How Money Has Become the Only Speech that Matters Radical Bleeding Heart image

The Money and Media Complex

Let us make something perfectly clear at the outset: money is not speech.

There are liberals, as well as conservatives, who believe that putting limits on campaign contributions or campaign spending is a bad idea. That may or may not be true, but equating money with speech merely empowers the one-dollar/one vote crowd and is flatly untrue. Money buys things, and one of the things it can buy is an audience. That is the legitimate relation between money and speech. It can also corrupt people; that is the illegitimate relation between them. The distinction between the two is blurred and treacherous.

We no longer communicate by standing on a soapbox on a street corner and holding forth. Technology now controls our speech, and that technology is owned by a few wealthy corporations. It is true that thoughtful people who are willing to spend the time and effort to learn the truth can use technology—the internet in particular—to ferret out the facts.

But elections are not decided by such intelligent and dedicated souls. They are decided by busy people who have personal problems and little time on their hands. Those folks get their information as it is handed to them, mostly by television.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney identify what they call the “money and media complex":

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.

They quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “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.”

The January 2010 Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission ruling freed corporations to essentially buy elections. They have enormous amounts of money and they are quite happy to spend it in order to insure that they will obtain even more. They can do this because the television broadcast industry has a virtual death grip on American political discourse, and they make huge amounts of money from political advertising—advertising which has become the source of nearly all political discourse.

It is no secret that newspapers are dying, and with them goes genuine political reporting. At one time honest reporting could serve as a check against political advertising because that was the primary source of political information. Now that primary source is the ads themselves.

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.

Nothing illustrates the changed nature of American elections better than the defeat of Russ Feingold in the 2010 Wisconsin Senate race to the millionaire Ron Johnson. Feingold was not only one of the most progressive voices in the Senate; he was one of the most independent. His opponent was a political unknown with no record of public life. In past years such a candidate would be begging to debate the better-known incumbent and would aggressively seek to be interviewed by journalists. Johnson refused interviews and debates. He let the attack ads paid for by the Chamber of Commerce, American Action Network, and other corporate-funded organizations do his talking for him. It worked.

The same scenario played all throughout the country in the 2010 elections. Those elections have been portrayed by the corporate-owned media as a “populist” revolt. It was anything but. It was the beginning of a total take-over of our democracy by cynical corporate plutocrats.

It will not be easy to change this outrageous system, but it is necessary. Otherwise, our corrupt and broken government can only continue to disintegrate into a greedy free-for-all in which soulless corporate hyenas pick over the bleeding carcase of our once thriving civilization. Here are a few ideas.

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