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Emerging Money-Media Complex Spells Danger Ahead

Before the midterms, digby wrote this prophetic afterthought at the end of one of her posts: But then these news outlets are all making huge profits from the right wing buy out of our democracy, so maybe it's just the price of doing business.

Before the midterms, digby wrote this prophetic afterthought at the end of one of her posts:

But then these news outlets are all making huge profits from the right wing buy out of our democracy, so maybe it's just the price of doing business.

In this week's The Nation, there's a great article about the emergent money-media complex and the impact it has not only on our elections, but on how issues and politicians are presented by the corporate media who stand to gain much from the megabucks spent on elections.

To some extent, this is a story as old as the nation itself. Founding father John Jay thought "those who own the country ought to govern it." The battle to establish a credible system of "one person, one vote" instead of "one dollar, one vote" has been a running theme in American history. The stakes have always been the same: the less democratic our elections, the more corrupt our governance. But the current moment sees the country accelerating toward the edge of a cliff. "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," observed Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. America is being put to the Brandeis test: democracy or plutocracy. The money-and-media election complex is creating a radically different electoral landscape than anything Americans have known since the Gilded Age. That landscape is characterized, pundits tell us, by an "enthusiasm gap." No kidding. Americans are not stupid. They knew their relatively paltry contributions, and even their votes, were unlikely to stop a $4 billion onslaught. To those bankrolling the system, voter cynicism and apathy are welcome. The more that the 2008 surge of youth participation in electoral politics dissipates, the better for them. Their interests are best served by narrowing the range of debate and participation, since that makes it easier to buy the government. As much as commentators like Jon Meacham might want to believe that "we are now living with a political class which has a financial and cultural interest in conflict rather than in governing," the hard truth is that we have a corporate class that funds electoral conflict for the purpose of forging a political class that will govern in its interest

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Our skewed and cynical election process takes a toll on those most committed to those who fight hardest for ethical and open elections.

The emerging money-and-media election complex is perfectly designed to make participants conform or suffer the consequences. It should come as no surprise that some of the most troubling results of 2010 involved the defeats of independent players of both parties who had battled hardest for clean politics and ethical government—Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the leading progressive Democratic reformer, was defeated, as was Representative Mike Castle, a moderate Republican beaten in Delaware's GOP Senate primary by Tea Party heroine Christine O'Donnell. Nor should it get better in 2012. "It's a bigger prize in 2012, and that's changing the White House," says Robert Duncan, chair of American Crossroads. "We've planted the flag for permanence, and we believe we will play a major role for 2012."

So this all explains how the money boys targeted key players, but it certainly doesn't give much credit to the media. From where I sit, the narrative of the midterms was as much about the constant drumbeat of the "depressed Democrat" and the Tea Party hype as it was anything else, and that came to us courtesy of every single mainstream media player out there. David Gregory does a stellar job of reinforcing right wing memes as though they're fact every week on Meet the Press. Cable news, with a few notable exceptions, does the same. And if you dare watch the 6 o'clock nightly news on one of the networks, the most you get is a 30-second sound bite with the most sensational presentation of every issue there is.

Without question, though, there would be no "Tea Party" and there would be no hype if they hadn't offered mainstream media two very important items: Sensational clips and a whole lot of money. They know a good thing when they see it.

But it's not just corporations and consultants who are setting the new agenda. The most important yet least-recognized piece of the money-and-media election complex is the commercial broadcasting industry, which just had its best money-making election season ever. Political advertising has become an enormous cash cow for it—roughly two-thirds of the campaign spending this year flowed into the coffers of TV stations; the final figure is likely to be well above $2 billion. Whereas in the 1990s the average commercial TV station received about 3 percent of its revenues from campaign ads, this year campaign money could account for as much as 20 percent. And station owners are not missing a beat; thirty-second spots that went for $2,000 in 2008 were jacked up to $5,000 this year, according to the Los Angeles Times. Much of this money will go to stations owned by a handful of Fortune 500 firms. No wonder station owners oppose campaign finance reform; their lobby role in Washington is similar to the NRA's in battling bans on assault weapons.

Here's where it cuts across journalism's turf:

The journalists who want to cut through the lies are having a harder time doing so. One of the truly unsettling developments of this election season was the decision by prominent candidates either to avoid the press, as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle did, or to refuse opportunities to debate. Once upon a time challengers hungered to debate incumbents; in 2010 incumbents like Florida Representative Alan Grayson found themselves chasing after well-funded challengers. Feingold offered to debate his millionaire opponent in forums across the state, but Republican Ron Johnson, who had no record in public life and who even avoided interviews with newspaper editorial boards, refused.

There are solutions, ones that might not even need a recalcitrant Congress. As the authors point out, the FCC should be looking at the money spent and whose pockets it went to.

We have to stop thinking about the crisis of our politics merely in terms of reforming the campaign finance system (though of course it's important to fight for reforms). It's a media ownership and responsibility issue as well. It goes to the heart of why freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution. And regulatory agencies that are empowered to protect the public interest should be the first to intervene.

This really IS a crisis. We can't rely on the Supreme Court to fix what they tore asunder. The best, fastest route is via regulatory agencies, a tool the Obama administration has been using under the radar. (See this list of FTC actions for some examples).

In the words of Nancy Pelosi....

We will go through the gate," she said. "If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole-vault in.

We must.

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