Great efforts are underway both locally and nationally to keep secret the identities of people and organizations paying for local political advertisements. But Americans can still do something, even when broadcasters shirk their responsibilities. In this essay, Bill Moyers suggests what you can do to bring those names to light.
BILL MOYERS: Our three organizers this week have inspired us to create a page called “Take Action” on our website, BillMoyers.com. You’ll find information and ideas there aimed at helping you discover ways in which you can make a difference.
As a faithful viewer of this broadcast you know that 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, as a result, 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.
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.
COMMERCIAL: Better buy Birds Eye!
BILL MOYERS: Nonetheless, government long ago allowed television and radio stations to use the airwaves for commercial purposes.
COMMERCIAL: He likes it! Hey Mikey!
BILL MOYERS: 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. I read just 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 dollars this year from political ads. Yes, 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…
ANNOUNCER: Rick Santorum, on the economy—
RICK SANTORUM: I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be—
BILL MOYERS: 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 rob— excuse me, airwave robbery, the FCC has proposed to the broadcasting cartel that stations post on the Web the names of the billionaires and front organizations paying for those campaign ads. That’s all, give citizens access online to find out quickly and directly who’s buying our elections. Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, given how much cash the broadcasters make from the free use of the airwaves.
But the broadcasting industry’s response has been a simple, declarative, dismissive, not on your life! Speaking on their behalf, Robert McDowell, currently the only Republican commissioner on the FCC, said the proposal “is likely to be a jobs destroyer” by distracting station employees from doing their regular work. The party line has also been sounded by Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications. He 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.”
Friends, I could not make that up.
The industry leaves nothing to chance. Through its control of the House of Representatives, it got a piece of legislation passed this week euphemistically titled the FCC Process Reform Act. Reform, my foot! Not only does the bill remove roadblock to more media mergers, further reducing competition, it would subject every new rule and every FCC analysis of that rule to years of paper work and judicial review, enabling the industry’s horde of lawyers and lobbyists, “to throw sand in the works at every opportunity” as one expert puts it. There was a noble attempt to include in this bill an amendment that, like the FCC proposal, called for stations to post online who is putting up the big bucks for political ads. Shocker, it was rejected. Score another one for the plutocrats.
There is some good news. The White House opposes this latest bid by the broadcasting oligarchy to further eviscerate the public interest. And the fate of the House bill in the Senate is uncertain. In the meantime, as far as those political ads go, we—you and I—are not totally helpless. Here’s what you can do. Under current law, local television stations still have to keep paper files of who’s paying for those ads—and they have to make those files available to the public if requested. You can even make copies to take away with you. So just go down to your nearest station, politely ask for the records, and then send the data online to the New America Foundation, or to the organization of investigative journalists called Pro Publica. Both have mounted campaigns to get the information online. We’ll link you to Pro Publica and the New America Foundation at that “Take Action” page on our own website, BillMoyers.com. Each one of them is pulling together all the information on political ads they can get from you and others—crowdsourcing—and making it available to the entire country via the Internet. If you’re a high school teacher or college professor of journalism, have your students do it and maybe give them some classroom credit for collecting the data democracy needs to work.
Next week we’ll hear from Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.
CARNE ROSS: Well I think above all, we have to accept that government is no longer fixing things for us. We have to instead take on the burden ourselves. That is a fundamental cultural change. And I think it requires a real examination of our own role in our political circumstances.
BILL MOYERS: Also next week, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, whose efforts to stop the big banks from taking us down, again, led to a rule named after him.
That’s it for this week. I’m Bill Moyers, And I’ll see you next time.
Visit the initiatives Bill mentions during this essay:
New America Foundation: Bringing Broadcaster Public Files into the 21st Century