Their view: My beef with the media

Edward Wasserman

What’s the worst thing about the media?

Everybody has a favorite peeve: Bias in reporting, hyper-commercialization, encouraging people to buy things they don’t need and can’t afford, undermining core values, nurturing cynicism.

A case can also be made for the media, but that’s not my interest today. I’m interested in introducing my nominee for the single greatest harm the media do to American society. That, in my opinion, is to hang a for-rent sign on our political system.

The latest in that story came in a recent article that reported on the growing battle between TV broadcasters and cable owners about the record amounts candidates, parties and interest groups are poised to spend on campaign advertising in the current electoral cycle, which began moments after the last one ended.

The article estimates 2008 spending by candidates and interest groups on TV alone will top $2 billion, out of total expenditures on advertising and marketing of all kinds of $4.5 billion. That’s up 64 percent from 2004, in part because this will be the first race for the White House since 1928 without a sitting president or vice president among the candidates.

Those estimates, staggering as they are, may be on the low side if a major independent enters the presidential race, if control of either congressional chamber hangs in the balance or if local candidates take advantage of cheap production costs and divert money from producing ads to buying more airtime.

Now that windfall is great news for the companies that own local TV stations or cable operations, which will be the main beneficiaries and, to a lesser extent, for newspaper publishers and local radio.

It’s the rest of us who pay. We pay by living under an electoral system that, at every level, is shaped by an unrelenting obligation among elected public servants to raise fabulous amounts of money. As a result, months or even years before they come before us for final selection, candidates must be pre-approved by tiny numbers of very rich donors in Hollywood, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the oil patch. It is from those early signs of fundraising prowess that the viability of a candidacy is assessed, and it is only by continuing to bring in money that anyone can hope to succeed.

That’s all well-known. But somehow this problem has been turned into an indictment of politicians: It is their fault, their greed and hunger for money, that has turned electoral democracy into a livestock auction in which public policy is led around by the nose.

But, in fact, politicians aren’t the problem at all, for once. In the last election cycle, the average incumbent senator raised $20,000 every week in office, members of Congress a half-million a year. They don’t keep the money, and they don’t spend it on luxuries. For now, all they get is to keep their jobs.

Where does the money go? Most of it goes to media, to making and airing those sharp, memorable, exquisitely produced and invariably deceitful TV spots that are the hard currency of modern, pay-as-you-go electoral jihad. In that respect we pay again, through a debased campaign discourse that is compressed, refined and distorted to comply with a corporate-owned media commons that ladles out opportunities to address the public in fractions of a second.

Tweaking the rules of raising money is a perennial cause among reformers, but doing something about why anybody needs all that money rarely comes up. Every once in a while some no-hope politician raises the possibility that media might actually be compelled to follow the lead of other republican systems and provide real, serious, free air time for office-seekers to talk to each other and to us.

And surprise – when those proposals are floated, the media ignore them.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. This column originally appeared on Aug. 20 in The Miami Herald.