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Juan Cole
Truthdig / Truthdig Op-Ed
Published: Thursday 23 February 2012
“The Federal Communications Commission should forbid television broadcasters from charging for campaign ads, and we should peacefully demonstrate outside the FCC offices at 445 12th Street SW, in Washington, D.C., until it does so.”

How the FCC Can Take the Money Out of Politics

Big money has always been a problem in American politics, but now humongous money threatens to capsize the ship of state. Billionaires are very, very good at getting rich, mostly through stealth monopolies, relatively sure things (e.g., casinos) or through riding investment bubbles. But they are seldom scientists, physicians or educators, and can often entertain rather cranky beliefs, such as climate change denial or misogyny. Thus, the GOP super wealthy, having produced the tea party in 2010, have now given us national candidates so extreme that they often seem to be running for Supreme Leader of Iran instead of president of the United States. Although the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court contributed to this problem, the culprits here are, fundamentally, the length of U.S. campaigns and the cost of television advertising for them.

Ari Berman has shown that about four-fifths of the money raised by super PACs in 2011 for the Republican primary contests was donated by only 196 individuals, who gave $100,000 or more each. Politics has become a game of the super rich, but the money they donate is significant only because of the way it is spent. An increasingly large percentage of it pays for television and radio commercials, and it is used by our new aristocracy to keep pet candidates alive. Newt Gingrich, for instance, might not have made it to South Carolina, where he won, without the backing of a single individual, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Venetian in Las Vegas.

In the 2008 campaign year, about $2.8 billion was spent on television campaign spots nationwide, and the figure is expected to be much larger this time. Although television advertising is not always decisive, politicians can’t afford to bet that it won’t be. Mitt Romney spent $15 million in negative advertising against Gingrich in the Florida primary, which arguably blunted Gingrich’s momentum coming off his South Carolina win. Why should private broadcasters, licensed by the U.S. government in preference of other possible licensees, have been allowed to make massive profits off a public political campaign?

As early as the Iowa campaign, Gingrich began complaining about super PAC-funded television advertisements he said were spreading falsehoods about him on behalf of Romney. Romney responded, “Could I come out and speak about ads, generally, and speak about positive ads and negative ads? Of course, that’s available to everybody. But I’m not in any way coordinating the ads or the approach that’s taken by the super PAC.” Gingrich replied scornfully, “It tells you a lot about Governor Romney ... I’m happy to go all over Iowa and point out that he doesn’t mind hiding out behind millions of dollars of negative ads, but he doesn’t want to defend them. The ads are false.”

Would the Florida electoral contest, for instance, have yielded more light and less heat if each candidate had been apportioned airtime based on an equitable formula? Might not Jon Huntsman or Tim Pawlenty have been able to stay in the race and perhaps overcome initial handicaps if they had been able to advertise for free? We are choosing our presidential candidates the way we choose our favorite television shows, by which one generates the most advertising revenue for the broadcaster. Is that really what the founding generation of Americans had in mind?

The Federal Communications Commission should forbid television broadcasters from charging for campaign ads, and we, the public, should peacefully demonstrate outside the FCC offices at 445 12th Street SW, in Washington, D.C., until it does so.

Like the water or the air, the spectrum over which broadcasters transmit their wares is a finite resource that everyone depends on, and which needs to be regulated by government to prevent chaos and hoarding. But in licensing some corporations to dominate the airwaves, Congress inevitably excluded others. I can’t start a radio broadcast from my home because it would interfere with licensed stations. Because choosing some voices over others is inherently unfair, Congress in the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934 established a general requirement that broadcasters act in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This conception of broadcasters as public trustees has been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. The FCC could easily invoke this requirement to demand that campaign commercials be aired gratis.

Moreover, why do electoral campaigns have to last so long? Most democratic countries with a parliamentary system manage to pull them off in about three weeks. Romney announced his candidacy 19 months ahead of the election. Why have rolling state primaries for months on end? Surely it would be possible to have a short campaign season, beginning a month before the primaries, which could be held the same day nationwide. The FCC could also regulate the free ads so that they could be placed only during that month. We don’t vote state by state in the presidential election, so why should we do so in primaries for a national party candidate? The length of the campaign creates the need for big money as surely as the television commercials do. Again, a Huntsman or a Pawlenty, both more likely to do well in a general election than any of the current Republican marathon survivors, couldn’t have been knocked out so easily in a short campaign (their main problem was that they ran out of money).

Repealing Citizens United may be a long and difficult struggle, though a necessary one. But reducing the salience of humongous money in campaigns could be tackled to begin with in these other ways. What is clear is that America is less democratic by the minute, and that bad public policy is being promoted as a result of the dominance of politics by a handful of individuals and corporations. When we hear Republican candidates deny climate change as a result of the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and soot we are putting into the air, we know their ventriloquist is Big Oil. The climate scientists are being outshouted and marginalized by a very wealthy, very small group, and as a result the U.S. is endangering itself and the entire globe.

James Madison, a key shaper of the U.S. system, believed that on any important issue there would be more than one faction in the body politic who would contend with one another until a compromise was reached. He also assumed that despite inequalities of resources, there would be sufficient controversy about legislation that extreme positions would be moderated. But when we have 400 billionaires buying our elections, it is perfectly possible for a handful of cranks to deeply influence the outcome and then to dictate policy positions to their clients, the winning politicians. The moderating influence of the broad electorate has been vitiated. That dynamic has produced what many puzzled voters have termed the Republican “clown car” in this election season. The democratic bargain struck by the founding generation, whereby we all have a chance to influence our country’s destiny, is in danger of being undone, with unimaginable consequences. Occupy the FCC.

This article was originally posted on Truthdig.



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ABOUT Juan Cole

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Good stuff, Dr. Cole!! Thank

Good stuff, Dr. Cole!! Thank you so much for writing this. I have read some other good materials (maybe on this site) about how the Broadcast networks would be in a ditch if it wasn't for the political ad seasons that keep them afloat. Now we need to get the academics in the Communications and "Screen Arts" Departments to start taking the industries they "study" to task. Such (political/economic) critical study would be amount to a sea change in these disciplines!! All politics is (are?) interdisciplinary!!

"But they are seldom

"But they are seldom scientists, physicians or educators, and can often entertain rather cranky beliefs, such as climate change denial or misogyny."

Ok, so for a start this is all about limiting the influence "crank" beliefs, which is to say beliefs that "mainstream opinion" doesn't approve of. That is to say the very beliefs the first amendment was put in place to protect. I'm sorry that the enthusiastic backing of almost every media outlet on the planet isn't enough to give the global warming theory absolute 100% agreement, but suck it up. I mean I'm sorry that crank views like Austrian Business Cycle Theory haven't been totally wiped out, if they were guys like you could claim nobody saw the GFC coming.

Not surprisingly given the author's wish for mainstream thought to be unchallenged he gets economics and political history completely wrong. He isn't restricted from broadcasting because it would interfer with other radio stations but because it would interfer with big media's business plan. Historically there was only "chaos and hoarding" when the government imposed it's will. Courts agree to property rights in spectrum on a "first come, first served basis" that worked well. Radio was not only largely free from "hoarding" since you have to broadcast to keep your spectrum, but free from electromagnetic and political interference. In fact Hoover said that the biggest problem with passing the 1927 Radio Act "was the very success of the voluntary system we had created". The FCC has restricted both the views broadcast and the way we recieve them (delaying cable TV by a decade) ever since.

Since that Act government has been very successful in removing "crank" opinions from the airwaves, and each administration has defined "crank" to mean things politically inconvenient to them. The "public interest" standard, which is not a standard at all but power grab masquerading as a vague rainbows-and-wildflowers wish, allows the FCC to punish any TV or radio station that makes waves and takes a stand. Someone who genuinely wanted to straighten up America's political system would see that as immensely corrupting, with some of the most powerful opinion makers in the country dependent on government to keep billions of dollars of assets they got free or nearly free. The author does not.

The danger in further empowering the FCC to decide what is and is not acceptable speech is frankly insane. How is banning political ads supposed to generate "more light and less heat"? Less heat I can see but more light? What the author wants is for News Limited, CNN and it's buddies to define the debate, without anyone even being able to buy the ability to challenge them. Sure corporatists have a hell of a lot more say than they should, but why would removing all incentive for media companies to air ads that offend their corporate advertisers help that? All that would happen is that the "ads" would be in the news broadcast and marketed as news, while broadcasters do their best to air political ads late at night on sundays so they don't interfer with profitable programming. The more a candidate opposes their advertisers agenda, the later his ads go on.

The real answer to how to stop money controlling the political debate is to stop the political debate controlling money. When the government has the power to hand out trillions of dollars to banks, auto companies, solar power firms and anyone with a cow OF COURSE those people are going to find a way to make their money influence the political deabate. To think that you could foil the process is delusional. But of course this is off the agenda, it being "nation of change" we're debating on. The second best is to end the effective monopoly for-profit broadcasting. Why is making a buck the only justification for putting things over the airwaves? Why is it that when I help the poor I am called a saint, but when I set up a radio station to ask why they are poor I'm called a communist? In the internet we see a far wider variety of opinion, with far more challenging of the corporatist agenda than we do on TV or radio, why? Because on the internet people can say things with the intention of saying them, rather than with the intention of getting adverstisers. Labors of love, rants for the cause, or just debunking some liar who annoyed you are totally fine on the internet, why not on the "public" airwaves? Why not allow anyone who can get the spectrum to say what they want, provided someone pays for the transmitter? To require them to pay for the transmitter out of advertising revenue is both anti-first amendment and anti-common sense.

So why did the author go for government power as the solution instead of common sense? Well like I said, this is "nation of change" where the status quo is underneath it all, still king.

yes each candidate get same

yes each candidate get same amount of time romney ,newt,perry ,bho ,terry randall,ect

I've been saying take back

I've been saying take back our airwaves for years. The airwaves are owned by the American people and are leased to the broadcasters. Why should we allow the broadcasters to air the lies and tantrums of deceptive politicians, and gain millions from them to do so, all in order for us to be bamboozled and misled into electing someone like George W. Bush twice, once by the Supreme Court and once by the rest of us. Don't reform campaign finance laws, there's always a way around that. Make campaign messages free and limit the time they can be aired. Good thinking!

By "owned by the American

By "owned by the American people" do you mean "owned by the government"? If so, what kind of idiot are you not to see the danger in that? If not what the hell do you mean?

Why be nasty, livemike?! Roy

Why be nasty, livemike?! Roy means that the airwaves are a public trust and that, historically, they were set up and treated as such. That means that laws that govern them are enforced by the government. It does not mean that the gov't controls content, but it does mean that gov't has a mandate to regulate the industries that do control content. Jeez, don't be such a meenie... your libertarian is showing!

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