The Real Mad Men: Following the Money Behind TV Political Ads
May Day, Murdoch and the murder of Milly Dowler. What do they have to do with the 2012 U.S. general election? This year’s election will undoubtedly be the most expensive in U.S. history, with some projections topping $5 billion. Not only has the amount of spending increased, but its nature has as well, following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows unlimited spending by corporations, unions and so-called super PACs, all under the banner of “free speech.” This campaign season will unfold amidst a resurgent Occupy Wall Street movement launched globally on May 1, the same day the British Parliament released a report on Rupert Murdoch’s media empire charging that he is “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.” Now more than ever, people should heed the advice of the famous Watergate source, Deep Throat: “Follow the money.”
Most money in our elections goes to TV stations to run political advertisements. According to writers Robert McChesney and John Nichols in the Monthly Review, the amount of political ad spending is skyrocketing, such that “factoring for inflation, the 1972 election spent less than 3 percent of what will be spent on TV political ads in the 2012 election cycle.”
For just one relatively small race, a recent Pennsylvania congressional primary between Democrats, journalist Ken Knelly provided a comprehensive analysis of the local TV news coverage compared with the amount of political ads that ran on the same TV stations. Knelly’s headline says it all: “28 hours of political ads (and a few minutes of news).” More than 3,300 ad spots were run on the stations serving the predominantly Democratic district. Lost in the hours of ads, Knelly writes, was the “very occasional news report on the race,” and he said the reports contained very little substance.
How Knelly was able to probe these details is crucial. The Federal Communications Commission requires that TV stations maintain a public inspection file, and any member of the public can view it. Within the disclosures are the details of the political advertising purchases made, the amounts paid and what entity bought the airtime. Recent efforts have been made to compel these hugely profitable broadcast entities to publish these files online. The broadcasters have vigorously fought such efforts and, although they usually prevail in the industry-friendly halls of the FCC, have lost this battle. On Friday, April 27, the FCC voted 2-1 to require stations to transition from paper to online filing over a two-year period. ProPublica reporter Justin Elliot notes the files will not be provided in a standard format, and will likely not be searchable.
Most of the major U.S. broadcast networks lobbied against the new disclosure rules, including Fox Television, one of the crown jewels of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. media empire. Murdoch received a stinging rebuke this week with the release of a British Parliament report on the phone-hacking scandal that has racked his newspapers in Britain. The scandal exploded in 2011, when The Guardian reported that News of the World reporters had hacked into the voice mail of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002. While Dowler was still missing, reporters deleted some of her voice mails, which gave false hope to her family that she still might be alive.
Journalists, along with both a judicial inquiry and parliamentary hearings, have uncovered a culture of criminality behind much of the newsgathering facade at Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World newspaper in London. The parliamentary committee released its report this week, saying the Murdoch-controlled company “stonewalled, obfuscated and misled and [would] only come clean, reluctantly, when no other course of action was sensible.”
The scandal also led to the discovery of bribery of British police officials, which, because News Corp. is a U.S. corporation, could fall under the U.S. federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits bribery by U.S. companies overseas. In response, the nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington petitioned the FCC to strip Murdoch of the 27 television broadcast licenses he controls in the U.S.
While it is a crime to bribe a police officer in London, it is perfectly legal to spend $5 billion to influence the course of U.S. elections, and for powerful broadcasters thereby to reap enormous profits. The FCC is to be applauded for its new transparency rules. Ultimately, political candidates should have free airtime to present their platform to the voters. Until then, it’s up to journalists, activists and regular citizens to follow the money.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2012 Amy Goodman