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Let's say that we could wave a magic wand and get rid of all private spending on elections and campaign activity tomorrow. And then, the day after tomorrow, stymied conservative billionaires and corporate donors put their money into strengthening right-wing media outlets -- while progressive donors put their money into left-wing media.
Would money have any less influence over public policy outcomes in this new world? That's a good question, and one that comes to mind as I read excerpts of the new biography of Roger Ailes, the creator of Fox News.
It's well known that Fox News has been hugely successful at moving U.S. politics to the right. But less thought is given to what this means for democracy reform. Fox News is a spectacular example of private money having a public impact. In effect, Rupert Murdoch and the other shareholders of the News Corp used their corporate resources to re-engineer American political culture. And worse, they reaped enormous financial rewards in the process -- creating a perpetual propaganda motion machine. It's as if a billionaire created a giant conservative Super PAC that was then forever able to raise more and more money to expand its operations.
Democracy reformers have strong ideas for curbing election spending of all kinds that are likely to work well. But interested money spent on media is a much knottier problem and the potential efficacy of proposed solutions -- which progressives like Robert W. McChesney have championed for a generation -- is less clear. If we could wave another magic wand, and implement most of the policy solutions put forth by a group like Free Press, we'd have a much more diverse media. But there'd still be plenty of room for a 900-pound gorilla like Fox to propagandize the American people.
In fact, it's worth noting that Fox became hugely influential at the same time that myriad fresh news and opinion outlets blossomed onto the scene thanks to the Internet. Many Americans have diversified their intake of information in the past 15 years, relying less on a few major networks and top newspapers, and yet Fox has still been hugely influential.
So what's the answer here? That's not clear, at least to me. But one thing is evident: We need to think as expansively as we can about how private wealth impacts public life. Money finds its way into politics in myriad ways -- and, judging by the career of Roger Ailes -- the dollars spent on elections may not actually be the most important form of ideological spending.
David Callahan is a co-founder of Demos and now edits the Demos blog PolicyShop.net. David is the author of eight books and his many articles have been published in such places as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and The American Prospect.