Big Media Is Raking in Billions on Political Ads -- Here's a Way to Take Back the Airwaves That Belong to All of Us
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Over the years we’ve been reporting on how power is monopolized by the powerful. How corporate lobbyists, for example, far outnumber members of Congress. And how the politicians are so eager to do the bidding of donors that they allow those lobbyists to dictate the law of the land and make a farce of democracy. What we have is much closer to plutocracy, where the massive concentration of wealth at the top protects and perpetuates itself by controlling the ends and means of politics. This is why so many of us despair over fixing what’s wrong: we elect representatives to change things, and once in office they wind up serving the deep-pocketed donors who put up the money to keep change from happening at all.
Here’s the latest case in point. The airwaves belong to all of us, right? They’re part of “the commons” that in theory no private interest should be able to buy or control. Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes, and the advertising revenues have made those companies fabulously rich. But part of the deal was that in return for the privilege of reaping a fortune they would respect the public interest in a variety of ways, including covering the local news important to our communities. If they didn’t, they would be denied their license to use the airwaves at all.
Alas, over the years, through one ruse or another, the public has been shafted. We heard the other day of a candidate for office in a Midwest state who complained to the general manager of a TV station that his campaign was not getting any news coverage. “You want coverage?” the broadcaster replied. “Buy some ads and then we’ll talk!”
That pretty well sums up the game. But hold your nose: it gets worse. The media companies and their local stations – including goliaths like CBS and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – stand to pull in as much as $3 billion this year from political ads. Three billion dollars! And most of that money will pay for airing ugly, toxic negative ads that use special effects, snide jokes and flat out deception to take us to the lowest common denominator of politics.
The FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to make sure the broadcasters don’t completely get away with highway or, rather, airwave robbery has proposed to the broadcasting cartel that stations post on the Web the names of the billionaires, and front organizations – many of them super PACs — paying for campaign ads. It’s simplicity itself: give citizens access online to find out quickly and directly who’s buying our elections. Hardly an unreasonable request, given how much cash the broadcasters make from their free use of the airwaves.
But the broadcasting industry’s response has been a simple, declarative “Not on your life!” It would cost too much money, they claim. Speaking on their behalf, Robert McDowell, currently the only Republican commissioner on the FCC – the other one left to take a job with media monolith Comcast — said the proposal is likely “to be a jobs destroyer” by distracting station employees from doing their regular work. The party line also has been sounded by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, who told the FCC that making the information available on the Internet “would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government.” We’re not making this up.