundation to
establish online transparency at every level of influence, from
independent expenditures to lobbying to bundled campaign contributions.
We agree with Lisa Gilbert of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group,
who says Representative Grayson has proposed "pieces of good policy"
with his Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act, which would impose a
500 percent excise tax on corporate contributions to political
committees and on corporate expenditures on political advocacy
campaigns; his Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act, which would require
public companies to report what they spend to influence opinion on any
matter other than the promotion of their goods and services; and his End
Political Kickbacks Act, which would restrict contributions by
government contractors. And we have no doubt that Grayson's advocacy for
these reforms helps explain why "independent" groups spent more than
$1.2 million on attack ads targeting him.

However, we don't see any way to avoid the requirement of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United
ruling. Representative Donna Edwards has proposed a sound one, backed
by the Free Speech for People campaign. Another approach, proposed by
Move to Amend, would begin the process at the state level, where
grassroots activists may have more of an opening to demand that
legislatures call for an amendment. It's not necessary to choose a
specific strategy at this point, but we do have to recognize that the
money-and-media election complex defined the 2010 election, and that its
reach is extending to 2012. Taking it on will require boldness,
creativity and determination. We will be told it is impossible to beat,
but we're with Lisa Graves, the former Justice Department lawyer who as
executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy has become a
leader in the fight for a constitutional amendment. She says, "If we
don't seize it as an opportunity because it's so discouraging, they

Even if only out of self-interest, this is what Obama and his
Democratic allies should have been talking about during the 2010
campaign and what they should be shouting about now-not with vague
rumblings about contributions from foreign corporations but with
shout-it-from-the-rooftops populist rage at a threat to democracy every
bit as serious as the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower
identified. His charge to Americans with regard to the machinery of
military dominance-"We must never let the weight of this combination
endanger our liberties or democratic processes"-translates with chilling
precision to the new media and money machinery of political dominance.

Scholars of American history have acknowledged for a long time that
the United States is far from a true democracy, or even an especially
effective representative democracy. Most political decisions are made
with precious little input by average citizens. What the government does
with wealthy individuals and powerful corporate interests is largely
removed from popular control. This is part of the reason voter turnout
has for so long been among the lowest in the world. But two things give
us confidence in our system. First, we have core civil liberties,
especially the right to freedom of speech. And second, we have
elections, as flawed as they may be, and that gives the citizenry the
periodic capacity to replace whoever is in power with someone else. It
is our ultimate and last remaining check.

The money-and-media election complex has transformed longstanding
problems into an existential crisis: we are about to lose the democratic
promise of elections. It is hard to see how our cherished freedoms can
then survive, except to the extent that they are trivial and
unthreatening to those in power. What hangs in the balance is democracy
itself, along with the promise of the American experiment.

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