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Elections , Money, and the Not so Public Airwaves

Updated on April 3, 2015

The airwaves are no longer public
In the United States, keeping the airwaves public in order to serve the local, state and national interest of the people has become subservient to broadcasting as a corporate, profit making enterprise. Today, there is no longer a requirement that broadcasters air PSAs (Public Service Announcements). Moreover, there is no longer a Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time is no longer law.

News coverage, once a loss leader used as a lead into a profitable prime time schedule, has become a center of profit making for broadcasters. Thus, many local network affiliates have moved their nightly news casts from 11 PM to 10 PM to take advantage of prime time broadcasting hours. And now, television news as an entertainment hour or half hour has one main goal: to make money. In the past the news was used to boost a station reputation and give it credibility when time came to renew their licenses. That is no longer an issue.

Today, new casts are more concerned with not upsetting advertisers by broadcasting unpleasant news such as energy companies polluting, weapons manufacturers profiting on endless war, and corporate tax cuts and other corporate malfeasance than they are with serving the public. Moreover, they want to avoid discussions of topics that might make the audience change the channel.

Now we have 24 hour news channels, and they are all there to make a profit. They might cover a missing airliner for weeks if it commands ratings. However, covering single-payer health care, an increase in national and world poverty and hunger, or wealth and income inequality is beyond the pale and too distressing to the news channel's corporate owners and advertisers.

Mainstream news outlets also cover the easy to access news such as campaign donations reported but not the more time consuming reports of fact checking candidates statements, covering candidates votes on issues, and then discussing the fundamental problems facing our nation let alone discussion the corporate dominance of our government.

And they cover the safe, non-controversial politial candidates, “…when it comes time to campaign, journalists do the donors’ dirty work for them by refusing to cover candidates who aren’t backed by lots of money. Those candidates are deemed “non-viable” oddities and not worth telling voters about.” And if they are worth covering, you can bet that corporations and the party leadership have already deemed them acceptable. They are pre-vetted products ready for public consumption.

Candidate Clones
Candidate Clones

Journalists doom candidates with few resources by giving the free coverage to already established, well known, and well funded candidates. Meanwhile, they have no qualms about covering entertainers such as the Kardashians, Lebron James and Kate Middleton. Who doesn’t love a celebrity baby of the week story or what celebrity male (or female) may or may not have stepped out on their spouse?

Moreover, when we need it most, “Finance regulation coverage is nearly gone from mainstream media as Congress...rolled back key financial services regulations..." In fact, the industry lobbying to end regulations on financial services spent $436 million on federal candidates during the midterm elections. Industries that are regulated by Congress often give the most money to campaigns.

While the amount of money garnered for and spent on campaigns is covered extensively on air, they don’t cover the specifics of who gives the donations and what the donors receive in return. Part of the reason is that the same people who donate to political campaigns are the same people who regularly advertise on broadcast outlets. The broadcaster can’t upset their clients if they want to maximize profits. These business sectors include pharmaceutical and insurance companies and banks and investment houses like Wells Fargo and Ameritrade. (ibid)

There are also the millions of dollars in political advertising that broadcast outlets earn during election campaigns. Why would the companies that benefit from campaign advertisement spending report on such spending and upset the gravy train. Clearly, there is collusion between the institutions running the campaigns, those funding the campaigns and outlets broadcasting the campaigns.

Currently, people donating to federal campaigns can spend without limits and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision made it so that anyone can contribute unlimited amounts of money to a political action committee (PAC) of their choosing. Few media outlets discuss this.

The New York Times sees little problem with massive, escalating spending on political campaigns. They write as if the 2010 Citizen’s United decision has no impact on elections “…and dismissed the influence of money in politics by ignoring record-breaking spending of outside groups, the role of large donor political contributions, and dark money in the 2014 midterm election.”

Meanwhile, media outlets such as Fox News, CNN broadcast the “false equivalency” between conservative spending like the Kochs and progressive spending by labor, as if the billions of dollars spent by corporations compares to the millions spent by unions.

In 2014, labor (donating mainly to Democrats) gave $137,350,124 in campaign contributions. And that is a lot of money. However, it pails compared to the $498,855,886 the insurance, real estate and financial institutions gave and the $224,793,361 from misc. business interests. If you add together all the business sector donations, it totaled 1,310,535,596.

Even though business interests gave approximately six times as much as labor, the media discusses money as if all donations are equal. Moreover, when unions give to campaigns, it is to help workers, thousands of people. When corporations give, it’s to help the stockholders, the CEOs and the company’s bottom line. There is a qualitative difference in money spent on campaigns from labor and corporations. But the media acts as if labor and business donations are equivilant. (ibid)

Congressional sponsors
Congressional sponsors

There is a huge return on investment (ROI) for corporations donating to Congress. According to 99rise and OpenSecrets, “Money Buys Results in Congress. The ROI (Return-on-Investment) from corporate lobbying & political contributions is staggering:

- 5,900% - Big Oil’s ROI on lobbying for $20 billion in fossil fuel subsidies

- 22,000% - Multinational Corporations’ ROI on lobbying for a temporary tax break on offshore investments in 2004

- 77,500% - Big Pharma’s ROI on a 2003 lobbying campaign to keep prescription drug prices high by baring Medicare from bargaining for competitive prices”

United Republic has studied some of the major industry sectors and their donations, and “According to statistics United Republic assembled, the prescription drug industry spent $116 million lobbying for legislation to prevent Medicare from bargaining down drug prices — legislation that enabled drug companies to make an additional $90 billion annually. That amounts to an extraordinary 77,500 percent return on investment. Oil companies, in turn, had a return on investment of 5,900 percent, and multinational companies, 22,000 percent.” There would be no reason for corporations to donate to political campaigns if there was no ROI. They don't donate out of the goodness of their hearts.

Statistics compiled by the Sunlight Foundation show that corporate tax cuts are directly linked to lobbying efforts.


NAB contributions and lobbying dollars since 1998 has totaled $165,780,000.

Investing in campaigns and lobbying pays off, “A few years ago, a coalition of 60 corporations -- including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Altria -- made an expensive wager. They spent $1.6 million in lobbying fees…” Later, “In late 2004, President Bush signed into law a bill that reduced the rate to 5 percent, 30 percentage points below the existing levy...saving the companies roughly $100 billion in taxes.”

And lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters, NAB, has lead to deregulation of the industry and more freedom from the requirements that they serve the public interest. Now, “The broadcast industry has become one of Washington's most feared economic special interests...”

Gloria Tristani was running for Senate in New Mexico, and as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, the NAB targeted her campaign as a vote came up to allow more low-power stations to get licenses, “As the low-power plan neared a vote at the FCC, Tristani started hearing from radio and TV people back home.” She was threatened by broadcasters who said that she would be targeted if she didn’t back down and vote against expanding the number of licenses.

And when Bob Dole "was campaigning in Iowa he was handed a letter from Nick Evans, an NAB board member” who owned 11 stations in the state. Evans not only threatened to not support Doles primary campaign, he wrote, “I will be forced to use our resources to tell the viewers in all of our markets of your plan to destroy free over-the-air television. I will be forced to tell the over 700 employees of our company of your plan and encourage their support of another Presidential candidate. I have spoken with many other broadcasters who feel the same as I do."” (ibid) Because of the importance of Iowa as the first campaign stop in the primaries, Dole couldn’t afford to lose any support and had to vote the way the NAB wanted. (ibid)

The power of the NAB can’t be overstated, “"Members of Congress are completely and totally dependent on the media," says Joel Barkin, communications director for Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)…” In fact, “Their interests are so diverse as to touch on nearly every big issue newspeople cover--tax policy, health care, environmental regulation, insurance regulation, financial services regulation, labor law, equal employment opportunity rules, defense spending, global trade policy and even sports…” (ibid) And the current concentration of broadcasting power is another reason to break up these media monopolies.

Broadcast licenses no longer linked to public service
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 made licenses longer lasting and easier to obtain for those using the airwaves, “By prohibiting the FCC from considering competitors for a license at renewal and by extending license terms, the Act appears to guarantee an unprecedented longevity for broadcasters' current rights to use the airwaves and to transform a temporary and conditional broadcast license into one of virtually permanent duration.” Broadcasters have two masters: to serve the public trust as written into their charter and the fiduciary responsibility to stockholders to make private profit.

The public trust model describes the airwaves as a public good. Under that model, users of the spectrum are subservient to the ideas of “public good” based on regulations of the airwaves such as producing PSAs, giving ideas equal time, profanity regulations, children’s and educational programming requirements, and so forth. The private market model (ibid) puts profit first and the public interest second, if at all. The market model has mainly won out, and this has meant rolling back and eventually eliminating the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time laws. Now there are no requirements for fairness or laws requiring coverage.

Election coverage for the year 2015 looks to be bigger and more expensive than ever. That hardly guarantees better coverage, “As in the 2008 election, the Democratic and Republican races are both open, with no incumbent on either side. That augurs well for the sort of ratings-spiking, traffic-goosing news that drives campaigns — debates, primaries, strategies, etc. Presidential campaigns tend to be a bonanza for the cable news networks, in particular, but news sites get more clicks during each cycle, too.”

The media influences what Presidential and Congressional candidates have a chance to win through their coverage or lack of coverage. This is a major reason third party candidates have no change to win on a state or national level. And the corporate news outlets frame campaigns to make the races about popularity and wealth, not issues.

In 2012, “From November on, these strategic and political frames—stories focused around such concerns as momentum, strategy, horse race polls, advertising and fundraising—accounted for 64% percent of the Republican primary campaign coverage studied. That is more than five times as much as was devoted to the candidates’ personal lives (12%), 10 times as much as their public records (6%) and almost six times as much as was devoted to the candidates’ positions on policy issues (11%)…”

One way to limit democracy is to limit the points of view that get a fair hearing. The Fairness Doctrine that required equal parts of an issue get equal airtime was an attempt to guarantee just that. However, it is no longer in effect, “In 1987 the FCC abolished the policy, which dictates that public broadcast license-holders have a duty to present important issues to the public and — here's the "fairness" part — to give multiple perspectives while doing so.”

The Reagan White House killed the fairness doctrine, “President Reagan, intensifying the debate over whether the nation's broadcasters must present opposing views of controversial issues, has vetoed legislation to turn into law the 38-year-old "fairness doctrine"…”

The Equal Time provisions of the 1935 Communications Act is also gone, “What it means is the agency tasked with protecting the public interest in broadcasting has decided that what WISN and WTMJ, two powerhouse, publicly-licensed radio stations in Milwaukee, were allowed to give away all the free time they wanted to the supporters of one candidate (in this case, Gov. Walker), without allowing supporters of his Democratic recall opponent (Tom Barrett) any free airtime at all.” While some Congress members complain about state controlled media in Venezuela and Russia, corporate ownership in the U.S. lends similar results.

And the media rakes it in, “Instead of exposing this runaway spending and separating fact from fiction in an election year, they’re lining their pockets with the windfall from this massive ad buy … to the tune of more than $3 billion in 2012.”

Without A Fairness Doctrine or Equal Time clause, access is limited to those with money. That’s what free speech has become in the U.S. In 2015, free speech goes to those that can afford it and any regulation of that money to give access to alternative ideas outside the mainstream political support of perpetual war and neoliberalism is blocked. Even the popular Bernie Sanders is considered a no go for president by many because, “He doesn’t have the money he needs for a campaign.”

And that is the crux of our plutocratic electoral system. It's not about how qualified, talented, or caring you are or if you have good ideas; it's about how much media access you have and how much access you can buy.

Tex Shelters


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    • texshelters profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      Thanks Dr. Kidd. Yes, it's appalling. PTxS

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I've been calling this "the Age of Money."

      Thank you for taking the time to show how the media works for the moneyed elite who buy influence in Congress through their relationship with the media, and thus control the elections.

      I knew that presidential elections are no more than a popularity contest. But the issue you stated, that candidates policy positions, got only 11% of the news coverage is astounding.


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